Skipjacks owner Tom Ebright doesn't sugarcoat the bad news about the financial status of his AHL team.
"We've lost money -- between $300,000 and $400,000 -- every year that we've been here," said Ebright, who purchased the team from the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1987.
But thanks to some benefits given to him by Centre Management and the Washington Capitals in a new two-year agreement, Ebright is hoping the Jacks can not only get out of the red within two years, but also possibly even make a little money.
"No one is in the business of minor-league hockey to make money," Ebright said. "I do it because it is a lot of fun for me. But I just wish the fun would wind up costing me a little less."
In the four previous seasons that Ebright has owned the franchise, the combination of poor teams (the woeful independent squad of 1987-88), poor dates at the Baltimore Arena, shabby marketing and poor judgment have put the team's financial status on an uphill treadmill. The value of an AHL franchise is estimated to be $500,000, so an annual loss of $300,000 to $400,000 is substantial.
"We've been fighting problems that have been with Baltimore hockey for 20 years," Ebright said. "I've always said that it isn't that Baltimore people don't want to see hockey, it's that we don't play when they want to see it."
Four years ago the Jacks were getting just 12 "prime dates" -- games that fall on Friday and Saturday nights or nights before holidays. Last year the Jacks worked up to 18.
For this coming season Ebright has a brainstorm that he believes will mean more fans.
"Because the building is unavailable on many Saturday nights due to soccer and lacrosse, we're trying to get Saturday after noons with the notion that anything is better than a Sunday or Tuesday night," Ebright said. In the past, Tuesday and Sunday games have struggled to draw 2,000 fans, while "prime dates" average between 4,000 and 5,000.
But because many visiting teams play Friday night games in places like Hershey or Binghamton, Saturday afternoon games in Baltimore become impossible logistically.
"[AHL president] Jack Butterfield has given us permission to tr to get the same team into the building for a Friday night and then a Saturday afternoon," Ebright said. "The other owners think it's great because it's one less trip they'll have to make to the south end of the league."
Aside from attendance, which dipped to 145,000 last year after a record high of 156,000 in 1989-90, Ebright said his biggest financial stumbling block has been getting the privilege to sell "signage," or advertising signs, within the Arena building.
"The Blast has always had rights to sell the boards around the rink," Ebright said. "It's in their contract and there's nothing we can do about that. But the new lease with the Caps and the building allows me to sell various ads around the facing of the Arena to help our profitability."
He said that if he had rights to sell the signs last year, "we probably would have lost in the neighborhood of $100,000, which to me would have been a successful year."
Reasons for this past season's decrease in attendance include the economic recession and the Persian Gulf war, Ebright said. But he takes the blame for one mistake that cost the team a lot of fans and money.
"It was my decision to do away with the $5 seats upstairs and I think that I scared a lot of people off with a $7 cheap ticket," he said. "It was a very stupid thing for me to do. I guarantee you that we are going to reinstate the $5 bleacher seat to get those fans back."
The ticket prices for this season will be $12, $9.50, $7 and $5.
The Skipjacks' financial situation is no worse than at least four other teams in the AHL. But when front-office staffers Jim and Stacey Riggs were fired at the conclusion of this past season, there was speculation that the team was hemorrhaging beyond repair.
"Sure it saves some money, about $20,000, but we do have people in the office to replace them," Ebright said. "It was not a financial decision.
"We are losing money but we're nowhere near ready to throw the towel in," Ebright said. "In fact, with the new agreement we can see light. If I didn't believe that we could be successful I would have never taken the team on. We just want to get the franchise to be self-sufficient instead of an Ebright charity."
Skipjacks again cross red line, but financial help is on way