Jumping Jacks

March 17, 1993

Here's Tom Ebright, owner of the Baltimore Skipjacks hockey team, conversing with the city: "Come see this team or I'll shoot it. You have five minutes to decide, four, three, two, one. BOOM! Did you decide yet?"

We are certainly sympathetic to the plight of Mr. Ebright. He's a widely praised owner of a sports team -- how's that for an oxymoron -- who says he has lost $2.5 million in six years owning the Jacks. The minor league team is lucky to fill a quarter of the Baltimore Arena for one of its games (although ironically it drew a hearty 250 to a game during Saturday's blizzard when most other sporting events were canceled). Mr. Ebright is understandably discouraged by the fact that he has appealed to the business community to patronize the team -- and gotten nary a nibble.

But while Mr. Ebright may be a peachy hockey team owner, he's no negotiator. He went public with his financial problems in the media about a month ago. He set a deadline by which he wanted to gauge city support, then kept moving up the deadline -- to April 1. But already he's announced that he plans to move the team regardless, probably to a northern town hungrier for hockey, and replace it here with a lesser minor league hockey franchise that would be less expensive to operate.

He barely even gave time for the ink to dry on a bill by city Councilman Joe DiBlasi, who proposed that the city put up $150,000 to buy tickets -- to go to disadvantaged children -- if the business community buys an equal number of seats. Mr. DiBlasi figured the investment would more than pay for itself because the hockey team is said to spin off more than $2 million into the local economy. Thanks to Mr. Ebright's bizarre negotiating VTC tactics, we will never know if the DiBlasi initiative would have jump-started a dialogue on the Skipjacks' value to Baltimore.

Mr. Ebright may believe that his top option is to move the Skipjacks and bring to Baltimore a club in a lesser league because he feels this city will never be Hockey Town U.S.A. and that hard-core fans will show up for any team he puts on the ice. Still, if this area had trouble mustering support for the Skipjacks -- and the team's all but invisible marketing effort deserves some of the blame -- how can the owner expect enthusiasm for a lesser minor league team? If Mr. Ebright hoped to generate warmth for his position, his decision to pre-empt his own ultimatum with a fait accompli put the big chill on things.

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