Ad executive may seek expansion team in IHL 'Hot, neat, Triple-A' league based in bigger cities

March 05, 1998|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

Professional hockey has been a tough sell in Baltimore over the years, but one local sports entrepreneur says he believes the right combination of money and marketing could make it finally succeed here.

Robert Leffler, owner of the Leffler Agency, confirmed this week that he has filed a letter of interest with the International Hockey League. Leffler, whose ad agency counts a number of sports teams among its clients, said he received an inquiry from a potential investor and followed up with the league to get information on costs and structure.

That's a long way from trying to lure a relocated or expansion team, but Leffler says it might happen and wants to be involved if it does. The investor who contacted him has decided against the project, but Leffler remains convinced the sport could thrive here.

"I'm studying it. I now know the numbers and what it would cost. I think the IHL is the only hockey that will work here -- they play real cities," Leffler said.

Baltimore has been home to four minor-league hockey franchises over the past 35 years, most of them with the American Hockey League, a developmental league associated with the major-league National Hockey League. The last team, the AHL Bandits, moved to Cincinnati last year.

Leffler, whose client list includes the Ravens, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cincinnati Bengals, Maryland Jockey Club and Spirit indoor soccer team, estimates it would cost $4 million to establish an IHL franchise in the city.

"It's a hot, neat little Triple-A league," Leffler said. "I really believe that because of the big-city nature of these teams, it could work."

There have been reports that some poorly drawing IHL franchises may be looking to relocate, but Leffler said he is not eyeing any current team and is not putting together an investment group. The league may also add new teams through expansion.

Dave Andrews, the IHL's senior vice president of business operations, said, "I think it's one of those things where there was some interest on behalf of Baltimore, but we don't have an application on file and don't expect to get one soon.

"Baltimore is one of the last major markets that doesn't have major sports other than the Orioles and Ravens. When you have a market like that it does tend to attract attention," Andrews said.

The league began in 1945 as a Midwest bus league and has since grown to be the biggest drawing hockey league outside the NHL. Its 18 teams last year drew slightly more than 6 million fans, to the AHL's nearly 4 million. Although once a developmental league, it has moved in recent years to a free-agency, independent operation.

The nearest IHL franchise to Baltimore plays in Cleveland.

Pub Date: 3/05/98

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