"It's all coming down to, 'How do we make hockey survive in minor-league sports in this city?'" Orlando Seals president David Waronker told a herd of reporters April 21, at a press conference to announce that, for the third time in three years, the Seals would be joining yet another hockey conference.
That's insignificant considering the Seals only average 900 attendees per game. Moreover, the Seals' brief history shows that leagues come and go, so news that they are now in the Eastern Hockey League caused a collective shrug.
Not surprisingly, a fair amount of the press conference was dedicated to the $150,000 the Seals owe the city in back rent for use of the TD Waterhouse Centre, which Waronker had, to that point, declined to pay (for reasons discussed later). The city's position is simple: No check, no lease and no hockey rink for the Seals. Waronker insisted the Seals would be back in their "home rink," the arena, next year, and that they have been negotiating with the city over a new lease agreement since December.
Which is news to the city. "I personally haven't heard from them," says assistant city attorney Amy Iennaco, who is in charge of such matters. "They made the `April` announcement without talking to us."
In late January, Seals officials -- minus Waronker -- met with Iennaco and city attorney Wayne Rich to lay out their three demands: a larger take of the arena's concessions revenues; a take of parking revenues; and a reduction in rent, to about $7,500 per game, down from $10,000 on weekends and $9,000 on weekdays. Iennaco said she wouldn't even present their offer to the city council unless they showed good faith to pay off the debt, or Waronker would personally guarantee it. "We're still waiting on that," Iennaco says.
The team, in its present state, isn't a viable operation. To stay afloat, Waronker says, he must reduce expenses by 40 percent and increase revenues by 40 percent by bringing attendance up to 4,000 per game. (Officially, the Seals boast an average of 3,150 per game, but everyone at the city agrees that's highly exaggerated). Last year, the Seals' expenses topped $1.36 million, while revenues peaked at $900,000. Not a recipe for success.
The Seals' existence has been difficult from the get-go. After the Orlando Solar Bears folded in 2001, the Orlando Seals cranked up in 2002, playing in the Atlantic Coast Hockey League. Waronker, a real-estate developer and hockey fan raised near Philadelphia, bought the team two months into its first season, but found himself stuck with a league in financial trouble. Figuring his Seals couldn't make money if other teams in the league were failing, Waronker bought ownership interests in several of the ACHL's competitors. The next year, Waronker pulled his teams out of the ACHL and formed the World Hockey Association II, a development league for the World Hockey Association.
The WHA is something of a mess. Conceived as a competitor to the National Hockey League -- a better comparison would be what the Arena Football League is to the National Football League -- the WHA has yet to play a single game. Without a major league to feed, sustaining a minor league was nearly impossible. Attendance was bad across the board in the WHA II, but especially so in Miami, where the Miami Manatees couldn't afford to finish their most recent season.
In April, Waronker announced the Seals would join the EHL, which Waronker hopes will include as many as 12 franchises, and that the WHA II was over. The EHL is the team's third league in as many years. Waronker put a positive spin on things: "We came in to `the WHA II` with zero debt, we go out with zero debt."
Well, not quite. The league may have started and ended OK, but the Seals didn't. And while Waronker says the team has paid off nearly 75 percent of its debt from last season, it still owes the city. So Waronker asked the city to make the lower rent and larger concessions takes retroactive to the first game of last year, which would effectively erase the debt.
To Waronker, that's not playing hardball or trying to make money at taxpayer expense. It's survival. "It's out of necessity," he says. "The status quo `losing $400,000 per season` is not acceptable. I love hockey, but not that much. It wasn't like a hold-hostage thing. I'm not stupid."
He argues that erasing the debt is in the city's best interest. The Seals can offer specials like $99 season tickets for seniors and military officers to boost attendance, and in turn allow the city to make more off concessions and parking.
But city officials don't see the Seals as a moneymaker. According to Orlando Centroplex deputy director Jon Dorman, with the Seals not paying their tab, the city loses $8,500 per game, and even if the Seals pay what they're supposed to, they "probably come close to balancing out, just breaking even," Dorman says.
By comparison, an average Magic game earns the city between $7,000 and $12,000, all of which is funneled back into a Centroplex fund. For special events, the take is much higher. The recent Aerosmith concert put $95,000 in the Centroplex's coffers, for instance.
Those big nights subsidize less lucrative events, like the Seals. "`It's` not necessarily a bad thing," Dorman says of the Seals numbers. "We're not necessarily in this to make money, but we're not in it to lose money either."
Though their numbers aren't good, the Seals are low-cost entertainment, at about $12 per ticket, and the city likes that. Still, the city is firm: Give us the money, and then we'll talk.
Waronker says he negotiated a deal last week with retiring Orlando Centroplex director Bill Becker to keep talks between the Seals and the city ongoing. Waronker pledged to write a check for about half of the $150,000, which the Centroplex would put in escrow pending renegotiation of the lease.
"He wanted to come in and make a payment," Becker says. "The check's in the mail, I guess. We haven't finalized anything yet `but` we're close to it."
Once the city sees a good-faith effort, talks will resume. "I don't think there's a problem," Becker says.
Waronker echoes Becker's enthusiasm, and points out that last season, lease negotiations weren't resolved until September. "I'm absolutely sure we're going to work things out," Waronker says, adding that the team has already sold $60,000 worth of season tickets. "We don't even make that an issue."
And then Waronker pleads for some good press. "These stories get depressing," he says, referring to news accounts of the Seals' lease troubles. "Do something that will spike us a little."
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