When the Portland Pirates made Lewiston their temporary home for the 2013-14 American Hockey League season, they dropped ticket prices in an effort to draw more fans.
That won’t happen again when the Pirates return to the refurbished Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland this fall.
A family of four that buys tickets on the day of a game will pay $72, an increase of $8 from the last year the Pirates played in Portland. That’s largely because the team will eliminate reduced pricing for children and seniors and its lower-priced Quarter Deck seating behind the goal lines.
The Pirates plan to introduce their 2014-15 ticket packages Wednesday at the civic center. Although some prices will increase, others will drop slightly from 2012-13, the team’s most recent season in Portland. Group tickets – 10 or more – will be sold in advance for $12 each, a break of $1.50 per ticket, said Brad Church, a former Pirates player who took over as chief operating officer in February.
“We’ve spent a lot of time trying to make this affordable, all while still being able to maintain a revenue stream that makes this sustainable,” Church said. “Not rich. Sustainable.”
Church and Pirates majority owner Ron Cain met with reporters Tuesday morning at the Portland Press Herald to discuss the Pirates’ plans to connect with the Greater Portland community after a season in which the team finished last among 30 AHL franchises in both attendance and the standings.
The Pirates left Portland last year after their negotiations for a new lease with the civic center’s trustees turned into a highly publicized dispute and broke down.
“I would say probably the biggest (challenge) is re-establishing the culture that we want here, which puts a focus on the community as opposed to the community focusing on us,” Cain said. “Kind of turning the page from the past into what the Pirates will be going forward.”
As for the fan base, Cain and Church see the upcoming season as a chance for a fresh start, with a renovated arena, a new ticket-pricing approach and a renewed emphasis on community involvement.
Cain became majority owner in December, by increasing his stake in the team from 40 percent to about 52 percent, and quickly jump-started the stalled lease negotiations, reaching a five-year deal that for the first time gives the team a share (57.5 percent) of profits from concessions.
Brian Petrovek, who was the team’s chief executive officer and managing owner, led the team’s negotiations until Cain stepped in. The Pirates announced Petrovek’s resignation April 28, after 14 years with the franchise. He retains a small ownership stake.
Lease negotiations over the past decade often included threats by the Pirates to move from Portland to another city, including Albany and Glens Falls in New York. Cain, a Kennebunk resident, said he had a chance to buy the team and move it, but refused to do so.
“I live in Maine,” he said. “I’m not moving it anywhere. I want the team to be here for the community. If it ever came to that, I wouldn’t be part of the ownership group, I can tell you that.”
Beyond concessions, the civic center renovation yielded other new revenue streams for the Pirates, from club seating and luxury suites. Cain said he believes the team can break even or perhaps turn a small profit by drawing 4,000 fans per game with an average ticket price of $16.30.
“We’re not trying to attract, annoy or do anything to anybody with the ticket pricing,” he said. “We’re simply trying to create a stable business that can then turn around and give some benefits back to the community that we haven’t been able to do.”
The Pirates averaged 2,185 fans for their 38 home dates in Lewiston, winning only 10 of those games. In each of the previous 13 seasons in Portland they had drawn an average of 4,300 to 5,300 fans per game.
Still, profitability was always elusive.
“As far as I know, they haven’t made money in 13 years,” Cain said. “And I can tell you, out of my bank account, we didn’t make any money in the last two years.”
Since 2000, the Pirates have been affiliated with four National Hockey League clubs: Washington, Anaheim, Buffalo and Phoenix. Last week, Church signed a one-year extension with the Phoenix Coyotes, who have provided players and staffing for the Pirates since 2011. The Coyotes could sever ties with the Pirates after next season, but Cain isn’t worried.
“There is no organization in the AHL that has the training center that we’ve got in Saco and a new renovated civic center and the amenities that come with that,” said Cain, who is also majority owner of the MHG Ice Centre in Saco. “We’re not concerned at all that if (Phoenix pulls out of Portland), that we’ll get another top-end affiliate here. It’s a great market. Everybody recognizes it.”
One thing that’s clear to management and fans is that the on-ice performance must improve for the franchise to succeed.
“You’re definitely going to see a more packed stadium if they’re throwing up a few more (victories),” said Bill Fyler of Kezar Falls, who recently bought a two-year season ticket package for himself, his wife and two children after dropping his season tickets last year.
“They have a lot of rebuilding to do,” said Pete Cutler of Freeport, who has been watching the team since the late Tom Ebright bought the Baltimore Skipjacks and moved them to Maine in 1993. “I think they have to win back the fans’ confidence in the product, because right now the product is poor.”
Then there are die-hard fans like Tom Gross of Scarborough.
“I cannot wait to get back,” said Gross, who ventured to Lewiston only once last season. “My son and I have been going for 11 years. It’s one of the reasons why he plays hockey now.”
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at [email protected]