Losing the Portland Pirates is a serious blow to the city’s image, economy and the hearts of fans.

Still, sports industry professionals in Maine said there are fundamental economic challenges to operating an American Hockey League team in a city the size of Portland that may have made the Pirates’ departure inevitable.

Since the height of the Pirates’ success in the mid-1990s, entertainment options in Portland have expanded dramatically, they said, while the amount of discretionary spending has remained fairly stable.

Instead of trying to replace the Pirates with another AHL team, some suggested the city should pursue other economic opportunities such as attracting a less-expensive hockey franchise or other sports team to the Cross Insurance Arena, or boost revenues by building a separate, large convention center.

Portland isn’t the only city that has struggled to meet its AHL team’s financial needs, said Brian Corcoran, founder and CEO of Shamrock Sports & Entertainment in Portland. Other teams have been forced to move to larger cities because of the relatively high franchise fees all teams must pay. The Pirates are expected to play their next season in Springfield, Massachusetts, after 23 years in Portland.

“The business model of minor league hockey is beyond challenging,” said Corcoran, whose company sold corporate sponsorships for the Pirates in 2013 and 2014. “Only one-third of the teams are profitable, one-third break even, and the other third are borderline bankrupt.”

Corcoran praised the team’s majority owner, Ron Cain, for keeping the Pirates in Portland as long as he did, while other AHL teams were relocating to larger cities as a hedge against high operating costs.

“Two-thirds of operating revenue are contingent on putting butts in seats,” he said.

‘A PERFECT STORM OF BAD THINGS’

Corcoran said the team’s move to Lewiston while the arena was being renovated, followed by contentious negotiations with the venue over food and beverage concessions, depressed ticket sales at a time when the growth and expansion of restaurants and music venues in the Portland area was spreading the population’s disposable income ever thinner.

“It’s a perfect storm of bad things that happened,” he said.

Corcoran said the Pirates already had seen regular attendance decrease after 2009, when the Maine Red Claws NBA Development League team began playing in Portland with an overlapping season.

Red Claws owner William Ryan Jr., however, said he does not think the two teams competed directly for fans and he isn’t happy to see the Pirates leave.

He said the two teams often collaborated on projects to promote Portland as a sports and entertainment hub.

The problem for the Pirates, he said, is that the team was required to make an $800,000 payment each season to its parent franchise in the NHL. Neither the Red Claws nor the Portland Sea Dogs Minor League Baseball team are saddled with such high costs.

“Having the pro sports teams here … it’s a net positive,” Ryan said. “I never felt like we were competing with the Pirates.”

Ryan said that while the Red Claws aren’t interested in moving to the Cross Insurance Arena from the Portland Expo, the team is profitable and there are no plans to leave Portland, ever.

He suggested that Portland might want to pursue an East Coast Hockey League team to replace the Pirates, because the franchise fees are much lower.

“Maybe an ECHL team makes more sense,” Ryan said. “I know Manchester (New Hampshire) went that route.”

CONVENTION CENTER REDUX?

Others said they see the Pirates’ departure as an opportunity to reopen discussions about a shift to making conventions and business travel more prominent revenue streams for Portland.

“This news should revive our ancient and recurring conversation about finally building a convention center in Portland,” said Christopher O’Neil, owner of O’Neil Policy Consulting in Portland and a former lobbyist for the Greater Portland Chamber of Commerce, which advocated for the $34 million renovation of the former civic center into a modern entertainment arena in 2014. “If not a convention center, perhaps a repurposing of the (arena) asset. Maybe it’s time for the wrecking ball.”

O’Neil said that as far as arenas go, Portland’s “has lost its sweet spot.”

Eclectic venues such as Thompson’s Point, State Theatre and Merrill Auditorium dominate when it comes to smaller musical acts, he said, while Bangor has become the prime destination for larger acts.

“I don’t know anybody who thinks the renovated civic center could make the Pirates viable,” O’Neil said. “Ron Cain talks about getting blood from a rock.”

A SEPARATE CONVENTION CENTER

Steve Hewins, former executive director of Portland’s Downtown District, who is now an independent business consultant, sees a future for both the arena and a separate convention center in Portland.

He noted that in March 2017, the America East Women’s Basketball Championship will be held at the arena, the first of two consecutive championships the league has committed to playing there.

“After they invested $34 million in that building, I don’t think a conversion to a convention center would make sense at this point,” he said.

Hewins said the city should focus on finding another hockey franchise to take up residence at the arena while reopening the discussion about building a convention center in another nearby locale.

Most conventions take place outside of Portland’s peak tourist season, he said, and the city now has enough hotel rooms to accommodate major events – far more than it did back in 2004, when the last round of serious debate about a convention center occurred.

“I’m talking about a building [to host events] that could fill all the hotel rooms in the city,” Hewins said.