The Albuquerque Hockey Examiner had a chance to talk with Duane Lewis, CHL Commissioner about the New Mexico Scorpions, the team's dark season and the return of pro hockey to New Mexico. Lewis, a native of Georgetown, Ontario, was named the league's commissioner in June of 2008. Prior to being named CHL Commissioner, Lewis worked with both the National Hockey League and the Western Professional Hockey League.
The head of the CHL might know more about the demographics and climate in New Mexico than one would expect. Lewis was a member of the 1996-1997 New Mexico Scorpions team in the now defunct Western Professional Hockey League. He was in Albuquerque a short time before being traded to the Amarillo Rattlers.
Fans in the Central Hockey League have long questioned the league's willingness to provide ongoing support to the franchises within the league particularly after learning that the CHL's parent company, Global Entertainment Corporation (GEC), is in the business of building arenas. Hockey fans are quick to point out that arenas keep going up, but that several teams in the Central Hockey League have closed up shop in the last decade. So, how does the league address accusations that the CHL and the GEC are more interested in the revenue that comes from building arenas than they are in the work that goes on to support existing teams in the league?
Lewis is quick to point out that GEC builds arenas only in markets that are interested in having arenas, and, that not all arenas are built specifically for CHL hockey (Wenatchee, WA and Dodge City, KS). The CHL only puts hockey teams in markets that "make sense geographically." Extensive market studies, Lewis continues, are then done to determine a team's success in the market. Lewis notes that the CHL is mindful not only of CHL success but of the success that might come in the form of future teams, such as a Junior team.
With all of the market research, fans may wonder why the league moved the Scorpions out of Tingley Colliseum in Albuquerque to the Santa Ana Star Center in the smaller city of Rio Rancho. When asked about the location of the Santa Ana Star Events Center, home of the now dark New Mexico Scorpions, Lewis admits that "the CHL thought the city would be more built up than it is now." He continues that fans might be more inclined to access the new arena if it "were on a highway and you didn't have to drive through neighborhoods to get there."
The location of the arena aside, Lewis believes that strategic and successful marketing is essential to make a team profitable in any market. "Marketing is a huge part of how well a team does," he says. The focus for any CHL team, Lewis continues, should be "community involvement. Having a sports franchise in your community is a quality of life issue." Part of the league's appeal is having the athletes out in the community where fans and potential fans can interact with them on an individual basis. "The (team's) office is responsible for laying that out," says Lewis. "How visible were the guys and the team in the community?"
Lewis points out that owners, often from Canada and the northern United States, need to realize that they can't just rely on the game to sell tickets in United States markets where the game isn't an integral part of the culture. The CHL focuses on marketing and selling entertainment in addition to the game of hockey. Lewis states that teams "need to create the urgency to get tickets." Some teams in the league, he notes, such as the Colorado Eagles and the Rapid City Rush have done this well. Fans feel an urgency to buy tickets because waiting until the last minute may mean that you don't get a seat for the game.
Clearly the league has a vested interest in seeing their teams succeed, but what type of assistance is offered by the CHL to teams in the league - particularly to teams that are struggling? Lewis was able to outline the many trainings, opportunities and tools offered by the league to all of its franchises. "The CHL," he says, "doesn't have a favorite team" and the league gives "every (team) owner every chance for success." The league offers substantial tools and help to all league franchises including help with licenses and licensing agreements, executive training, team visits and reviews, conferences, committees, weekly conference calls by department (ticketing, sales, marketing, etc), keynote speakers from successful pro sports franchises, and multiple opportunities for teams to share best practices with each other.
The league puts forth every effort to help teams, but the Commissioner also notes that the league can't force anyone to take the help. The onus is on each individual team's ownership and management to accept and use the resources. Some teams, acknowledges Lewis, use the resources much more frequently than others. (The two teams that the league heard from the least last year? The New Mexico Scorpions and the Rocky Mountain Rage).
Because of pending litigation, Lewis could not specifically state whether or not pro hockey would return to New Mexico in 2010-2011 or if any potential buyers had stepped forward to purchase the Scorpions franchise, but he did state that "there are markets where we (the CHL) won't be back into, but Albuquerque/Rio Rancho is not one. We want to be in there." Albuquerque/Rio Rancho, he continues, is "a large city that should be able to support hockey. We are attempting to do what we can to have CHL hockey in New Mexico for the 2010-2011 season."
Keep your fingers crossed, Scorpions fans.