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February 15, 2016

Worcester hockey needs $350K from corporations

Cliff Rucker, owner of Worcester Pro Hockey HC.

On top of the millions he is personally sinking into the venture, the owner of Worcester's new hockey franchise needs at least $350,000 in corporate sponsorships in a year before the puck can drop on its first season in October 2017.

The $350,000 in corporate sponsorships are in addition to the 1,500 season tickets that Beverly businessman Cliff Rucker and his Worcester Pro Hockey HC must sell in order to gain final approval from its league – the ECHL – to begin play for the 2017-2018 season, according to the December minutes of the Worcester Civic Center Commission, when it approved Rucker's proposal to lease the DCU Center for his team's games.

The ECHL board of governors on Feb. 5 unanimously approved Rucker's proposal to establish the ECHL's 29th team in Worcester. The name of the team – which will succeed the now-departed Worcester Sharks of the American Hockey League – will be announced April 3. Two days after announcing the team, more than 130 hockey club memberships were sold.

According to an agreement between the hockey club and the City of Worcester, the city will pay for some upgrades to the DCU Center to get the arena ready to host the new team, including $1.2 million to buy and install a new state-of-the-art digital scoreboard. The city will give $10,000 for arena painting upgrades and $20,000 for renovations for the team's front offices.

Spectators, employees and staff will pay $6 to park at the Major Taylor Parking Garage for the first two seasons of play, and the city may be able to increase that rate by no more than $1 a year after that.

Although professional sports franchises can be more about passion than dollars and cents for their owners, support from fans and corporations are important to the economic viability – and, ultimately, the staying power – of the team. The revenue doesn't have to always cover all team expenses – NBA Commissioner Adam Silver famously stated most basketball teams lose money year after year – but for sole owners like Rucker, the less of a money-losing proposition the team is thanks to fan and corporate support, the more likely he is to stay instead of move to a bigger market like the Sharks did last year.

Rucker would not disclose how much he has spent bringing his ECHL team to Worcester, but establishing a new ECHL team costs about $2 million before play even begins, a figure that includes the $750,000 expansion fee Rucker had to pay to the league, ECHL Commissioner Brian McKenna said.

Rucker also wouldn't disclose the team's annual operating budget – so it is difficult to know how much in corporate and ticket support he needs beyond his ECHL obligations – but the team's president and general manager, Toby O'Brien, did say its biggest expenses would be staffing, team operational costs like player salaries and travel, and paying rent to the DCU Center. The club will cover team members' housing costs, including rent and utilities.

As much as 50 percent of the team's revenues will come from ticket sales, which is the case with most ECHL teams, O'Brien said. The Sharks sold about 4,000 tickets per game, which is near the average for an ECHL team.

“A minor league sports team can represent a city. It can serve as an ambassador, it can improve quality of life for residents, it can drive a real good identity for the city. All of those things help the business climate, help attract employees, and improve the overall quality of life in a city like Worcester. That's kind of what our job is to do,” O'Brien said.

One advantage that Rucker has over the Sharks is that the ECHL will allow him to market his team east of I-495.

From the ECHL's perspective, Worcester is considered a mid-range market – smaller than Orlando but larger than Glen Falls, N.Y. Generally, the league does well in markets that reach 400,000-800,000 people, McKenna said.

“Worcester falls right into that, and for us, that's a very workable number,” he said.

DCU lease

Before it approved the hockey team's lease in December, the Civic Center Commission called the agreement between Rucker and the city much more aggressive than the one with the Sharks.

The agreement is for five years with a one-time option to renew, although both sides can opt out at various points.

Unlike the Sharks and Ice Cats, the team has an agreement to be a part of all of DCU Center advertising – not just the hockey-related marketing. In May, the hockey team will take over 100 percent of hockey-related advertising and 25 percent of non-hockey advertising.

For the 12,239-seat DCU Center, a hockey team means more consistency in hours for workers. On game nights, about 110 employees are needed, said General Manager Sandy Dunn. Dunn doesn't anticipate hiring any new employees, but the employees she has now will have more consistent hours.

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