A New York City businessman with limited experience in minor league sports rolled into Columbus on Wednesday, promising a new and innovative way to run a hockey operation that has not been profitable in 21 seasons of existence.
Fidel Jenkins, chairman of Residential World Media, met with about 20 potential sponsors and wasted no time making changes even though his ownership deal is not complete. Jenkins declined to reveal the terms of his deal for the Southern Professional Hockey League franchise he is purchasing from the league.
The first thing the potential new owner of the Columbus SPHL franchise did was change the name. Former owner Wanda Amos, who sold the franchise rights to a new team in Birmingham, still owns the name and logo rights to the Columbus Cottonmouths.
Jenkins said he didn’t want the name Cottonmouths.
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Rather than pay for the name that has been used since the team’s inception in 1996, Jenkins will call his team the Columbus Burn. He also considered the Columbus Flare, but went with the Burn.
“We took some time to see what name wasn’t taken, because we didn’t want another animal or dragons or something else,” Jenkins said. “We wanted a name no one else had. ... It turned out there were two names no one had — Flare and Burn. Obviously, for a hockey team you are not going to go Flare.”
Jenkins said he has not executed a lease with the city, but said it was about 99 percent finalized. Any lease must be approved by Columbus Council. He said Tuesday he would not own the team until he had a lease for use of the Civic Center.
The name is not all that Jenkins plans to change.
As part of any lease with the city, he plans significant upgrades to the Civic Center, including a new video center-ice scoreboard, sound system and electronic dasher boards.
After 17 years of ownership in which she lost money almost every season, Amos ceased operations at the end of the recently completed season.
SPHL Commissioner Jim Combs could not be reached for comment Tuesday or Wednesday, but he has previously said the league would continue to look for new ownership and have the team ready to play in the 2018-2019 season. The Burn will not play the 2017-2018 season, so they are still more than 17 months until their first SPHL game.
Though the league was not talking, Jenkins was talking and selling hard in Columbus on Wednesday. He met first with a group of sponsors, many of whom have been with the Cottonmouths for years, and then held a hastily called news conference after media members learned of the sponsorship meeting, which was closed to reporters.
He outlined a four-prong plan to make the hockey team profitable.
After rebranding the team, he plans to restructure sponsorships, reduce some upper-level ticket prices and institute a new attendance-based, game-day giveaway program that will include everything from movie tickets to vacations to a new vehicle.
The upper-level ticket prices will be $5 per game, while the lower level will remain the same, ranging from $30 to $16. The sponsorship rates will depend on attendance, Jenkins said.
“We want to be as transparent and as good a business partner with our sponsors as we can be,” Jenkins said. “In my everyday business, even though it’s real estate, it is also advertising. The majority of our clients really are advertisers, right? We wanted to bring that same concept here to Columbus. We want to earn our business and we want to earn their business. ... The more eyeballs we can give them, the better.”
And he plans to use incentives to do so.
▪ For crowds up to 1,000, he will give 10 fans two free movie tickets each.
▪ For more than 1,000 spectators, 20 additional fans will get free gas.
▪ For more than 2,000 fans, 10 of them will receive a $250 shopping spree.
▪ For more than 3,000 fans, two of them will have their mortgage payment covered for the month.
▪ For more than 4,000 fans, 10 of them will receive a cruise for two.
▪ For more than 5,000 fans, two fans will get a seven-day cruise for two.
▪ For more than 6,000 fans, one fan will get a Disney family vacation.
▪ For more than 7,000 fans, one fan will get a new car, motorcycle or RV.
“We are absolutely committed to the fans and want to do anything we can to bring them back,” Jenkins said. “With the reduced ticket price and these giveaways we can do that.”
Asked how he could afford to do the giveaways, Jenkins said it was “through the restructured sponsorships.”
He declined to give the financial details on the sponsorship packages but said he needed 200 sponsors to make it work.
Potential sponsors were asked by Civic Center Director Jon Dorman not to comment to the media on specifics of the meeting. Dorman attended the meeting and spoke.
One person who was not at the meeting of potential sponsors was Jerome Bechard, the face of Columbus hockey since the club was founded 21 years ago. When the team ceased operations, Bechard was the general manager and head coach. Reached by phone Wednesday morning, Bechard said he was traveling and would not be at the meeting.
Jenkins said Bechard would not lead the new organization but would be offered a role.