Any discussion of a new Southern Professional Hockey League team in Columbus is premature, Commissioner Jim Combs said during a telephone interview early Thursday morning.
On Tuesday, New York City businessman Fidel Jenkins announced that he was acquiring the rights to the SPHL franchise that were vacated this month when former owner Wanda Amos ceased operation of the Columbus Cottonmouths after 21 seasons of minor league hockey. Jenkins said the deal with the SPHL was pending a lease to play in the Columbus Civic Center, the Cottonmouths home since 1996.
“He has a vision on what he wants to do for a team,” Combs said of Jenkins. “But he does not own a hockey team in the SPHL.”
Jenkins has applied to the league for the franchise, but has not been approved, Combs said. Jenkins has until Aug. 1 to meet financial obligations to the league and secure a lease with the Columbus Civic Center, Combs said.
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Jenkins may not have a team yet, but he has a new name. Amos continues to own the name and logo rights to the Cottonmouths and did not sell those to the league when she sold the franchise rights for Columbus. The new team, if Jenkins can secure a building lease and win league approval, will be the Columbus Burn, Jenkins announced on Wednesday.
Jenkins and the city are in negotiations for a Civic Center lease, but that deal has not been completed, Jenkins and Civic Center Director Jon Dorman said on Wednesday. Any lease agreed upon by Jenkins and the Civic Center would have to be approved by Columbus Council. That deal is “99-percent done,” Jenkins said on Wednesday.
Combs called the lease and league approval “a chicken or egg process.”
“Why buy a team if you don’t have a lease to the building?” Combs asked. “Then you ask, why get a lease to a building if you don’t have a team? Does he have a team? No. Does he have a lease? No. He is working on both. And it’s not done yet.”
Combs said he was aware that Jenkins was talking to potential sponsors Wednesday in a closed-door meeting at the Civic Center, but did not know that word of a possible deal would be made public.
The SPHL held its annual meeting this week in Asheville, N.C. Jenkins attended a Monday morning session and a dinner that night. Jenkins was allowed to attend the meetings after he paid a “small fee” to the league, but Combs would not disclose the amount.
“He met with the other owners,” Combs said. “But he has no voting rights in this league. We are still in the vetting process.”
Combs has had phone discussions with Jenkins, but the first time he met his was this week at the league meetings.
“It makes sense for him to meet with potential sponsors,” Combs said.
Jenkins, 42, announced a plan to potential sponsors and media that included rebranding the team, restructuring sponsorship packages, reducing ticket prices for the upper-level seats, nightly give-aways for the fans and arena improvements that include a new video scoreboard, sound system and electronic dasher boards.
“It is intriguing what he wants to do in Columbus,” Combs said. “How he would approach it is extremely interesting.”
Asked if he thought the deal would be completed, Combs turned to a sports analogy.
“We have still got to get this across the goal line,” Combs said. “It is not done yet. You are asking me the final score and its halftime. I don’t know the final score yet.”