Contrary to appearance, the South Carolina Stingrays have much in common with their opponent going into tonight’s ECHL game at North Charleston Coliseum.
For instance, the Chicago Express rolls into town from “Second City” (never mind that New York rarely introduces itself as “First City”) and Charleston is the second city on Travel and Leisure World’s list of top 10 cities in U.S. and Canada (just a Carnegie Deli sandwich behind “First City”).
Chicago and Charleston claim comic actor Bill Murray.
The Stingrays and Express are in second place in their respective ECHL divisions. But they are marketing to audiences as different as Chicago dogs and Lowcountry boil. The Stingrays are old ECHL family, a throwback to the days when the league was pretty much confined to teams between Hampton Roads and Augusta (franchises now defunct).
Chicago, making its ECHL debut, represents a new trend in all minor league sports: franchises targeting themselves as an affordable entertainment option in big-city markets.
“There is a ton of competition in Chicago,” ECHL commissioner Brian McKenna said Thursday from the league office in Princeton, N.J. “Not just for the hockey dollar, but for the entertainment dollar.”
That hasn’t stopped the 20-team ECHL from expanding into major markets: the San Francisco Bulls and Orlando Solar Bears join next season. There are ECHL teams in Cincinnati and Las Vegas, and right outside Los Angeles (Ontario) and Atlanta (Gwinnett).
“To be honest, our results in major markets have been mixed,” McKenna said. “We’ve had success in Gwinnett and Ontario. I think we’ve carved out a good niche in Las Vegas. In Cincinnati, it’s been a success, but we got off to a rough start.”
Small-market teams, beware.
While Chicago is last in the league in attendance (2,413 home average), the big-city foursome (Ontario, Gwinnett, Cincinnati and Las Vegas) is in the top half.
The Stingrays are 16th (3,042).
The Wheeling (W.Va.) Nailers are 19th and up for sale.
“I think it’s good for the league overall to have places like Chicago and San Francisco come in,” Stingrays president Rob Concannon said. “But I hope we also get some teams below the Mason-Dixon Line to help our division specifically. You hear rumors but I would love to see Columbia come back into the ECHL and give some unity to our division.”
Shorter bus rides, too.
‘Wayne’s World’ tilt
“There are challenges playing in Chicago, but at the same time it offers us a chance to cut out a niche,” said Express radio broadcaster Bob Mills. “When you’re fighting with the Blackhawks and Bulls, it’s tough. But you don’t see NHL and NBA and Major League Baseball players connecting with fans the way our guys do.”
Stingrays fans have loved that about their team since the first puck dropped in 1993.
Chicago hockey history includes former Blackhawks stars Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull and Tony Esposito, plus the fictional Stan Mikita’s Donut Shop of “Wayne’s World” fame.
They have the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower, the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere.
We have Shem Creek and lots of cool historical stuff.
Notably, the big-city guys lace up their skates the same way the Stingrays do, and the Express just got into to town after a 16-hour sleeper bus ride from Chicago.
Tonight, the ECHL edge has to go to the franchise with three Kelly Cup championships.
Just forget the “Meatballs” scene in which Bill Murray, in his first feature film, wears a Chicago Blackhawks jacket.
Reach Gene Sapakoff at 937-5593 or Twitter at @sapakoff.