Bringing back the fans

A sold out arena fills as the Stingrays play the Reading Royals during Pack the House Night Saturday, Jan. 24, 2015 at the North Charleston Coliseum. Paul Zoeller/Staff

The South Carolina Stingrays partied like it was 1993 Saturday night against the Reading Royals.

Well, the Stingrays had fun everywhere except on the scoreboard.

The North Charleston Coliseum roared like it did in 1993 when the Stingrays first opened their doors and routinely played in front of sellout crowds.

A capacity crowd of 10,535 watched the Reading Royals beat the Stingrays, 2-1, on their annual Pack The House Night promotion, but few that were on hand seemed to care about the final outcome of the game.

There was little room on the concourse around the North Charleston Coliseum and lines for concessions were a dozen deep. It was the same atmosphere the Stingrays had two decades ago when they were among the hottest tickets in town.

“Anytime you get a crowd like we had tonight, it kind of reminds you of the old days when we’d get 9,000-10,000 on a regular basis,” said South Carolina team president Rob Concannon. “The energy, the atmosphere was fantastic tonight and our goal is to get that kind of atmosphere every night.”

But as the novelty of ice hockey in South Carolina waned and with the closing the Navy base, fan interest dwindled as the Stingrays, like most of minor hockey, saw attendance drop over the years.

Concannon, who has been the team’s president for five years, wants to see a return to the glory days, but understands that he has to be realistic about his expectations.

“When I took the job five years ago, my goal was to bring back those kind of crowds again,” Concannon said. “I think we’re making strides. It’s a combination of the team playing well, good theme nights and good marketing. I think we’re going about it the right way.”

In 24 home dates, the Stingrays are near the bottom in the ECHL in attendance, averaging 3,605 fans a game. That’s down from the 3,812 average a season ago.

But that’s par for the course in the ECHL this season. Attendance at ECHL games throughout the league is down from a year ago. The ECHL averaged 4,706 fans per game during 2013-14 season. A little more than halfway through this season, that figure stands at 4,358.

Concannon is optimistic the Stingrays can match or surpass that total from a season ago with a strong February and March.

“It just seems like it’s tough getting people into the building in October and November because of high school and college football,” Concannon said. “After the holidays, things always seem to pick up. We’ve had a great January and have some really good promotions coming up in February and March.”

Harry Griffin has been coming to Stingrays game since the team won their first Kelly Cup title in 1997. He has been a season-ticket holder for the past 15 seasons and rarely misses a game. As the fans on the concourse swept past him, Griffin couldn’t help but be a little nostalgic.

“This is great, I’d love to see crowds like this more often, but I run a business so there’s only so much the Stingrays can do,” Griffin said. “I saw a lot of faces that I haven’t seen in a while. A lot of them were season ticket holders and you’d love to see them back here again on a regular basis.”

In the middle of the second period, the wave made its way around the coliseum bowl.

“We haven’t had a wave like that in a long time,” Griffin said.

Last Sunday was a perfect example of the conflicting emotions that Concannon experiences during a season as a former player and now team president. On the ice, the Stingrays suffered one of their worst losses, a 7-2 defeat to Toledo. But the Stingrays were a hit at the box office. After a marketing blitz featuring the Disney movie Frozen, there were more than 5,000 fans at the coliseum. Many kids came dressed up as their favorite Frozen character.

The promotion was a home run with the fans, even if some didn’t know the difference between a blue line and clothesline.

“I was torn because the former player in me was upset we’d lost so badly,” Concannon said. “But the president in me couldn’t have been happier. The staff worked really hard and did a great job with the Frozen promotion and it was a huge success. There are times when I’ve just got to take the player out of the president.”

This Sunday’s game will feature a Star Wars theme.

“That’s part of what we’re trying to do,” Concannon said. “Find themes that will attract the casual fans and get them in the building.”