Stingrays’ subsidy deal makes sense

The South Carolina Stingrays' Marcus Perrier acknowledges a group of young fans before the start of their game against the Reading Royals at North Charleston Coliseum last weekend. Paul Zoeller/Staff

Sometimes life imitates a cartoonist’s sweet dream of art. As when a billionaire approaches the North Charleston City Council seeking relief on behalf of her beleaguered minor league hockey team.

Caption: “Brother, can you spare a half million?”

But in one of the biggest upsets in sports perception history, there isn’t anything wrong with this picture.

The principal owner of the South Carolina Stingrays wants a subsidy of $250,000 a year for two years (or half of their annual losses, whichever is less) to continue operations at the North Charleston Coliseum. Usually, a professional sports team bailout is a bad idea for good citizens of a given community because, usually, the “needy” team is flush with TV dollars, not committed to winning or run by out-of-towners whose primary contribution to the local economy is limo service twice a year.

The parties involved make the Stingrays/North Charleston case an exception worth funding for a few years.

The logic is easier to understand than hockey’s icing rule:

The Stingrays really do lose money, and have every year since the team was founded in 1993.

Stingrays owner Anita Zucker isn’t just wealthy ($2.6 billion net worth says Forbes Magazine), she’s also an All-American philanthropist who has donated many millions to good Lowcountry causes.

The Stingrays have one of the least team-friendly leases in the ECHL.

That’s basically why the first reading of the Stingrays’ subsidy proposal passed 8-1 with North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey all aboard. The definitive second reading is scheduled for Feb. 12.

Not that every decision made by the North Charleston City Council sings in unison with the best interest of taxpayers. It’s OK to say “no” to the Anita Zuckers of the world if necessary. If a Lowcountry minor league hockey team becomes an increasingly unsustainable business model because there aren’t enough regional teams, that’s a different story down the line.

But consider that the Stingrays have won three ECHL championships, regularly field a competitive team, serve as the North Charleston Coliseum’s anchor tenant and provide for lots of jobs.

The Stingrays bring value beyond the ECHL standings. The Zucker-built Carolina Ice Palace serves as home to youth and adult hockey leagues, plus birthday parties. The Stingrays’ annual “Pink in the Rink” game (Feb. 21) helps fight breast cancer. Stingrays players and staff appear at schools. They host fundraisers.

And Zucker is to education funding what a Zamboni machine is to ice cleaning. Just last fall, she gave $4 million to The Citadel’s School of Education and $5 million to the College of Education at the University of Florida, her alma mater. Zucker, the widow of The InterTech Group founder Jerry Zucker, gave $5 million to the University of South Carolina and $5 million to Clemson in 2012.

Of course, it makes sense to ask …

Hey, why not give a half-million dollars less to charity over the next two years, quietly eat the Stingrays’ deficit and avoid controversy that comes with entering city council chambers?

It goes back to the lease the Stingrays have long considered unfair, and business principles. If one of America’s leading philanthropists lives in your community and her family gets a kick out of watching the local hockey team mix it up with the Gwinnett Gladiators, you try hard to make it work.

With an 8-1 vote, or with a council resolution:

Whereas said sports team has been an upstanding part of the community and …

Whereas its modest-living owner helps fund colleges, food banks, elementary schools, reading programs, charity projects and other productive stuff …

A short-term subsidy should be the least concern for a city concerned with the greater good.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff