The Sun Newspaper, April 27, 2009
Justin Kemp has run a professional hockey team before, but it's easy to understand why the Reign's inaugural season served as such a learning experience.
The team and the arena were brand new. The Inland Empire market was new to pro hockey, and the coach and players were new to the I.E.
After Kemp, the Reign's executive vice president of business operations, dotted the final I's and crossed the final T's on the final player contracts Friday, he broke down what went wrong and what went right in Year 1.
"When you have a year behind you," Kemp said, "you know the things that work and you know the things that don't work."
In terms of the bottom line, most of it worked. Despite a deep economic recession that hurt both sponsorship and attendance, Kemp said the team still has a chance to turn a profit in the fiscal year ending June 30.
"It's going to be close," he said, which would have been a welcome outcome in his three years running the now-defunct Long Beach Ice Dogs.
The bottom line was helped by a fan base that put the Reign second in the ECHL in attendance - 5,856 per game. Kemp said that group-ticket sales accounted for a spike in attendance that saw more than 8,000 pack Citizens Business Bank Arena for the Reign's final three regular-season games. In addition, about 90 percent of season-ticket holders have renewed for 2010.
In four playoff home games, however, they averaged just 3,620, including a scant 2,983 for last Tuesday's Game 6 against the Stockton Thunder.
So where did everyone go? The groups disappeared, Kemp said.
"Next year we're going to see if we can maybe pre-sell those groups for the postseason," he said. "You'll see an extra two thousand, three thousand make a huge difference."
Pre-selling for the postseason shouldn't be hard. Under the ECHL's current playoff qualifying format, all eight teams in the Western (National) Conference would make the playoffs in 2010.
That's because the Phoenix Roadrunners, the ninth team in the conference this season, have announced they won't be back.
The ECHL's board of governors will vote in June on a proposal to change the playoff format, and Kemp said several alternatives have been put forth.
"We've got a couple ideas that should maintain the competitiveness, so you're not always guaranteed Game 1," he said.
No other major proposals will come before the board of governors, added Kemp, who believes that no more teams will cease operations between now and the start of next season.
The Reign will host the ECHL All-Star game next January, and Kemp expects it to be the focus of a marketing barrage to help further the team's profile in the community.
Spreading word of their existence to the Inland Empire's four million-plus residents - possibly with a presence on radio or TV, if it's deemed financially possible - seems to be the team's greatest room for growth off the ice.
"I think we underestimated how difficult it is to spread the word," Kemp said. "There's still so many people that we haven't begun to scratch the surface of reaching, getting ourselves out to some of the communities outside of Ontario and Rancho (Cucamonga) - starting to focus further out in Riverside, even the High Desert.
"Just continue to grow that fan base."