Nailers Lose in Stands

WHEELING – The Wheeling Nailers may be winning on the ice, but the team is losing big at the box office, according to team co-Presidents Rob and Jim Brooks. If that trend continues, the team’s future in Wheeling could be in doubt.

A look at the latest ECHL attendance numbers vindicates the Brooks brothers’ concerns.

In a 23-team league, Wheeling currently ranks 20th in attendance at an average of 2,599 fans a night, which is roughly 200 less than the now-defunct Augusta, Ga., organization was luring in before it folded. Through 12 home games, the Nailers have drawn 31,185 paying patrons through the doors.

“You’ve noticed attendance this year, and if it doesn’t pick up we’ve got some important decisions to make,” Rob Brooks said Wednesday at the team’s office in downtown Wheeling. “I feel that everybody has told us the last couple years that if you get a winner, people will show up.

“That’s kind of what we’re saying right now. … We have a winner right now and we don’t see it.”

The low point came Nov. 29, when the inaugural class of the Wheeling Hockey Hall of Fame was inducted. That night, just 2,961 fans turned out to watch Darren Schwartz and Bob Otten have banners with their names raised to the WesBanco Arena rafters.

That, the brothers said, was an eye-opener.

“You hear so many things about how they used to pack the house when (Darren) Schwartz was there, and (Coach Doug) Sauter. People used to tell us, bring back those guys and we’ll guarantee you’ll sell it out,” Jim Brooks said. “It was a little disappointing. I felt bad not only for (us) and our staff, but I felt bad for the people we were honoring.

“I think it was a good crowd and they were into it – I don’t think it was disappointing to those people. But I wish it could have been better.”

Whatever the reason, the Nailers are not alone in the North Division when it comes to poor attendance. Only Reading, which is playing host to the ECHL All-Star Game this season, ranks in the top 10 in attendance, pulling in 4,647 fans per game.

Even that number is skewed, because those who bought season tickets are guaranteed a seat at both the Skills Competition and the All-Star Game. That doesn’t mean, however, those seats are actually filled on a nightly basis.

Trenton, Cincinnati and Johnstown rank below Wheeling in attendance and round out the list in that order.

“We can get by with lower numbers than those big teams,” Rob Brooks said. “We’ve just got to get to a number where we can do it.”

A comfortable attendance number, they said, would be around the 3,000 mark, even though that’s about 2,500 less than WesBanco Arena’s capacity.

“That’s probably not the break-even point, but that’s something that would make us feel good, and the team and the staff also,” Rob Brooks said. “That would be a goal; let’s start hitting 3,000.

“It’s more like a challenge to the area. It’s an exciting team. … Let’s be proud that Wheeling is on top of all these cities in the country that have a team.”

The fact the organization has made itself a pillar in the community and still can’t generate interest is troubling. The Nailers make more than 100 community appearances a year, and in the last two years have donated more than $200,000 to local causes.

Add in discounted tickets for children, and free entry to the game for youngsters age 14 and under Friday, and even the casual fan can realize the front office is pulling out all the stops. Ticket prices typically range from $5 to $20.

“We were talking to some players (Tuesday) and they asked, ‘Hey, when’s it going to pick up?”‘ Jim Brooks said. “Our goal is to keep hockey here as long as possible. We like this league, and obviously the product we have on the ice right now is super exciting. We want to see what people here think. Ultimately, it’s up to them.”

The Brooks brothers also pointed out they generally see a spike in attendance around the first of the year when hockey season unofficially begins. Whether or not that will be enough to salvage things, especially in these economic times, is not certain.

“I guess the thing is, we’re asking the people that have never been (to a game) to give us a try,” Rob Brooks said. “We’ve got a ton of games this holiday season – we’ve got seven within like two weeks. If you don’t want to sit next to the tree the whole time, bring the family and have fun.”

Added Jim Brooks: “During these times, especially, people have to look at their investment decisions and find out what’s best for them. We need to make some business decisions, too, which is why we look at this coming period as a time to really reflect and look at those things.”