Hockey is back in QC; fans expected to follow

The Quad City Storm currently owns the worst attendance in the 26-year playing history of local professional hockey.

Despite a team with a .652 winning percentage and sitting three points out of third place in the regular-season standings, the Storm ranks ninth in average attendance (2,097 per game) in the 11-club, Single-A Southern Professional Hockey League.

That is more than 600 fans off the current league average and nearly 800 behind the all-time QC worst box office season. Eight regular season home games remain this year.

The Storm plays in the third-largest arena in the league – with a capacity of 9,200 at Moline’s TaxSlayer Center – but is next to last in average capacity at 22.8%.

However, neither Storm President Brian Rothenberger nor TaxSlayer Center Executive Director Scott Mullen are discouraged.

Instead, both point to last season’s shutdown because of COVID-19 restrictions in Illinois to explain their joint feeling the Storm is moving in the right direction. 

“This is so much better than sitting dark for 16 months,” Mr. Mullen said. His building’s main tenant also saw its 2019-2020 season impacted by an abrupt ending when the pandemic hit in mid-March 2020.

“Though we are certainly down from past seasons, we are actually right where we projected to be,” added Mr. Rothenberger. “Historically, attendance improves in January, February and March, and if that happens again, I think we’re going to end up with an average of 2,200 or thereabouts – and that is a nice little bump from the 2,000 we were expecting.”

The cancelled 2020-21 season is only one of the factors impacting the club’s current rate at the gate.

“Whenever you take a year off in minor league sports, that always hurts attendance – it takes time to build back up,” said Mr. Mullen, who has headed up the local arena since 2005 after helping manage five other facilities from coast to coast since 1991.

“You throw in the pandemic, that hurts attendance,” added Mr. Rothenberger. “You throw in the mask mandate that is still in place on the Illinois side of the river, that’s something that hurts attendance, too.”

Agreed Mr. Mullen, “It’s a real Catch-22 – some fans won’t come if they have to wear a mask while others are hesitant to be in a crowd.”

Already, though, the Storm’s average attendance has jumped from 1,979 at the end of 2021 thanks to drawing 5,215 fans for the first two games of 2022. That Jan. 7-8 weekend included a season-high 3,380 for the Saturday contest despite the steady emergence of COVID’s more contagious Omicron variant.

Quad City Storm defenseman Joe Sova (49) stops the puck in front of the net. Scott Mullen, executive director of the TaxSlayer Center said, “When we started making the ice before this season, you could just see a change in the attitudes around the building and how excited people were that hockey was finally back.” CREDIT SEAN FLYNN PHOTOGRAPHY

A three-game weekend homestand at the end of January also produced an average of 2,347 per contest.

“If things are able to quiet down a little bit with COVID, we are on a good trajectory to get to where we need to be with attendance,” said Mr. Rothenberger.

“We definitely want to get our average up over 3,000 the next two to three years. But that is something that we are very confident will happen. We were there our first season (drawing an average of 3,181 in 2018-19) and we think we are doing the right things to make sure that happens again.”

According to Mr. Rothenberger, the Storm is accomplishing that with a third of the front office staff compared to pre-pandemic levels.

First hired as the new team’s radio broadcaster and communications director weeks prior to the Oct. 2018 franchise launch, Mr. Rothenberger attributes his current position to having worn many hats during the previous two seasons – as well as being one of the few remaining employees left to inherit the job after the COVID shutdown sent others seeking work elsewhere.

“Virtually every business has had a great deal of struggle during this time,” said Mr. Rothenberger, one of eight paid club employees listed on the team website, including head coach and director of hockey operations Dave Pszenyczny.

“I’m of course very biased, but I think we have had about as hard of a time as any. … Our VP of Finance Danielle Mull, and myself, we were having to lay ourselves off for short stints just to make sure we were able to come back (as a team). And now it’s taken a lot of sweat equity from a small, hard-working group of people to get here.

“People also have really seen the value of local ownership, because without it, I do not think there would be hockey here right now. From a dollars and cents perspective, the very clear decision during the shutdown was to close the doors, turn off the lights, and say, ‘Oh well, we gave it a shot.’ But (Storm owners) John and Missy (Dawson) are very, very committed to having this product here for the Quad Cities and it’s something they really love as long-time season ticket holders.”

The last owner of the Storm’s predecessor, the Mallards, said prior to that club folding for financial reasons in April 2018 that they needed to average 3,500 fans for a chance at reaching a break-even bottom line.

However, Mr. Mullen said the Storm operates on a much smaller Single-A budget than when the Mallards had more games, bigger staffs, higher salaries, increased travel, and larger league fees playing in the Double-A ECHL

“We’ve had losing teams and ownership groups that were fly-by-night or just weren’t in it for the long run — or just couldn’t make ends meet because of the economic structure of the league,” Mr. Mullen said, remembering the last nine Mallards seasons from 2009-18 when local hockey attracted an average crowd of 3,649 despite only once having a team get past the opening playoff round.

“But right now, we’re in a league where we can make it work, and I know John Dawson is 100% committed, so it really is looking positive. If we can make a good playoff run this year, that’s really going to spur things on for next year. It’s been too long since we’ve had a contender and if we just keep this going, I think we’re going to get back to having loud, rocking crowds again.”

The Mallards enjoyed that boisterous atmosphere in the first 12 seasons of local hockey (1995-2007). The local team was the hottest ticket in town – and the envy of minor league hockey – averaging 6,195 fans per game, including 7,523 during a seven-season run that included three league championships and three more finals appearances.

“The Mallards were really special,” Mr. Rothenberger said. “There’s still a lot of people in the area who were here for those times, when they had 10,000 people in the seats and another 500 in the conference center watching the game on a projector screen. That’s simply incredible.”

“We see our responsibility now to make hockey sustainable here and to build back towards those days,” Mr. Rothenberger said. “We are a long way away from having 6,000 people coming into the building every night, and it’s not going to happen overnight, but in an area like the Quad Cities that’s growing at the rate that it is, and with the population that’s already here, we absolutely see that as the end goal.”

Also likely to help are two big-ticket-selling promotions.

The annual UnityPoint Health Cancer Center fundraiser “Hockey Fights Cancer Night” Feb. 5, with fans again invited to paint on the ice the names of local cancer fighters and survivors.

The other major highlight – besides the likelihood of playoff hockey for the first time since 2017 – is a delayed 25th anniversary of local hockey on March 5 featuring a Storm/Mallards fusion jersey.

“Most experts I’ve heard acknowledge that we are getting toward the end of COVID,” Mr. Rothenberger said. “People have been cooped up to one degree or another for nearly two years now. We are probably six to eight months away from being free of that entirely, and when we are, it is going to create a swell of demand for live entertainment.

“That is very good news for us and all the businesses around us – especially the bars and restaurants in downtown Moline.” 

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