When the City of Fort Worth announced that the Fort Worth Flyers minor league basketball team was coming to town, the spin was all positive. The team would bring a lot of fans into downtown Fort Worth, and it had the backing of the National Basketball Association. Minor league basketball hadn’t worked here before, but this team would. Lots of good basketball. Lot of money flying around downtown.
The only problem was that the other minor league team that uses the Fort Worth Convention Center, the Fort Worth Brahmas hockey club, would lose some prime weekend dates. The Brahmas had been in town nine years, felt they had been a good tenant for the city, and knew the weekend dates were limited and crucial. If we lose those dates, the Brahmas told the city, we might not be able to make the revenue work in a tough business.
So the city agreed to a compromise. The Brahmas would lose some weekend dates and keep others. The decision was based upon one promise that the basketball folks trotted out: The Flyers were going to draw about 4,000 fans per game – a number backed by the NBA – or about the same numbers the Brahmas had been drawing. If the Flyers could match the hockey boys in bringing in people, having both teams in the building would be a good deal for the city. Addition, and not subtraction, was the mantra.
But the alleged addition may indeed turn out to be subtraction – of profits for the Brahmas and, perhaps, of their continued presence here. The Brahmas have had a miserable year – last place and a fired coach – and their average attendance has dropped a bit, down to 3,700 fans per game. But the team said losing five prime weekend dates, and being assigned so many weekday nights early in the season, has cost them more than $100,000 in revenue, according to sources with the team.
The Flyers, meanwhile, are in second place in the NBA Development League and have been working hard at promoting the team in a major market. But as of last weekend, the Flyers were drawing only about 1,800 people a game. And those are the announced attendance figures, a total that counts the number of tickets passed out or sold, not the warm bodies who actually show up. The latter number, called the “drop count,” is more like 1,000 a game for the Flyers.
Brahmas front-office folks said they’ve been victims of a statistics switcheroo. In making its decision to give some of the Brahmas weekend dates to the Flyers, they said, the city compared the NBA’s prediction of 4,000 tickets to be distributed per game to 2,700 for the Brahmas. But the latter figure is the Brahmas drop count – actual butts in seats, the Brahmas executives said, and the comparison is unfair. “They were trying to make the case that the minor league basketball team would outdraw minor league hockey, and that has never happened in any market,” said Mike Barack, the Brahmas president. “And the 4,000 attendance figure was just thrown out there, and no one from the city ever questioned it.”
The Brahmas are now contemplating their future, and leaving Fort Worth is one option on the table. “At this point we want to make things work, and we would love to stay in Fort Worth, but we have to look at all the options for our franchise,” Barack said. “The way things have gone this year have made it very difficult for us, and it does affect our business model.”
Flyers president Todd Speer said his team is “not disappointed, but not content” with attendance, given that this is their first year in the market. Speer also predicted attendance will double for dates at the end of the schedule in the next couple of months. “The calendar is a finite animal, and you cannot have all the weekend dates you want,” Speer said. “But you play the hand you are dealt. If the Brahmas choose to vacate the market, I believe it will have nothing to do with us or scheduling. We are here for the long haul and not going anywhere.”
This isn’t to say that the Fort Worth Brahmas deserve special treatment. Doing minor league sports in a major league market is always iffy, even if you get the dates you want. But the reason it has worked for the Brahmas is that hockey fans, typically, are more dedicated than basketball fans.
The reason: Hockey fans simply have fewer choices. Basketball lovers have the Dallas Mavericks and college and high schools teams playing every night. Hockey fans here have the Dallas Stars but not much else. But they love the game, and Barack pointed out that the Brahmas’ attendance record historically has had little to do with the team’s success on the ice. Playing on weekend nights when families turn out is much more of a factor, he said.
City officials, it seems, listened to the promises made by the D-League about attendance, which so far haven’t really panned out. But they didn’t listen much when the Brahmas told them that running a minor league team in Fort Worth is all about paper-thin profit margins. When you take more than $100,000 out of the coffers – a figure equal to more than half the annual team salary total – it makes it hard for the organization to hang around.
Whether the Flyers can attract more fans in the future is up for debate. But what’s much clearer is that Fort Worth may be running off a team that has always drawn decent numbers of fans, in favor of one that is drawing about half as many.
In most sports, the teams with the biggest numbers usually win. The city doesn’t seem to see it that way. Maybe they’re thinking in golf scores.