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Wilmington Snooze-Terminal, February 7, 2008

Rip Snorter

So Much for 40-Plus Year Heritages

In a few short days, the geography of the EFL has been drastically altered. A pair of heritage franchises have pulled up stakes.

The Gulls’ move last week was anything but a surprise. With their payroll strained due in large measure to the lucrative contract given the now retired Tiki Barber, management was not able to properly maintain the Sandcastle. The city of Atlantic City wouldn’t provide the needed funds — couldn’t is probably closer to the truth.

As the condition of the facility deteriorated, attendance dwindled. The clincher was last season when the on-the-field fortunes of the usually competitive Gulls took a turn for the worse. As they stumbled to a 4‑10 finish, less than 3,000 fans rattled around the ratty Sandcastle at each of the last four home games.

This will be the second go-round as EFL owners for the Hershey Entertainment and Recreation Conglomerate (HERC). From 1981 through 1989 Hersheypark Stadium was the home of the team HERC insisted the media refer to as the Hershey Football Bears, to distinguish them from the Hershey Bears AHL hockey team, also owned by HERC.

HERC sold the team after the 1989 season, despite the league’s objections, alleging the league failed to accommodate their scheduling requests. The franchise moved to Newark, NJ, where it lasted only four seasons before disbanding. Although the Football Bears didn’t win any EFL titles, they had winning records in six of their nine seasons. Attendance was good — although the games were poorly marketed — and the team was profitable.

With the ASPN TV deal having given the EFL national visibility, it was well-known that HERC wanted to bring EFL football back to central Pennsylvania. The Hershey-Harrisburg-Lancaster-York area constitutes a potentially fertile fan base, and the 15,641-seat Hersheypark Stadium is still a wonderful venue — now with synthetic grass, it’s even better than it was in the '80s. Furthermore, HERC has improved their sports marketing prowess in the intervening two decades, if the success of the hockey Bears, tenants of the GIANT Center across the parking lot from the stadium, is any indication.

While conditions seem right for the EFL to enjoy a good run in Hershey, some of the quirkiness that characterized HERC’s ownership during their first turn in the '80s remains: Written into the new franchise agreement is a clause insisted upon by HERC which specifies the media is never to refer to the team as simply “the Bars” — always “the Hershey Bars”. Monday the league issued a revision to its media guide to this effect.

This is quite ironic when one considers the history of the hockey Bears. They were originally the B’ars when they were founded in the 1930s. (I don’t know the significance of the apostrophe.) After four seasons alternating between B’ars and Chocolate B’ars, the team adopted the name Bears in response to the criticism of New York sportswriters and the league that the B’ars designation was too commercial. Now, in an era of corporate-sponsored bowl games, arenas, and stadiums, it figures that HERC and the EFL would want to leverage the Bars — ahem, Hershey Bars — name for marketing purposes.

Unlike Atlantic City, the situation in Pittsburgh flew under the radar — well, my radar at least. Attendance had been slowly dropping over the last several years, in part due to the popularity of the Gladiators and, especially, the Iron City Pounders but also because of slippage in the team’s performance on the field. The Ironmen followed consecutive playoff appearances in 2003 and 2004 with 6‑8, 4‑10, and 6‑8 seasons.

So when a group of businessmen from Charleston, 228 miles to the southwest, headed by the imposing, 375-pound, hog processing magnate Charles “Ton” Chew, made an offer in the middle of January to purchase the Ironmen, the ownership in Pittsburgh felt it would behoove them to at least consider it.

The decision did not come easily. When, after a couple of weeks deliberation, they tentatively accepted the offer, they encountered some resistance from the league, which was understandably reluctant to allow the abandonment of one of the larger of the league’s markets in favor of what would be its smallest — and a geographic outlier to boot.

To satisfy the league, Chew’s group agreed to make their purchase transaction contingent upon the sale of a certain number of season tickets. After some negotiation that number was set at 7,500. The Cannons appear to be well on their way to satisfying that requirement: As of this writing, barely 30 hours after Tuesday’s announcement of the pending move, more than 4,000 season ticket applications from eager fans in the I-64 corridor — each accompanied by a deposit — have flooded into the relocated team’s makeshift office.

The Cannons will play on FieldTurf at the University of Charleston Stadium at Laidley Field in downtown Charleston. With a capacity of 18,500, UC Stadium is the ideal size for an EFL venue. I heard that league officials were quite taken with the place when they got a look at it.

The EFL championship banner was raised three times in Pittsburgh and one time in Atlantic City. For decades those cities were excellent markets for the league. No more. While the ingredients for EFL success appear to be in place in central Pennsylvania and West Virginia, it’s still a little sad from this fan’s and reporter’s standpoint. I feel for what is left of the fan bases at the Jersey shore and in and around the Steel City.