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Philadelphia Wings Leave Philly: What Took So Long?

0 - Published August 6, 2014 by in Box, National Lacrosse League, Pro Lacrosse

When rumors started swirling that the Philadelphia Wings of the National Lacrosse League were going to leave Philly I was less than shocked. In fact, the only thing that shocked me was the fact that the Wings had remained in Philadelphia for as long as they had. Now before you find me in Brooklyn and murder me, hold on here… it’s going to be a wild, and emotional ride, but I bet this post won’t turn out exactly the way you think it will.

The Philadelphia Wings came to be in 1974-5, and were a part of the original NLL. It was short-lived, but as you can see below, the beginnings of awesome were starting to show.

1974-75 Philadelphia Wings Video

Last Wings Home Opener 2014

Although that early operation didn’t last long, in the mid-80s, pro box lacrosse came back to the US and the Philly Wings came back into being. Interestingly enough, they were the only original NLL team to come back to the new league in the 80s, which was called the Eagle Pro Lacrosse League.

Their colors and logo have remained the same for almost 40 years. For all intents and purposes, the Wings have been the single most consistent American box lacrosse team in the history of the sport, and now they are leaving Philly after 28 straight seasons of play in the city. Wasn’t last year an okay year? How did this happen?

2014 Philadelphia Wings Documentary

The Wings are headed to the Mohegan Sun Casino in CT, where they will become the second pro sports team to operate out of the Casino’s facility, with the other being a professional women’s basketball team. At first, this move doesn’t make any sense… but as you look a little closer, the lights start to come on, and then you get blinded by the obvious: NOT making this move wouldn’t make any sense. It simply had to happen.

The basic economics of professional sports franchises, stadium rentals, and returns on investment rule the day. Chris Fritz, Mike French, and Russ Cline recently owned the Wings. It should be noted that these guys are all “NLL guys”, and have been involved in the league since day 1. Cline and Fritz helped start the Eagle Pro Box League and Mike French played for the original Wings after starring at Cornell. It seems that French bought the other two out at some recent point.

None of these guys can be said to purely be “in it for the money”, as we know they are tried and tested lacrosse guys, with long connections to the sport, but they are also businessmen, and the NLL team model has shown time and time again that it can struggle greatly in large American cities.

Imagine you own the Wells Fargo Center, where the Wings played their home games. Now imagine you have contracts with the Flyers (NHL) and 76ers (NBA). That’s 84 days of the year right there. Now imagine you also have concert promoters, circuses, ice-capades, NCAA sporting events, monster trucks, wrestling, and a whole other slew of potential short-term tenants, all of whom can sell out your arena and make the concessions stand hum. Then imagine you have an NLL team taking up 8-10 of those annual slots, and not kicking off a ton of revenue. How long do you think that relationship is going to last?

philadelphia_wings

And this is what shocks me about the Wings lasting as long as they did in Philly. Two teams in Boston (both the Blazers, but different colors and leadership) failed because of arena costs. The first did well for 7 seasons in Worcester, MA, then moved to Boston in 1996 and folded in 1998. The NY Titans played in Madison Square Garden, but relocated to Orlando within a couple years. They didn’t last long there either. The same happened to the team team in Baltimore. New Jersey didn’t last in East Rutherford. Teams in Detroit and Pittsburgh also failed.

The only time-tested larger sports-city success story is Denver, and they came from Washington, DC originally, where they struggled to draw crowds. Minnesota could see success in the future, but right now they seem to be dealing with the same issues of cost and strong competition for limited municipal assets.

So where does the NLL model actually work? It seems to work in Rochester and Buffalo, where there isn’t the same demand for arena space, and where you have great ownership structure. It seems to work in Canada on many levels, even where there is a lot of competition for the space (Toronto comes to mind). And it seems to work in places where the ownership is intrinsically tied to their arena or the other pro sports franchises in in the metro area (Buffalo, Colorado, and to a lesser extent, Minnesota). So can the NLL work at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut? And does it fit into any existing model for success?

Honestly, I have no idea what the new business model will be, but I do believe that this set up is NOTHING like anything we’ve seen before in pro lacrosse, so it’s hard to really say for certain. But to get an idea for expectations, it’s probably best to look at the WNBA team that already plays games there, the Connecticut Sun.

The Sun play in the (approximately) 9,300 seat Mohegan Sun Arena, which is located in Uncasville, CT, conceivably part of the larger Hartford, CT market. Before coming to Uncasville, the Sun were struggling, and had been on rough ground for their 3 years of existence in Orlando, FL. The Mohegan tribe purchased the team and brought them to CT, where things turned around quickly. The team also made big overhauls to players and staff, and got some local talent on the roster.

The Sun get around 7,000 to 8,000 people at some of their games, and they do well in this regard when compared to other WNBA teams, which often occupy larger sized arenas. When it comes to “filling the seats”, the Connecticut Sun actually does pretty well compared to the rest of the league. The state of CT does have an insane love of women’s basketball (it’s like my love of lacrosse, but for an entire state), but Uncasville is not the easiest place to reach. And yet people still go there for pro ball. That says something…

Mohegan Sun Area Action

So let’s take it back to pro box lacrosse, and see what kind of numbers an NLL teams needs. Colorado, Buffalo and Rochester all fill the seats, but they each do it in their own way. Buffalo and Colorado put up 11,000 to 19,000 fan numbers routinely, and can sell out a large arena. Rochester packs the house, but it’s a smaller house, and the Knighthawks gets between 6,000 to 9,000 fans for their games. Capacity is around 11,000. For Connecticut, the latter seems quite possible when it comes to numbers needed, and current comparable franchises.

philadelphia_wings

But the Mohegan Sun Casino also has the potential to change things in another way…

When 5,000 people come to watch a lacrosse game at a casino, they are not just there for the lacrosse. Many will go out to dinner, or shop in the local indoor mall, or stay afterwards and go out in the many clubs within the casino. Others will leave the game and hit the floor, gambling the night away. The casino, the same group that owns the pro team, owns ALL OF THIS. Any new people they draw in bring additional revenue. There is nothing near Uncasville except Uncasville. You going out to dinner? You’re doing it at the casino. In terms of additional hidden revenue, this move is genius, and I’m sure it factored in to the decision to purchase the WNBA team back in 2002.

This is not an inexperienced ownership group anymore, nor is this a small time business operation. The Philly Wings are now joining a huge corporation, and they are going to use the franchise to sell their gaming experience, restaurants, hotels, and more. The Mohegan Sun Casino wants this team to work, but it could also strengthened by being a part of something much larger and complex.

I don’t think that this model can work everywhere, but I am impressed on many levels by its potential. It’s a sad day for Philadelphia lacrosse, but it’s also one that we should have seen coming for a long time. Pro box lacrosse is simply not ready for the vast majority of larger American cities. It doesn’t draw competitive enough attendance numbers, and even when it does, it’s not as attractive as a concert or WWE event to the majority of arena owners.

Philadelphia is a major American city. Events want to be there, and the local population want those events. While the Philadelphia Wings have a long history of solid success and attendance, it just didn’t produce revenue in the long-term. The average cost is simply too high.The only way it seems to work in these scenarios is to tie the team to NHL and NBA ownership groups. So while a part of me can’t believe that the Philadelphia Wings are leaving Phily, another part of me is still surprised it took this long.

I hope that many of the Philadelphia fans continue to follow the Wings, even if they are understandably hurt. Many of the players could be the same, and I would hope that the Mohegan Sun Casino pushes for the name to remain the same, but it doesn’t look like that will happen right now. Think about the potential down the line here… what if Philly fans kept cheering for the Wings, and many made an annual trip to Mohegan Sun to watch them play. Maybe Mohegan Sun could do a discount package for Philly residents, to help draw them in. Sure, it smacks of corporatism, but it also speaks to Philadelphia’s fanatical sports dedication. That’s a 30 for 30 I would watch: The Wings Faithful – Fans That Just Don’t Quit. Won’t happen, but it would be interesting.

My guess is that the pain will be far too great to forgive the move, and that the name will remain in Philly. but my hope is that someday people see this as a smart move, and something that helped propel the league forward. A lot has to happen for that to come true, but the sad fact is that it wasn’t going to happen in Philadelphia, at least not now. Change was the only option.

Interesting Side Note: If the casino owns the lacrosse team, as they do the basketball team, then players on the lacrosse team will be employees of the casino on some level, right? And employees of casinos can not gamble at those casinos… ergo, pro box lacrosse players for the Mohegan Sun team could not gamble at Mohegan Sun. That’s kind of a weird and random potential outcome.

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