Portland hockey team celebrates $34m publicly funded arena renovation by moving to Springfield

The owners of the AHL Portland Pirates (that’s Portland, Maine) announced yesterday that they were selling the team to new owners who would move it to Springfield (that’s Springfield, Massachusetts), and everybody in Portland is understandably upset. Some are upset because they’re worried about the effect on local restaurants, which is almost certainly overblown — people in Portland have still got to eat, and they may even spend more of their entertainment dollars eating out now that they don’t have minor-league hockey to occupy their time. Others are upset because of this:

The Pirates, whose season ended Sunday, just completed the second year of a five-year lease with the county. The lease has provisions in the event the team breaks the agreement that limit the damages the arena can claim to $100,000, according to Mitch Berkowitz, chair of the board of trustees for county-owned CIA. He said an executive session of the board is scheduled for Thursday morning.

[Portland Mayor Ethan] Strimling said taxpayers should be upset that they helped pay for a $34 million renovation of the arena in 2013, only to see its anchor tenant leave without warning a few years later.

“Tens of millions of dollars went into that facility,” he said. “When taxpayers put that much money into a project we should have at least been called to the table.”

Yes, you have every right to be upset, Mayor Strimling, though getting mad at the team owners for exercising a $100,000 out clause without calling you first is probably not the most productive way to express your anger. How about getting mad at whichever Cumberland County leaders agreed to spend $34 million on arena renovations for a minor-league hockey team without even getting them to sign a long-term lease that would ensure they stayed in town? In fact, the renovations were approved in 2011 (with one local business leader noting at the time that “the prospect of no Portland Pirates … was just a specter over everybody”), but the lease wasn’t settled on until three years later, which is exactly the wrong way to go about it.

The good news is that the county only breaks even on hockey games anyway, so this will free up some dates for concerts, which could be more lucrative. The bad news is that Cumberland County voters approved spending $34 million on arena upgrades in order to keep their hockey team, and now they have no hockey team. The lesson here: If you’re going to do a quid pro quo, make sure you get the quo before you spend the quid.

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19 comments on “Portland hockey team celebrates $34m publicly funded arena renovation by moving to Springfield

  1. “You exercised an option we jointly agreed to put in the lease! That’s not fair!”

    Some shrewd negotiators they have there in Maine.

  2. I feel like there needs to be a seminar on arena negotiations included in the curriculum at those “Harvard/Kennedy School of Government” weeklong courses that our elected leaders love to attend.

    1. Two things:

      First, I’m stealing that last sentence and make no promises of giving due credit. Sorry Neil.

      Second, Chef is right. There should be some seminar for cities to attend.

  3. Portland Pirates attendance was awful (2185, 2963, and 3363 last 3 seasons). It is insane that any city pay any money to “keep” such illustrious crowds happy. Portland has lots of excellent restaurants that are a draw in themselves (even in the winter).

    Springfield Falcon attendance was awful (3787, 3273, and 3108 last 3 seasons). The draw of the new buyers was certainly not the city of Springfield so they must be getting a pretty sweet deal there. Springfield franchise is moving to Tucson, AZ. Good luck with that.

    1. IIRC, Tucson has tried hockey and it has not been successful. I don’t know what has changed in Tucson to think another team would find success when the hockey team failed and the AAA baseball team moved to El Paso.

      1. It doesn’t matter on attendance. It’s closer to Phoenix than Maine which is why the Coyotes demanded they move there. It’s part of the AHL realignment to make call ups easier and quicker.

        My guess is after the Springfield team vacated, the old ownership group looked for any minor league hockey team that was able to be bought and moved and came across Portland’s team.

        1. I’m surprised the Coyotes didn’t move them into their own building, at a lower price point, like San Jose did. Unless Glendale didn’t need 40 more dates.

    2. Apparently “arena renovations” don’t draw the crowds that they are cracked up to be.

    3. The Pirates had to play the 2014 season up in Lewiston, which would account for the poor 2185 average attendance. The Cumberland County Civic Center was under renovation, and then there were heated (and public) disagreements between the arena and team. The Pirates averaged 4-5,000 before that time.

      Springfield is home to AHL headquarters, and the AHL always tries to have a team there. A similar thing happened in 1994: the Springfield team was bought and moved to Worcester, and the AHL hastily awarded an expansion franchise to Springfield.

      1. That’s almost, but not quite, as good as the original ABA moving their league champion Pittsburgh Pipers to Minneapolis because their commissioner, George Mikan, lived there.


    Sorry. Redact that. I’ve had a few Steveweisers celebrating Liverpool’s win (in NYC, where Neil is “on deadline” and can’t come out to watch mid-grade Euro soccer) and I was HOPING to read a post that respected the eternal truth of Supply Side Economics.

    1. What better way to respect the concepts of lower taxes and less regulation than to spend tax money to warp the free market?

    2. Huh? I’m a Crystal Palace fan…the team who destroyed Liverpool’s chance at the EPL title a couple years ago and…Ben? Where were you going with your comment again?

      1. Selhurst Park is the becoming the Wrigley Field of south London. I hope they never move.

    3. Not only do the corporate welfare dollars warp the free market, Keith: the utterly contrived and artificial scarcity of sports cartels makes any “fundamental” economic arguments moot.

      Like the price of gasoline when long weekends approach, the number of professional (or minor) league sports franchises is what it is because “someone says so”, and not controlled through any natural economic process.

      The invisible hand is very much visible these days, I’m afraid.

  5. Well, the fact that these guys called themselves Pirates should have been a red flag.

  6. The franchise was moved from Baltimore, anyone in Maine who assumed
    that it would not be moved again was ignorant of the obvious – moves happen especially when there’s an easy out.
    How do you spell Portland and the customers? S-U-C-K-E-R-S
    Maybe sports industry sheep will wise up one day…

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