Macon had ‘most enthusiasm’ of cities vying for hockey, owner says

pramati@macon.comJune 18, 2014 

For most of the run the Macon Whoopee and Macon Trax had at the Macon Coliseum, Nancy Walthall was known as the unofficial “team mom.”

But when the Trax ceased operations in 2005, Walthall and her husband, Ben, had to get their hockey fix by attending the home games of the Columbus Cottonmouths, Macon’s hated rivals.

A proposed deal, however, between the coliseum and the former Augusta RiverHawks of the Southern Professional Hockey League could mean that the Walthalls and other disenfranchised Middle Georgia hockey fans will get the opportunity to see the newly dubbed Macon Mayhem members lace up their skates in the fall of 2015. Macon-Bibb County commissioners unanimously approved a new contract Tuesday night.

“We’re all excited,” Walthall said. “We’re still waiting to see it happen. We’re all ready for hockey. We want the same seats (we used to have.) ... The fans in Columbus like us now. Every time we go there, they ask, ‘When are you getting a team?’ ”

Spotty sports history

For nearly a decade, the logical answer to that question would have been “never.”

Macon went from being an active part of minor league hockey, baseball, basketball and arena football to a sports ghost town within the span of a couple of years during the middle of the last decade.

The Macon Braves departed for Rome in 2002, and the independent team that replaced it, the Peaches, didn’t last long. The Macon Blaze basketball team lasted just one season, while Macon’s arenafootball2 franchise made it for five years before folding in 2006.

Macon has had a long, disjointed hockey history. The first professional ice hockey game played in Georgia was an exhibition contest at the just-opened Coliseum in 1968 between the Jacksonville Rockets and Nashville Dixie Flyers.

The city’s first pro ice team, the Macon Whoopees, debuted in 1973 but folded before the Southern Hockey League season ended.

The sport was revived in 1995 when the Macon Whoopee joined the Central Hockey League, where it stayed until the 2001-02 season, when the team moved up to the more prestigious East Coast Hockey League. The team folded and the league moved the franchise to Lexington, Kentucky.

Despite the struggles of the Whoopee, a Florida-based ownership group created the Macon Trax, which lasted three seasons in three different minor leagues before the puck was dropped for the final time in 2005, when Macon lost in the championship series to archrival Columbus.

When the team closed its doors, majority owner David Waronker said he had lost about $500,000 over a three-year stretch when he acquired the franchise.

“I said I would give it a shot for a couple of years, and I did,” Waronker said in April 2005. “There’s no one to blame. There’s just no market in Macon.”

But now, nearly a decade later, there appears to be one.

Kevin Dowdell, the director of sales and marketing for the Macon Centreplex, said he first approached the SPHL about the possibility of moving an existing team here.

Meanwhile, RiverHawks owner Bob Kerzner was seeking to relocate the franchise because the cooling system in Augusta’s James Brown Arena had a catastrophic failure in February 2013, forcing the team to play its remaining games that season on the road and go dark for the 2014 season.

Kerzner said he considered a few Southern cities -- Charlotte and Greensboro in North Carolina and Tallahassee and Lake City in Florida -- but Macon became a clear front-runner thanks to local interest and an upgraded ice system.

“Macon seemed to have the most enthusiasm out of all of them,” Kerzner said. “The enthusiasm was phenomenal by the community, by the (Centreplex). It was just fantastic.”

While the Whoopee drew well during its first three seasons, enthusiasm eventually waned. By the time the Trax folded, official attendance was 1,100 a game, but the actual number of people through the turnstiles was fewer than 900.

Kerzner and Dowdell both said the market has changed considerably since then.

“Attendance is always a concern, but I think Macon has changed quite a bit,” Kerzner said. “The area continues to grow, especially the area around the Air Force base in Warner Robins. We’re not just marketing to Macon, but all of Middle Georgia.”

Dowdell noted the team will have about 15 months to assemble a staff, market the team, attract advertisers and recruit fans. Having the Macon Marriott City Center hotel attached to the Coliseum/Wilson Convention Center building -- something that didn’t exist nine years ago -- will only help to draw people to games, Dowdell said.

“One trend is, we have to encompass all of Middle Georgia,” he said. “With consolidation, we’ve made strides, and we’ve made strides in the downtown area. A decade later, (hockey) is very viable. We have 15 months to get this team up and running. But it’s going to take the community to make this work.”

Dowdell said the arena needs to make about $10,000 in repairs and upgrades, but that money will come from SPLOST funds. Kerzner said he hopes the team will have all its equipment moved to Macon by the end of the month.

The five-year rental agreement guarantees the team at least 32 Fridays and Saturdays from October through March, at $2,820 per game. The team would retain all ticket sales revenue.

Proceeds from concessions and parking would go to the coliseum, not the team, Centreplex officials said.

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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