Encountering Bob Kerzner during a Macon Mayhem game is an interesting experience.
He’s not an owner who likes to sit in a box and take things in. He likes to walk around, check on things, interact with others who are in the building. Afterward, he’s around the locker room, talking about things with players and the coaching staff.
The Mayhem franchise is definitely his baby. And the final weeks of the regular season, a stretch in which the Mayhem stepped up their play and made the playoffs at the expense of the rival Columbus Cottonmouths, had to make all of the prep work of getting that opening season off the ground worth it.
Kerzner, general manager Mark Richards and head coach Kevin Kerr deserve credit for putting together a team that finished a full season in Macon — not always a sure thing when it comes to minor league sports — and is looking to come back this fall as an established franchise.
Sure, the team is playing in front of more empty seats than actual fans at the Macon Coliseum. That’s a given when it comes to low-level minor league hockey, and the SPHL doesn’t pretend to be anything bigger than it is. The bar determining success in this league doesn’t need to be set all that high. Think more along the lines of the original “Slap Shot” and less along the lines of the “bigger, better, brighter” concept that drives professional and big-time college sports in the 21st century.
Critics of hockey in Macon — or any minor league effort in Macon, for that matter — point to low attendance figures and say that Macon is incapable of supporting professional sports. While Macon did finish last in the SPHL in attendance during the regular season, the attendance standings don’t paint the full picture of what’s going on with the Mayhem.
Prior to setting up shop in Macon, Kerzner’s franchise played in Augusta. The Mayhem’s inaugural season outdrew every season the RiverHawks had in the SPHL. Augusta drew an average of 1,637 fans in 2010-11, 1,902 fans in 2011-12 and 1,830 fans in 2012-13, the season in which an ice-making system failure at James Brown Arena led to a shutdown of the franchise.
This season, the Mayhem drew 2,094 fans. Not a great number when compared to league-leading Huntsville’s 4,189 average or the league average of 3,034, but Macon wasn’t far off from Louisiana’s eighth-place mark of 2,109 fans, and this season’s effort at the Macon Coliseum’s box office definitely topped that of the Augusta era.
Sure, a crowd of 2,100 looks small in a facility that seats more than 7,000 for hockey. Personally, I would like to see the team draw at least 400 more fans a night in order to consider the Mayhem to be viable long-term. But the Mayhem franchise is doing a good job with some organic marketing efforts — bar and restaurant nights, charity events and the like — efforts that have resulted in a small but loyal fan base.
The franchise also had players come up and become fan favorites, something that lends itself well to building a franchise. Shawn Skelly finished third in the league in scoring, while 6-foot-4 defenseman Travis Howe built himself a bit of a reputation as an enforcer, finishing tied for fourth in penalty minutes. Goalie Garrett Bartus led the league in saves and save percentage.
This first season of the Mayhem wasn’t a bad one. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t a disaster, either. It was successful enough to bring the team back for a second season and see what it can do as an established unit. Bonus points, too, if the Mayhem can talk the soon-to-be-selected new Coliseum management into upgrading some of the fan experience, such as improving the clarity of the public-address system, the ongoing issues with wifi and cellular signals the building experiences and getting some new penalty timers tied into the scoreboards that were installed within the past few years.
The franchise has certainly been a welcome addition to the Middle Georgia sports scene. Let’s see if the right steps can be taken by all parties to make the Mayhem a long-term addition.
SPHL attendance, 2015-16 regular season