Thursday, July 15, 2010

An unofficial history of the Texas Brahmas

Part Four - Negotiations

The Brahmas were struggling to reach a new lease agreement with the City Of Fort Worth that would allow the team to play its 10th season in the Fort Worth Convention Center and Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum.

But sharing the convention center arena with a new professional basketball franchise was adding to a strain on relations between the city and the Brahmas.

In March of 2005, the National Basketball Association announced that four Southwest cities, including Fort Worth, had been approved for National Basketball Development League franchises for the 2005-06 season. The teams would be owned and operated by Southwest Basketball LLC, led by former Indiana Pacers general manager David Kahn.

Kahn originally wanted to play at the Will Rogers Coliseum but local investors convinced him that playing downtown would be a better option. Besides, the coliseum only had five days available when no other events were booked. Kahn met with Stuart Fraser in New York in 2004, but Fraser assured him that bringing a basketball team into the convention center would be a mistake.

“Stuart said it was a terrible idea,” Barack said. “All it was going to do was hurt everybody. It would hurt the Brahmas, it would hurt them and it’s not a good idea.”

The City of Fort Worth, represented by director of public events Kirk Slaughter, on the other hand thought it was a great idea, no doubt swayed by the promise that a minor league basketball team could draw 4,000 to 4,500 fans to each of its 23 home games. This despite two recent failed attempts to bring basketball to the convention center. But Slaughter was optimistic because of the NBA affiliation.

The Flyers and the Brahmas seasons would overlap - the Brahmas season stretched from October to March, while the Flyers season would begin at the end of November and finish in April. The Brahmas, who had been a tenant of the city for nine years, knew that sharing the arena with the Flyers would mean that the team would be competing for the already limited number of available weekend dates that were crucial to the teams’ financial well-being.

But the city believed that a compromise was necessary; that the Brahmas would lose some premium dates in fairness to the Flyers. If minor league basketball could bring in as many fans as the Brahmas, it would be a win-win for the convention center and the City of Fort Worth as a whole given the additional revenue that the fans would bring to the area.

The Brahmas attendance averaged about 4,200 per game in the previous three seasons, with an increase of about 400 per game during the 2004-05 season due to the National Hockey League strike which brought hockey starved Dallas Stars fans to Fort Worth.

As it was the Brahmas were seeing fewer and fewer weekend dates in each of the previous three seasons. During the 2002-03 season, 30 of their 32 home games were scheduled for either Friday, Saturday or Sunday. That was reduced to 27 weekend dates in 2003-04 and 24 in 2004-05.

Kenneth Barr, who served as the Mayor of Fort Worth from May 1996-May 2003, was retained by the Brahmas as a consultant for their lease negotiations. Barr represented the Brahmas in several lease meetings with the City of Fort Worth and Fort Worth Convention Center decision makers.

During the 2005-06 season, the Brahmas were asked to share advertising space and to work with a home ice schedule that only promised 20 weekend dates. The increase in the number of weeknight dates was a killer for the Brahmas who benefited from the turnout of families and that just didn’t happen on work and school nights. The city temporarily reduced the team’s rent from $195,000 to $170,000, but it made little difference to the teams’ bottom line.

As a result of the new schedule, the Brahmas saw their attendance fall to an average of 3,801, down by 800 from the previous season. At the time, the Brahmas relied solely on three areas of revenue in order to maintain its business operations. This included ticket sales (season, group, and individual game), corporate sponsorships (advertising with the team and at the Fort Worth Convention Center) and merchandise sales. The team estimated that the reduced number of premium dates had cost the team between $80,000 and $100,000 in revenue. For a franchise operating on a paper thin profit margin, that was intolerable.

It was clear that the number of weekend dates available in coming seasons would continue to decrease. Competition with rodeo and cutting horse events for arena space, not to mention

The Fort Worth Flyers meanwhile, posted a 28-20 record in their inaugural season and advanced to the D-league finals, only to lose in a 119 to 108 match against the Albuquerque Thunderbirds, but they fell far short of putting bodies in seats. The team’s average “drop count” attendance in its first season was 762, according to the city of Fort Worth.

“We kept thinking that they’d see the light at the end of the tunnel in that, you know, it’s not a good idea; they’re not drawing fans, their operation was bad, the dates were not helping anybody and we kept pressing it thinking that the basketball team might go away,” Barack said.

But scheduling was just one of the issues that the Brahmas were dealing with. The city asked the Brahmas for a $210,000 minimum guarantee for the 2006-07 season, which was a $40,000 increase from the previous season. The Brahmas reportedly countered with a guarantee in the neighborhood of $190,000.

The new lease would also add fees that the Brahmas hadn’t had to pay in past years. In effect, staffers said the city should no longer have to absorb some costs — for creating the ice and erecting the “boards” that outline the playing surface and carry advertising — that are peculiar to hockey.

It takes approximately $212,000 for the city to cover its costs of putting the Brahmas on the ice, according to Kirk Slaughter, public events director for the Convention Center and Will Rogers.

"It’s a very expensive venture," Slaughter said. "Just to build the ice takes three days. We want to recapture some of the costs in producing the sport. We’ve tried to accommodate the Brahmas the best we can, but we are in a situation where we need to cover our costs.”

In addition to the higher rent, the city asked for $102,000 up front, which was equal to almost half the lease price, to be placed in escrow and released to the Brahmas only at the end of the season.

Slaughter said that the city asked for the $102,000 up front by April 28th because of fears that the team might go out of business or move during the season, which was ridiculous, given the long relationship between the Brahmas and the City of Fort Worth.

The city also disputed the economic impact that the Brahmas organization provided to the Fort Worth area.

Their case is backed up by figures from the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau, which estimated that fans from other Central Hockey League teams spent about $1 million in the city each season.

In addition, the team had donated $250,000 in cash and $2.5 million in free tickets and gear over the years to charities such as the Lena Pope Home, Christ’s Haven for Children, and John Peter Smith hospital. Not to mention the community programs that the organization offered at no charge to area youth, such as Blacktop Brahmas, their annual summer series of free inline hockey clinics featuring a traveling hockey rink which made an average of 30 stops throughout the Tarrant County area. Other programs included Grades for Blades, an incentive program that rewards academic achievement with game tickets, and Healthy Goals, a co-sponsorship with Harris Methodist Hospital that sends players into local schools and focuses on teaching the importance of being prepared to make good decisions.

But perhaps the biggest insult was the addition of a no-contact clause in the lease agreement which said that no member of the Brahmas organization at any level was permitted to speak with “any elected official of the City of Fort Worth.” Any contact by the Brahmas with a city council member would automatically terminate the contract.

When negotiations with Slaughter and convention center personnel stalled, Barack started lobbying council members.

“My job is to represent the Brahmas here and I didn’t feel like we were being heard by the staff, so I contacted some of the council members,” Barack said.

According to the Fort Worth weekly, Barack called and e-mailed Wendy Davis, whose district contains the convention center, and Chuck Silcox, who was then the mayor pro tem. On March 21, Davis responded to Barack that she was trying to get better information from city staffers, but “you do not have to keep e-mailing me every day.” Silcox aide Sandi Breaux e-mailed the convention center staff to report that Barack had contacted the councilman’s office eight times between April 5 and April 13.

“They were slowly but surely eating up more weekend dates, not just for us but for them and then they came up with this crazy lottery idea in which we would go into a room and select dates and we just said that’s outrageous,” Barack said.

“I went to him (Mayor Moncrief) personally and asked how we could make things better,” said Fraser. “He said we should win more games. It was kind of insulting, because it was almost as if he had no idea how our business works and how we are important to this community. I just got the feeling that he viewed us as a tenant and nothing more.”

Moncrief’s point couldn’t be fully dismissed though. Years of losing is bad PR for any city and from the city’s standpoint, the perception was that a team with a winning record would be drawing more fans which would in turn sell more hot dogs, cokes and parking spaces. This may or may not have translated to more preference in scheduling. Regardless, the City of Fort Worth was more interested in attracting conventions and with the new Omni hotel being built next to the convention center, the concerns of a less than successful minor league hockey team, despite the team’s history of

It probably didn’t help that the Brahmas had an out of town owner either.

Despite all the bad blood, Barack always thought the longstanding relationship between the Brahmas and the City of Fort Worth would prevail and that a deal could be made.

“We believed that with the history of our consistency, with the history of our payment structure, so on and so forth, we’d be able to work something out and press the lease negotiations to go in our favor,” Barack said. “It was a combination of a continuation of a culmination of negative and really poor business options that they were presenting us which made it impossible to proceed.”

In the end, that wasn’t so and the decision to suspend operations was on the table. With the reduced number of premium dates, the Brahmas would see what would amount to a permanent reduction from all of its revenue sources.

Next up: Ceasing Operations

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