Monday, July 13, 2009

Albany River Rats Up For Sale?

Anybody have a few hundred thousand dollars? How about a few million?

Columnist Mark McGuire of the Albany Times Union says the River Rats are up for sale. In an article printed Sunday, McGuire writes owner Walter Robb "is actively shopping his Albany River Rats with the proviso the franchise stays in town."

Rumors have been floating around that Robb, 81, has been looking for a buyer, but nothing in print until now.

The McGuire column is actually centered on Albany's arena football team, the Firebirds, which is also owned by Walter Robb. The article, titled "'Birds unlikely to return," gives a grim outlook for the chances of arena football coming back to Albany next season.

"There are four reasons to own a pro sports franchise," writes McGuire, "vanity; a sense of responsibility toward a community; a desire to have fun; and to make money. And unless you realize that last reason, the first three won't matter much for very long."

The River Rats are only mentioned once in the article, but similar concepts apply to the hockey club. Both franchises lose money and draw similar attendance at their games.

This brings up the dreaded "doomsday" question. How long will the River Rats remain in Albany?

For the time being, the owner of the Rats is looking for a buyer that will keep the team in town. But what if there are no takers? How long will Robb wait? How long before outsiders start making bids?

The economy is not what it used to be and the luxury of owning a team is not something most folks can afford. Franchises that do not turn a profit will soon be an endangered species.

Any local buyer for the Rats has to be willing to lose money or break even for at least the first few seasons.

In order to keep the River Rats in Albany long-term, attendance needs to pick-up...big time.

Out of the 29 AHL teams last year, Albany ranked 27th in attendance, averaging 3,539 people a game. Only the Lowell Devils and Quad City Flames (now relocated) did worse.

The Rats have a dedicated and loyal fan base, but those fans need to start bringing their friends. Otherwise, AHL hockey will soon be on the way out of Albany.

The Adirondack Phantoms are scheduled to move to Pennsylvania in three to five years. The Brooks Group, which owns the Phantoms, has expressed interest in buying another AHL franchise to keep in Glens Falls permanently.

How would fans in Albany feel about the Rats moving to Adirondack?

How would fans of the Rats feel about the team moving to New Jersey or Canada?

Make no mistake, these are all very real possibilities.

The Albany River Rats are the fourth oldest franchise in the AHL, surpassed only by the Hershey Bears (1938), the Rochester Americans (1956) and the Providence Bruins (1992). The Rats, along with the Portland Pirates, were launched in 1993. The River Rats won the Calder Cup in 1995.

It would be a shame to see them go.