I’ve seen enough of the world that few things surprise me anymore. I’ll admit, though, that one piece of news we published recently surprised me: Wytheville is getting a pro hockey team.
Or at least that’s the plan. Wythe County recently announced it would lease the 90,000-square-foot Appalachian Expo Center – often called the Apex Center – to a group that aims to operate a minor league team in the Federal Prospects Hockey League.
A lot has to happen before a team can take the ice next season. The facility, which now has a dirt floor that’s used for rodeos and livestock shows, will need a concrete floor installed to support an ice rink. And the interior will have to be redesigned. The county is already taking construction bids for the work. (See our earlier story by Robert Anderson.)
There’s reason, though, to think the team itself will happen: The president of the company that will be leasing the Apex Center, Barry Soskin, is already a majority owner of three other teams in the league so this seems to be someone who knows what he’s doing.
Still, the question must be asked: Is Wytheville (population 8,293) big enough to support a pro team, even at the minor league level? Let’s take a look.
The Federal Prospects league currently has 10 teams, from New York to Mississippi. The markets range from Winston-Salem, North Carolina (population 250,320), down to Fraser, Michigan (population 14,572), and Harrington, Delaware (population 3,777).
Here’s where we should blow an official’s whistle and bring out the ice machine to make sure the playing surface is nice and even.
The legal definition of a city or a town has no bearing on the economic definition of its market. What we really need to do is understand the size of the market, not the size of whatever political jurisdiction is involved. Even that can be tricky because some of those definitions – such as Metropolitan Statistical Areas – involve some politics too. The real question is: How far would people be willing to drive to see a hockey game in Wytheville? Whatever the answer to that is would be the answer for the market size. This is also something of an unknown answer, absent some market study.
For instance, it’s an hour from Blacksburg to Wytheville and 45 minutes from Blacksburg to the Berglund Center in downtown Roanoke, home of the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs of the Southern Professional Hockey League. Which way would Blacksburg fans prefer to drive? That extra 15 minutes to Wytheville might be worth it depending on the traffic on Interstate 81. If you consider Blacksburg and the rest of the New River Valley part of the market for a hockey team in Roanoke then we need to consider it as part of one for a team in Wytheville, as well.
For our purposes today, let’s do this: Wytheville is part of Wythe County and it’s easy to compare the population of counties from state to state, so let’s use that as our baseline. The population of Wythe County is 28,290. How much of that is in the town and how much isn’t is irrelevant in terms of the market. The total market size is bigger, of course, bringing in neighboring counties. Wythe’s most accessible neighbors are Pulaski County to the north (33,800), Carroll County to the east (29,155), Smyth County to the south (29,800) and Bland County to the west (6,270) with Bluefield, West Virginia (9,499), on just the other side of the East River Mountain Tunnel. All those add up to 108,524 people within a reasonable drive – for a total market size of 136,814 (and that doesn’t count the New River Valley mentioned earlier.) That starts to sound more like a real market, even if we traditionally don’t think of Wytheville as a likely landing spot for a pro team.
Now for more context: Those two small places that already have Federal Prospects teams are both part of bigger markets. Fraser, Michigan, is on the outskirts of the Detroit metro area. Harrington, Delaware, is legitimately smaller, but it’s also about 30 minutes from Dover and is considered part of that metro area. If we’re going to count all of Wythe’s neighbors, then we need to count Dover as part of Harrington’s market – the MSA there is 184,149, so a little bigger than what I just added up for Wythe County and neighbors. Harrington seems to be a good comparison. If hockey can make it there, can it make it in Wytheville?
Another good comparison might be Watertown, New York, home of the league’s Watertown Wolves. Watertown has a population of 24,575 within a county of 116,295, so it might actually be more analogous to Wythe County and the Wythe region than the Delaware team.
We now have some actual statistics to go on – attendance. The Federal Hockey league website says average attendance this season has ranged from 3,261 in Binghamton, New York, for the Binghamton Black Bears to 630 in Watertown for the Wolves. The Delaware Thunder are averaging 700 a game. Of note: The Delaware venue seats 700, so that means the team has been selling out.
What we don’t know is what minimum attendance is required to support a team; the answer to that depends on financial information I obviously don’t possess – the expenses of a team that doesn’t exist. What we do know, though, is that the Watertown Wolves have been around since 2010 and the Delaware Thunder since 2019, so that’s encouraging. Plus, if the Delaware team can never seat more than 700, presumably an average attendance of 700 or something a little south of that is sufficient to financially support a team.
We also have this: According to the HockeyDB.com website, the Watertown Wolves averaged 847 and the Delaware Thunder averaged 499 in 2019-20, the last pre-pandemic season.
We also have another small-market team in a different league to look at: the Vermilion County (Illinois) Bobcats of the Southern Professional Hockey League, the same league that Roanoke’s team plays in. Vermilion County’s population is 74,888; the county seat is Danville, population 29,204, so similar to Wythe County. That’s the smallest market in the SPHL; the team last year averaged 1,492 fans per game, according to the SPHL website, although it’s averaging only 428 per game this year.
These numbers give us a baseline of sorts for some small market hockey teams – from 428 in Danville, Illinois, this year to 1,492 there last year, with Harrington, Delaware, and Watertown, New York, in between. Could Wytheville draw numbers like that?
Once again, we have some actual statistics to go on. They’re from baseball, not hockey, but they still give us some guidance for minor league sports. The Appalachian League used to be a rookie league, the lowest level of the minor league baseball system. Major League Baseball, in the name of efficiency, booted the Appalachian League out. The league then converted to one with college players. Realistically, the same age group as before, just not actual professionals. The Appalachian League says that average attendance in 2022 ranged from 2,106 in Johnson City, Tennessee, to 541 in Bristol. (Based on these numbers, Bristol underperformed at the gate relative to its population.) More relevant to our discussion are the attendance numbers in Bluefield and Princeton, West Virginia – 662 in the former, 685 in the latter. And then there’s Pulaski up the road with an average attendance of 1,546. Pulaski may be an exception; the team owners have invested heavily in upgrading the stadium and had hoped to move in the minor leagues until the MLB brass thought otherwise. Now, there’s a difference between sitting in a ballpark on a summer evening and going out in the dead of winter to a hockey game, but these numbers would seem to suggest there’s a market to be tapped in Wytheville.
It’s not a big market, but if the team owners can make the finances work – and other owners seem to in markets of roughly similar size – then maybe it is a market that can support hockey. Wytheville has been home to a minor league team in the past; the town was home to minor league baseball teams from 1948 to 1989. Future Major Leaguers who put on a Wytheville uniform included Jeff Burroughs, Charlie Manuel, Tony Oliva and Joe Rudi. When the team moved, it wasn’t necessarily because it was losing money; the parent Chicago Cubs wanted stadium renovations that the town wasn’t willing or able to pay for.
The bottom line: A minor league team in Wytheville may seem a stretch, but it would not be as much of an outlier as it seems. Wytheville also sits within range of what has become an unlikely strong hockey market. The Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs are this season averaging 4,950 fans per game, second best in their 11-team league that includes some bigger cities, such as Birmingham, Alabama, and Knoxville, Tennessee. If any of that fan interest extends to Wytheville, then maybe a team in Wytheville is not as outlandish as it may seem. Minor league sports are littered with former franchises that didn’t make it – Roanoke has seen some of those before this current team took hold – but we can’t discount two things that matter. One is an experienced ownership group, something Roanoke now benefits from (but hasn’t always in the past) and which Wytheville seems to have. The other is small-town pride, which counts for a lot, and might quantify itself at the game if the team is marketed properly.
I would have thought that the next pro hockey team in the region, if we ever got one, would have been Lynchburg – that’s the next biggest market after Roanoke, and Liberty University has its fabulous LeHaye Ice Center, which has hosted at least one Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs game in the past when the Berglund Center was booked. (See our previous story on Lynchburg’s ice culture.) But Wytheville has sneaked through the crease, as it were, and may be about to score.
The announcement of this team is certainly a surprise, but if it succeeds, that might not be.