Metropolis: Wednesday, May 24, 2006
Barack: ‘With the continued loss of weekend dates ... we just thought it was unfair.’
Bye-Bye Brahmas

Did Fort Worth set out to run off its hockey team?

By Dan McGraw

When Stuart Fraser, the majority owner of the Fort Worth Brahmas hockey club, wanted to solve some disputes over the city’s lease agreement a few months back, he approached Mayor Mike Moncrief. The city staff that negotiates leases for the Fort Worth Convention Center wanted to raise the rent and other fees, and the Brahmas management thought there might be some personal agendas involved.

“I went to [Mayor Moncrief] personally and asked how we could make things better,” said Fraser, vice chairman of a New York investment firm. “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.”

Fraser said Moncrief told him he should work with city staff and not with elected officials. But the “turning point” for Fraser and the team in their decision to suspend operations in Fort Worth for the 2006-07 season, came when the Brahmas looked at the city’s latest lease offer and saw a section that said no member of the Brahmas organization — no staffer, owner, manager, or player — 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.

What’s more, in addition to the higher rent and fee payments, the city asked for $102,000 up front — equal to almost half the lease price — to be placed in escrow and released to the Brahmas only at the end of the season.

Fort Worth events planning director Kirk Slaughter said the no-contact clause — a first-ever in a convention center lease — was inserted because city council members, who were continually being contacted by Brahmas management, wanted those dealings handled by Slaughter and convention center personnel.

It is difficult to figure out how lease negotiations with a hockey team got to the point where private citizens of an organization — including some taxpaying, voting local residents — were denied access to public officials. Neither Moncrief nor other council members would comment, but records obtained by the Weekly make clear there were personality problems between some city council members and Brahmas team president Mike Barack.

In the Brahmas’ nine years here, the relationship between the city and the team had always been a little testy. Barack admits that he can be loud and pushy. And the city has never really liked putting down hockey ice in the convention center and the Will Rogers Center, where the Brahmas also play some games.

In recent years, the team’s record has been abysmal — they finished last in their division for the last four seasons. But the Brahmas have been a steady draw: In five of the last six years, the average actual attendance has stayed at 1,800 to 2,000 per game.(It rose to about 2,700 in 2004-05 when the NHL lockout sent a host of Dallas Stars fans traveling west for their puck fix.)

Unfortunately, while both sides agreed that attendance was a key issue in negotiating a new contract, the city and the team differed on what affected attendance. The city thought a better winning percentage would bring more fans and therefore more money, through increased concessions sales. The Brahmas insisted that the win-loss record had little to do with attendance and that weekend dates were the key. Hence, the problem from the team’s point of view was the Fort Worth Flyers basketball team, which had been given about five premier weekend dates per season that the Brahmas used to have at the convention center. The Brahmas estimate that cost them about $100,000 last year.

(Moncrief told about 100 angry Brahmas fans at a recent city council meeting that the team was leaving because of “lack of attendance.”)

The team thought that, because of the lost revenue from weekend dates, its rent rate should go down. Instead, however, the city wanted to increase the lease rate from $156,000 to $212,000 and 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.

“The Fort Worth taxpayers were being asked to subsidize hockey, and because there was little economic development associated with this, we had to keep the costs in line,” Slaughter said. (The city has made money in some past years off the Brahmas and lost in others, he said.) The city makes money off the sports teams in a variety of ways — rent, a share of concessions revenue and advertising revenue, and parking. Some of those revenue sources — rent and concessions — are included in the lease rate while others are not. When all the bean-adding and bean-subtracting was done, Slaughter said, the city stood to lose about $12,000 this season on the Brahmas.

He said the city asked for the $102,000 upfront by April 28 because of fears that the team might go out of business or move during the season.

Barack said the Brahmas were being asked to pay substantially more than the increased lease rate showed — as much as $100,000 more than last year, he said, because of new and raised fees. “With the continued loss of weekend dates and the increase in our lease, we just thought it was unfair,” Barack said. And despite Slaughter’s words, Barack said, he’s convinced the Brahmas do provide economic development to the city.

And this was another big difference in how the city and the Brahmas saw the team’s importance to the community. Slaughter said the Brahmas are a “local event,” meaning the fans are not bringing in money from out of town.

The Brahmas argue that if each person attending the games spends an extra $20 in Fort Worth, the city gets $132,000 in annual tax revenue. Their case is backed up by the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau, which estimated that fans from other Central Hockey League teams dropped about $1 million in the city each season. Barack said 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.

When the negotiations stalled, Barack started lobbying some council members. Moncrief had told the team to negotiate only with Slaughter and his staff, but 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 — and that Barack was “manic” and “sounds hyper and at end of rope” and “goes between whining and almost yelling.” Neither Breaux, Davis, nor Silcox returned calls for this story.

Jack Germaine, a seven-year Brahmas season ticket holder, said the e-mails prove the city has little respect for the team or its fans. “When I hear they are calling [Barack] manic and hyper while he is trying to work with the city, it’s kind of maddening.” Germaine said. “These are public officials, and they are there to represent the public, including those of us who support the hockey team. Then to have them put a clause in the contract saying no one from the hockey team is allowed to talk to them is even worse. It doesn’t even sound like it is legal.”

Slaughter said the city’s not trying to get hockey in general out of the convention center. In fact, he said, another minor-league hockey team has inquired about relocating to Fort Worth. But he also said that the new hotels being built downtown will draw bigger conventions and may leave fewer dates available for sporting events. Already, he said, there are fewer weekend dates available for 2007-08 than there were this season.

Another part of the problem for local sports teams is the competition with rodeo and cutting horse events for arena space. Will Rogers Center is committed for a full month to the Stock Show, and other equine events take up many other dates. The new rodeo arena being planned by the Bass family on Montgomery Street may have ice, but will also host Western events during the winter.

Fraser thinks the city wants to move out hockey because it did not fit in well with the convention and horse business. “What happened was very disappointing, and I think the Fort Worth citizens should be aware of how we were treated,” Fraser said. “Some of the city staff had decided that setting up for hockey was just a pain in the ass. Well, yeah, hockey is kind of a pain in the ass. But the city is going to learn that if you put all your backing behind minor- league basketball, you’ll be losing both teams. Because the basketball doesn’t draw and never has.”

The numbers don’t lie on that one. The city keeps track of “drop count” attendance numbers for both teams, meaning they count the number of people who actually show up, not the number the team announces (which includes all the free-but-unused corporate tickets). The Fort Worth Flyers had projected an average attendance of 4,000 in its first season, but averaged only 762 butts in the seats, compared to the Brahmas’ 1,810.

Slaughter said the disagreements with the Brahmas are monetary, not personal. Mike Barack “is a good guy,” he said. “We have a good understanding and respect for each other.”

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