Wednesday, 3 May 2017

End Of An Era

There was hope that this story wouldn't be written, but it seems that the wheels were set in motion for this story some time ago. As I reported last week, the SPHL grew by one team, but today's news indicates that the SPHL will go into the 2017-18 season with twelve teams once again. It was announced today that the Columbus Cottonmouths will suspend operations for the upcoming season as no buyer for the franchise was found in time for the team to be iced next season. For a team that has attracted a lot of attention with the likes of goalies Andrew Loewen dancing and Shannon Szabados making all sorts of history, see the Cottonmouths on the sidelines next season will be a tough pill to swallow.

The Columbus Cottonmouths have been a part of the SPHL since its founding 21 seasons ago. As one of the initial clubs in the league, there was hope that a buyer for the franchise could be found before the announcement was made today that the Cottonmouths would suspend operations for the 2017-18 season. Instead, SPHL Commissioner Jim Combs delivered the following statement,
"This has been a tremendously difficult decision for Wanda Amos. As one of the founding members of the SPHL, the Cottonmouths have been an integral part of the league for 13 years. On behalf of the league and its Board of Governors, I would like to thank Wanda for her numerous contributions to the city of Columbus and the entire SPHL. The league is in the final stages of securing new ownership in order to bring the team back for the 2018-2019 season."
Hope springs eternal in that last line as it appears the league is working with a new ownership group to bring the club back for the 2018-19 season, but the lights will remain dark in the arena when to comes to hockey next season in the Georgia city. However, the realities of the financial commitment that saw the team leaking red ink for the last number of seasons prompted Wanda Amos to decide to close the book on her chapter of ownership.

"I have loved it, and this started with wanting to do something for the community," Amos told the Ledger-Enquirer in March. "But there comes a time when this is not smart business any more."

While the Amos' were certainly owners who enjoyed having a hands-on approach, the reality is that the insurance businesspeople simply weren't willing to bleed red ink any longer. There have been positive seasons, but the Cottonmouths have lost money nearly every year. Most years, Amos told Chuck Williams, the losses neared or exceeded six figures. While Shelby and Wanda will retain the franchise's rights during the suspended season, there was hope they wouldn't have to retain those rights for that length of time.

"We have a gentleman who didn't have time to complete the due diligence and launch it the way he wants to launch it," Combs told Williams, and they hope to have an announcement within the next 45 days. When asked if there was a deal in place, Combs replied, "That could change. This group wants to keep it in Columbus."

The Cottonmouths have some history in Georgia when it comes to banners hanging in the Columbus Civic Center since 1996. The Snakes have played in three different leagues grabbing two regular season titles, three division titles, and three championships. They captured the CHL's Levins Cup in 1998 and the SPHL's President's Cup in 2005 - the first-ever SPHL Championship - and in 2012. In 2004, the Cottonmouths were set to join the ECHL as the Gulf Coast Swords after ownership announced their intentions to move their franchise to the Bradenton-Sarasota area in Florida, but the collapse of the arena deal forced the ECHL to revoke their membership and the team remained in Columbus after the majority of the ownership stake being sold to the Amos family.

If there's a future with this new ownership group, they have to find a way to make the Cottonmouths profitable again. While Wanda and Selby Amos made up the differences with their insurance company, businesspeople aren't in business to lose money year after year after year. They got some boosts from having players like Jerome Bechard, Andrew Loewen, and Shannon Szabados in their lineups over the years, but the sustainability of the franchise relies on turning a profit. Minor-pro hockey suffers greatly when even one team in a league is losing money year after year.

I have no idea who this new gentleman is that Combs identified above, but let's hope that he has some new ideas on how to make some money with the Cottonmouths. Otherwise, the next article about the team's time in Columbus could be a lot more grim.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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