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Monday, April 21, 2014
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Gazzolo Column: Is this area really a good market for sports?

Last Modified: Saturday, May 25, 2013 7:16 PM

By Jim Gazzolo / American Press

The Swashbucklers are the latest professional team to fold in Lake Charles.

After a solid nine-year run, the Bucs hit the ultimate low last week when they were forced to close up shop.

Lack of interest and low ticket sales were the reason given. The reality might run a lot deeper than that.

The Bucs are not the first minor league franchise to lose an economic battle with the Lake Area. We’ve seen this before.

The Ice Pirates exited after four seasons as a hockey team, professional baseball has been gone for years and pro basketball teams have been here and gone quicker than spring thunderstorms.

Some even made less noise.

But the Bucs seemed different. They seemed ready to lead a charge into what all are expecting to be an economic boom.

However, the team went bust before the boom could arrive, leaving Lake Charles and its surrounding neighbors with only McNeese State to call its own.

“That is what made it sad,” said Swashbucklers President Chris Meaux. “We had big plans. They just didn’t work out.”

Now the question turns to, why?

Maybe more importantly, we must ask if Lake Charles and the area is really a good market for sports.

Southwest Louisiana is great for sportsmen for sure, but professional sports operate in the world of those willing to watch, not those wanting to take part in the action.

“I’m not sure about the market,” Meaux said. “I’m not sure if we misread the market, or if the public knows what it wants.”

The Swashbucklers’ numbers were down this year, no question. There was cause for concern from the first game on, as interest waned.

Add the fact that the town’s facilities are old and you have a product that appeared stale.

With poor lighting and dark walls the Civic Center sometimes makes you feel like you are watching a game in a dungeon not a sports arena. The same holds true when McNeese’s basketball teams play in the old building.

It’s like ordering French toast and getting burnt bread.

“A lot of things hurt us from a facility stand point,” Meaux said. “The Civic Center is not set up for a modern-day sports organization.”

He cited the lack of an updated video board, press box and better equipment for scorekeepers and, of course, outdated locker rooms.

“You have to be able to use your building to get extra revenue now,” Meaux said. “That has to be a drawing card as well as the team.”

However, the Swashbucklers and others have worked in the past and many believe they can work again.

“I think it is a good market,” said Lake Charles Mayor Randy Roach. “Teams have to be marketed properly and you have to find a way to attach the team to the clients.”

Meaux said he believes that in order for a team to work in Lake Charles, the club and local officials must work together.

“You need that public-private partnership so the city or area is involved with the stadium and the product,” he said. “You have to worry now about workman’s compensation laws, accident insurance and arena’s need to work as partners. The community has to be just as vested.”

Getting fans to buy in is also a big deal.

This season’s Swashbucklers went away from homegrown talent for better players across the board. They are a much better football team than last year but might not be a better product for those who want to watch their guys play.

“This is the type of town that will get close to its teams,” said McNeese Athletic Director Tommy McClelland. “In the past, the Swashbucklers had a lot of players from McNeese and they became a kind of extension of McNeese and I think people could relate to that.

“I’m not saying they should be made up of just McNeese players, but people knew them and I think they liked that fact.”

That would mean Lake Charles is a small town and it’s hard to get your foot in the door with new ideas.

“I don’t know if that is the case,” Roach said. “We will have to take a look at what happened with the Swashbucklers and see what worked and what didn’t.

“They were a big part of our community and seeing them go was a complete surprise.”

If this caught Roach by “complete surprise” then he wasn’t following the numbers closely.

Thom Hager, the man who ran the Swashbucklers before Meaux’s group, thinks it can still work if done right.

“You need to find the right niche and work it,” Hager said. “You have to tap into the people. It is not just all about the game, you have to give them a reason or an event.

“It takes more than just a good product on the field. You have to back your product up by getting the word out any way you can. You have to find out what works and pound it.”

Hager suggested that maybe Lake Charles is more of a youth market, that you have to start getting folks involved when they are young and through the youth leagues.

“If you can get the kids interested the parents will follow,” Hager said. “Lake Charles can work again.”

But for how long?

A few years back Sulphur hosted the women’s Nationa Pro Fastpitch championships in back-to-back summers. The first year things were great, but it was marketed as Jennie Finch’s good-bye tournament.

With Finch retired the tourney struggled the following season with smaller crowds and has not returned.

Does that mean Lake Charles is a one-hit wonder?

“That was different,” Hager said. “That was about Jennie.”

The area clearly rallied around the Wounded Warriors last summer when they went to Sulphur for a pair of softball games. Hager said that showed the potential for the area.

And while McNeese basketball is hardly a big draw, football still does well despite being in competition with LSU and other area schools.

“I think our football program has a good history and will continue to be a big part of the community,” McClelland said. “We are able to draw on that history and sell it.”

But both the Civic Center and Burton Coliseum are hardly great places to play so Cowboys basketball teams have struggled to fill seats despite both men’s and women’s squads having pretty solid runs of success.

And, of course, every time LSU comes over for a game, or even Louisiana-Lafayette or Lamar, crowds do pick up.

Also, the state high school softball tournament set an attendance record this year despite the lack of local teams.

So the area will support some sports, but what about a professional team?

Meaux and his group had big plans. There was talk of a minor league baseball team, a new field, a sports complex for the Swashbucklers and maybe a pro soccer team of some type.

They wanted to ride the expected wave and make their own little sports paradise right here is Southwest Louisiana.

At best that is in limbo, at worst it’s dead.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Meaux said. “I don’t know if I will stay in sports or not. I will have to take some time and see.”

Roach said about the same thing when it came to those plans.

“I hope they are not all dead, we just will have to wait and see.” he said.

Just what will become of the Swashbucklers we don’t know. For now the team will play only on the road but practice in Lake Charles, nomads in their own building.

While their future remains in flux so does that of the local sports scene.

“I think another team will come in here,” said former Swashbucklers quarterback Freddie Harrison. “At least I hope so.”

Like many he sounded more like a man hoping instead of knowing.

Game time is approaching somewhere now, just not in Lake Charles.

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Jim Gazzolo is managing sports editor. Email him at jgazzolo@americanpress.com

• • •

Jim Gazzolo is managing sports editor. Email him at jgazzolo@americanpress.com

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