In-line coming on-line

Roller Hockey International's premier season ground to a close earlier this month.Buoyed by strong fan support at several franchises in the 12-team league - average team attendance ranged between just under 2,000 to more than 8,000 - organizers are confident their...

Roller Hockey International’s premier season ground to a close earlier this month.

Buoyed by strong fan support at several franchises in the 12-team league – average team attendance ranged between just under 2,000 to more than 8,000 – organizers are confident their balmy weather brand of professional hockey is here to stay.

For the uninitiated – and they are legion – rhi is a newly formed professional sports league that plays Canada’s favorite game on vinyl or smooth concrete, rather than ice, using in-line skates, rather than ice skates.

But even if the concept of professional roller hockey proves to have legs among fans and future players growing up with the game, rhi still has a tough job ahead as it tries to pry open the sponsorship coffers of national advertisers.

During its initial season, the league awarded franchises to 12 teams, three in Canada and nine south of the border.

For the 1994 season, league organizers plan to add at least four new teams, one of which will be located in Montreal.

But interest by prospective franchise owners has been so strong – the league has received nearly 40 franchise deposits of $50,000 – there is talk of adding eight new teams.

Although most of the 1993 franchises succeeded in signing minor sponsorship deals with local media organizations, retailers and small beverage companies, support by a major brewer or soft drink manufacturer has proved elusive.

Sponsors

In Toronto, for example, the Planets were sponsored by The Fan 1430, an all-sports radio station, eye, a weekly news and entertainment newspaper, and Curzons, a fitness club located in the SkyDome.

But Labatt Breweries of Canada and Molson Breweries both elected to pass on the team when approached in June.

And spokespeople for both national brewers say their response will be the same if any rhi teams, or the league itself, come calling before the 1994 season.

The story gets no better at Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola Canada, both of Toronto.

Roger Baranowski, Pepsi-Cola’s director of brand marketing, says there are simply too many sports properties looking for too few dollars.

‘We’ve already committed our sports dollars for 1994,’ Baranowski says.

Manufacturers

Fortunately for the league, manufacturers of in-line skates and roller hockey gear were quick to take a position right from the outset.

Karhu USA, maker of Joffa hockey sticks, is the official puck supplier.

And Toronto-based Canstar Sports Group, maker of Bauer Precision In-Line Skates, was the league’s official equipment and jersey supplier and will continue in that capacity next year.

But according to observers, major sponsors will likely continue to reject the league until it proves it has the stuff to be a big league player.

One of rhi’s challenges in this respect is to convince fans that its brand of roller hockey is the one to watch – and not that of a competing league, World Roller Hockey League.

wrhl is a kind of fake-wrestling version of roller hockey, produced in-house by the u.s. sports network, espn.

While hockey purists can be expected to shun wrhl, the ersatz league has espn’s financial backing and guaranteed national tv exposure, so it is well-positioned to build fan support and pursue sponsorship dollars.

For its part, rhi is still looking to land a network tv deal.

This year, a regional u.s. network ran delayed broadcasts of a limited number of games, some of which were picked up by The Sports Network for rebroadcast in Canada. tsn still intends to run four play-off games in the fall.

But no plans have been set for next year.

Jeffrey Elliott, tsn’s director of programming, says tsn is interested in working with rhi in 1994 if it can source games from a host network, but he explains no decision will be made until tsn works out its 1994 schedule.

Running strongly in its favor, rhi has gained the support – both spiritual and in a business sense – of many former National Hockey League stars.

Indeed, the management and coaching ranks of the league are peppered with former nhlers, including ex-Montreal Canadiens star Ralph Backstrom.

Backstrom says he believes the league will prove popular among young people in Canada and also in the u.s., where a scarcity of ice surfaces has blocked ice hockey from developing into large-scale participatory sport.

In Vancouver, the Voodo team is working with McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada to develop the McDonald’s Highwheelers Minor Roller Hockey League.

Similarly, the Toronto Planets have opened a skating school called Planet Skate Skool and put together a demonstration team of skilled in-line skaters, Skate Force, which performs during home game intermissions.