PORTLAND — A five-year lease announced Tuesday afternoon between the Cumberland County Civic Center and Portland Pirates will bring the professional hockey team back to Portland for the 2014-2015 season.
There is also a chance the team could return this season, if it makes the American Hockey League playoffs. On Tuesday, the Pirates were 14th in the AHL Eastern Conference; the top eight teams make postseason play.
Pirates majority owner Ron Cain and Civic Center Board of Trustees Chairman Neal Pratt announced the agreement in a press conference at the Holiday Inn by the Bay on Spring Street.
They said the deal is not substantively different than one rejected by the Pirates last summer, with one key change to how the team will earn revenue from concession sales.
If the state enacts legislation allowing the team to receive a share of revenue from alcohol sales, the Pirates would get 57.5 percent of all concession revenue. Pratt said he is optimistic a bill, introduced by state Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, will become law.
But if it fails, the team and Civic Center management have agreed the team will receive 65 percent of revenue from all non-alcohol concessions.
“It is a fallback that allows us to be a sustainable business going forward,” said Cain, who took over as majority owner from Brian Petrovek last fall after negotiations with the Civic Center trustees broke down and the team moved to Lewiston.
Pratt said the trustees approved the lease on Jan. 29. It was signed by Cain last Friday, Jan. 31.
Pratt and Cain said an informal meeting just after Christmas pushed the process forward, after the team dropped a Cumberland County Superior Court lawsuit that sought to uphold lease terms proposed by the trustees before the team moved to Lewiston.
Pratt said the trustees did not budge from earlier positions about the lease, but said negotiations were not as difficult as had been portrayed.
“They weren’t personally contentious,” Pratt said. “Our job is to protect the public interest, it was our objective all along.”
Since moving to the the Colisee in Lewiston, the team has had a precipitous drop in attendance. In its 2012-2013 season, the Pirates drew 169,000 fans to 38 games in Portland, an average attendance of almost 4,500 per game.
This season, through 22 dates, the team has drawn just under 54,000 fans, or about 2,500 per game.
Cain said he hasn’t been pressured by the American Hockey League or the Phoenix Coyotes, the Pirates’ parent club, to reach a deal. But the financial strain was evident.
“There was internal pressure from my wife because of the money it took to keep this going,” he said.
Pratt said some of the difficulty in negotiations came because of different revenue projections for the Civic Center, which is scheduled to reopen Feb. 15 after a $34 million renovation.
The Pirates will return in October at the latest, and Pratt said there has been no substantive move forward on a indoor lacrosse team proposed as part of the fledgling United States Lacrosse League.
Gorham businessmen Josh Plowman and Tyson Nason last December announced their intention to field a team at the Civic Center, but Pratt said there have been no lease discussions with them.
Cain said he sees the Pirates as part of the state, not just the city, but knows he has to mend some local fences.
“We certainly have made it a journey,” he said. “I’m looking forward to earning the trust back.”
Like Pratt, he suggested it was easier than some would think to reach a deal.
“With a few glasses of bourbon along the way, we got it done,” Cain said.
Neal Pratt, left, chairman of the Cumberland County Civic Center Board of Trustees, and Portland Pirates majority owner Ron Cain, at a Portland press conference Tuesday, Feb. 4, where they announced an agreement on a five-year lease beginning next season.