BLAKE SEBRING: ECHL needs to develop more rivalries

Komets center Dennis Kravchenko tangles with Toledo's Kevin Gibson during a game last season. (By Blake Sebring of News-Sentinel.com)

Besides the seventh game of a playoff series going to overtime, the best thing about professional sports is the rivalries. Players love them, fans love to hate them and they’re an easy sell for management.

Except that’s a problem for the Fort Wayne Komets because they really could use a few more rivalries, or, more importantly, the fans need one.

The Komets have a legitimate one with the Toledo Walleye, but thanks to the ECHL schedule maker, Toledo doesn’t come back to Fort Wayne the rest of the regular season. After the Komets play there next Friday, Fort Wayne goes back to the Huntington Center only one more time in the final four months. The supposed rivals, the ECHL’s closest teams in terms of mileage, don’t play again until April 6.

It’s simply ridiculous that potentially the Central Division’s two best teams will basically play once over the final four months of the season.

Yet somehow the league wasted the rivalry by having Toledo play in Fort Wayne on opening night, Thanksgiving night and New Year’s Eve — in other words, three games that would have drawn excellent crowds anyway. It’s a safe bet Toledo fans are just as frustrated that Fort Wayne played against the Walleye in two school-day games which are guaranteed sellouts no matter who the opponent is.

Talk about a waste of three good games!

Conversely, Kalamazoo makes its first trip to Memorial Coliseum tomorrow night, and the Komets have played there once so far.

C’mon, everyone understands putting together a schedule is not easy, but there must be a way to make it more fan-friendly.

Here’s another idea from Toledo broadcaster Matt Melzak: Have sister teams which play each other more often than any other team. In the Central Division, it could be Fort Wayne-Toledo, Kalamazoo-Quad City and Cincinnati-Indy, and let them play 12 or 14 times a season. And then give them four or five home-and-home weekend doubleheaders which should help attendance for both cities. Fans from all the teams should love it for the travel opportunities.

Granted, that wouldn’t work in the Mountain Division where every team travels in for three-game weekends, but it would work in the other three divisions.

There’s a need for rivalries, and the ECHL helps that significantly by playing the first two rounds of the playoffs within the divisions. That allows fans to travel to the postseason games and familiarity breeds contempt which carries over to the next season. Still, there’s always a need for more rivalries.

The Komets have had some spectacular rivalries over the years with Toledo, Indianapolis and Rockford with dozens of incidents in each. Because they always wanted to beat each other so badly, the players always seemed to push each other to another level of effort and performance. Those games brought out a passion in the fans every time because there was always the possibility of something exciting they didn’t want to miss.

What goes into a great rivalry?

* Competition: The closer the teams in terms of quality, the better.

* Proximity: Never hurts to have fans traveling to both teams’ arenas.

* Characters: Somebody needs to stir the pot and focus the fans’ ire.

* Tension: Either bragging or outrage over an incident between games.

* Familiarity: It’s much more fun if fans recognize opposing players.

* Consistency: One of the teams can’t have another rivalry with another team.

* Dislike: There can’t be any fraternization between players or fans.

* Crossover: It adds to the intrigue if one or two key players switch sides.

* Playoffs: Real rivalries are nurtured when it’s win-or-go-home.

* History: You can’t have a rivalry that’s been around less than five years. A new one can always be started, but it needs seasoning.

It used to be that players were the only ones to spark rivalries, but with today’s social media forums/blogs/Facebook fans can help start one. The key is for fans to remember that the best rivalries are more about fun and less about hate.

And the fans — their paying customers — are the big reason why the ECHL needs to do what it can to encourage the rivalries.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not reflect the views or opinions of News-Sentinel.com. Email Blake Sebring at bsebring@news-sentinel.com.

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