I've been going to a lot of Trenton Titans games recently since I moved back to the Mercer County area after a decade away. Even though they're a Flyers affiliate, with Scott Wedgewood in goal most nights and now Kelly Zajac, there are some Devils prospects to watch. With no NHL, it's worth it, so I got a partial game plan.
However, when I now walk around Sun National Bank Center, it's like a bad movie where a person returns home and finds a ghost town in the place of what once was.
When the arena opened in 1999, games were packed, concerts were drawn there, and food stands were teeming. Even President Bush spoke there. It was another boost to the city which already had the successful Trenton Thunder AA baseball team.
But attendance declined every year since the Titans inception. The Devils purchased the team in 2006-07 & renamed them the Trenton Devils in 2007-08. Then as urban legend would have it, attendance plummeted even more - all because of the name "Devils." Local writers said it, fans said it and it has really made me want to do some digging to get to the bottom of this.
Did the Devils kill hockey in Trenton? Or did Trenton kill hockey?
While it is hard to deny the re-branding alienated existing fans, I get what the Devils were trying to do: mark their territory in the most divided county in the state when it comes to sports.
It was a worthy shot, if the time and money were invested in promoting the team and involving the community. IIt's true that when the Titans were brought back in 2011-12, attendance rose a little from the T-Devs ECHL worst of 2,390 the year before. But it's a far cry from the 7,000 average in 1999-00.
Why the Trenton Devils did so poorly is still an open question. The factors I came up with are:
1) Geography & name change. While Trenton is at the center of the state, to the immediate west & south is enemy Flyer territory. Throw in many mixed fan bases of Ranger, Flyer & Devil fans in Mercer County, and the only loyal Devil fan base nearby is in Ocean and Monmouth Counties.
2) Timing. The Rock opened in 2007, the same year the Devils chose to re-brand the Titans. Why would NJ fans want to see ECHL hockey, when you could check out the new arena in Newark? The Titans pulled from Flyer & Ranger fans who were priced out of their NHL team games (or sold out). The NJ Devils never had that luxury. Why stretch your fan base thinner? Combine it with the 2008 Economic Collapse and the T-Devs just came in at the worst possible time.
3) Winning Record - The T-Devs made the playoffs once and got eliminated in Round 1. But how much does losing even matter to an ECHL team? (See geography).
4) The decline of Trenton. While Newark got an enigmatic mayor, Trenton had a veteran on the outs and currently has one who is under federal investigation for corruption. One of the famous DeLorenzo's pizzas left town last year and the last one will be gone a year later. They laid off a ton of cops. Trenton is worse than Newark and there is little hope on the political front.
In part 2, I will be analyze the attendance numbers and compare them to similar ECHL teams, AHL teams and the Devils themselves. I'll try to answer the question if Trenton is the next Camden or if the T-Devs dealt a near fatal blow to hockey in the city. And if it's both or "all of the above" which factors mattered more?
I know many here just shrug their shoulders and incorrectly say "Meh - it's South Jersey." But you also might not understand this area is the Kashmir of New Jersey sports loyalties and it's not that easy.
The Titans seem re-energized by the lockout and games have been fun; but the average attendance is hovering around last year's. The good news is that the owner is committed to the area.
I'll leave you with this farewell piece by Mike Ashmore who covered the T-Devs and Titans for the Hunterdon County Democrat and the Trentonian. It really gave me clues to how the Devils run their hockey operations from the NHL on down. It did not leave me with a good taste in my mouth . . . which is why I wanted to break everything down further.