Fight or flight: Jets' future hinges on proposed one-year lease
JANESVILLE--When the Jets landed here in 2009, part owner and President Bill McCoshen said they would put Janesville on the hockey map.
Five years later, McCoshen, his partners and the city of Janesville are working together to keep the Tier II Junior A team a part of the local landscape.
Struggles with paid attendance have Wisconsin Hockey Partners, the Jets' owner, examining the team's long-term viability. The Jets' lease with the city to use the Janesville Ice Arena is set to expire after this season, and the city council Monday night will discuss a proposal to extend the lease one year at a reduced cost.
The proposed lease would result in a $7,450 reduction in revenue to the city.
“We've had some challenges putting butts in the seats the last couple of years, but we want to stay in Janesville long term,” McCoshen said. “I think we came to a fair agreement for both sides. And obviously, if we can make this work, we'll be back having this discussion next year, but hopefully for a longer agreement.”
Affordable family entertainment. Community involvement. A North American Hockey League program that gives players a chance to advance to the college level.
In many ways, the Jets have accomplished their initial objectives.
“I think we've surprised some folks that we're still here in year five,” McCoshen said. “There were some skeptics in town that thought we might not last this long. But we think we have a good product.”
Wisconsin Hockey Partners—a group that includes McCoshen, Mark Cullen, Stephen B. King, William Kennedy, Tobin Ryan, Eric P. Peterson and NHL star Joe Pavelski—has faced troublesome economic times from the start.
The Jets' first season, 2009, came on the heels of the General Motors plant's closing and during the national recession.
Still, McCoshen said, the Jets have worked to remain affordable and have the lowest ticket prices in the NAHL—$6 for students and seniors and $8 for adults.
“Mom and dad can have a beer, and the kids can have a hot dog, and you can do the whole thing for under $50,” he said. “We're proud of that and want to continue that. It's on us to do a better job of reaching out.”
The Jets annually have had several players land Division I college hockey commitments, and they may set a new team record in that department this year.
In nearly five seasons, they've built a 145-108-28 record, and they made the playoffs in their first three seasons.
The team has increased its community involvement over the past two years. The Jets won Forward Janesville's 2013 Community Improvement Award for donating more than 2,200 hours to community service.
Still, the Jets haven't become a viable business venture.
“(Making money) wasn't really the primary objective,” McCoshen said. “But my partners and I want to at least break even on it.”
McCoshen admits he and his partners are at fault for some of the attendance struggles.
For the first four seasons, as the Jets attempted to gain fan support, they gave away tickets.
“Some folks got used to getting the free tickets,” McCoshen said.
The Jets' average attendance peaked last year at 798 fans per game, but that number included many who got in the gate for free.
The Jets shifted from giving away tickets this season, hoping their increased community involvement would be seen as an investment in the city and would be rewarded with paying customers.
Instead, attendance has dipped to a five-year low of 567 per game, according to the NAHL's official figures listed on the league's website.
Janesville ranks 23rd out of 24 NAHL teams in average attendance with six home dates remaining. The Jets rank just behind the Coulee Region Chill, a team based in Onalaska that McCoshen said has experienced similar paid-attendance issues.
Both teams indicated at the league's owners meeting in Michigan last weekend that they will be a part of the league next year. In fact, McCoshen said, there is a good chance all 24 teams will return. It would mark the first time since the Jets joined the league that no team has folded, gone dormant or changed cities.
The Jets have turned to some of the more successful teams for ideas to grow their audience.
“We've been reaching out to a variety of teams, this year in particular, to get their best practices and some of their best ideas,” McCoshen said.
The Ice Arena can hold more than 1,100 fans. McCoshen said the magic number to make the business viable is an average attendance of 750.
“I don't want to sell us short; I'd love to sell out multiple times per year,” he said. “But if we can average 750, we can make it work.
“That's about 1 to 1.5 percent of Janesville's population that we need to average every game. If we do our job, that should be doable.”
The Jets hope a late-season run toward the playoffs will generate a buzz to close out this season. They were in last place out of six NAHL North Division teams entering the weekend, but they were just two points back of fourth place. The top four teams make the league's postseason.
Wisconsin Hockey Partners hopes it could ride that momentum into next season, where it could implement new plans to drive attendance.
Janesville City Council President Kathy Voskuil believes the Janesville Jets are an asset to the community.
She and her fellow council members will discuss the merits of a one-year lease recommended by leisure services and City Manager Mark Freitag on Monday.
Voskuil is the only member of the current seven-person council that was a part of discussions when the Jets signed their initial five-year lease.
“We see great value in having the Janesville Jets and their organization here,” Voskuil said. “They have brought a lot of additional interest in and around hockey in the community. They've brought individuals, groups, tournaments into the city. They've been an economic development tool.
“And I think they've reinvigorated the use of the ice arena.”
The proposed one-year lease is modified from the original in several ways:
n The Jets would see an increase in ice rent on game days, paying $550 per game as opposed to $490 in the past.
n They would pay less to rent the ice for practices, going from $68 per two-hour session to $55.
n For camps and tournaments, the Jets currently pay $100 per hour to use the ice but would pay $50.
n And the Jets currently pay $472 per month in rent for using their locker room, office and storage space. The new rate would be $172.
The city currently makes $39,000 from the Jets, according to the proposal. The new one-year lease would yield $31,550.
In a memo to the council, leisure services recommends the city approve the new lease. “A one year agreement will allow WHP to focus on making the necessary changes and improvements to hopefully increase their average ticket sales per game,” the document states.
McCoshen said Wisconsin Hockey Partners and the Jets would focus on better marketing, especially to casual or nontraditional hockey fans, as well as making game nights at the ice arena more exciting.
“I think the city would like a longer-term agreement, and we understand why,” McCoshen said. “And, truthfully, we'd prefer a longer-term agreement, as well. But we want to make sure the new ideas we're going to implement for next year … work, so we can be successful as a business going forward.”
The proposed one-year agreement might make some residents question the long-term future of the Jets in Janesville, but McCoshen said he and his partners remain optimistic.
“We would've tried to sell the team or move the team if we didn't think it could work,” he said.