Our views: New lease is just first step to retain Jets

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Janesville Jets need help.

Monday night, the city council stepped up and approved a one-year lease that will save the North American Hockey League team money and give its owners time to implement a revised strategy.

Now, it’s largely up to the community.

The Jets’ primary issue is attendance. Sure, they would like to win more games, especially this year, when they’re fighting to secure a playoff berth. But while wins and losses are important, community support in the form of fans in the seats will determine if the team survives.

Bill McCoshen, one of the owners, told Gazette Sports Editor Eric Schmoldt last week that next year will be critical. The Jets are in their fifth year in Janesville, and they have seen attendance drop to its lowest level—an average of 567 fans per game.

The Jets reached a high of 798 fans a game last year, but they reached that number at least partly by admitting people for free. The Jets had given away tickets every year in hopes of building loyalty, but the freebies ultimately spoiled fans and diminished the franchise’s value as an entertainment option.

The team stopped the giveaways this year, and attendance dropped. That’s despite the local ticket prices of $6 for students and seniors and $8 for adults being the league’s lowest.

The Jets’ owners, who say they only hope to break even, learned their lesson and are moving forward with a strategy that doesn’t involve free tickets.

Part of the plan involved getting a small break from the city for the Jets’ use of the ice arena. The concessions approved Monday reduced the Jets’ payment to the city by nearly $7,500 a year. The team will pay about $31,550 next year.

That helps, and the council was right to support the change. The Jets are an asset to a community that is continually looking to increase and enhance its cultural and entertainment options. They play 28 homes games a year and sponsor tryouts, camps  and other events at the ice arena that attract players, parents and fans. The local economy benefits in many ways from the buzz of game nights and the influx of visitors.

The team also won Forward Janesville’s 2013 Community Improvement Award for donating more than 2,200 hours to community service.

The next step is for the Jets to find ways to up the entertainment value. Sure, good hockey is the main draw, but other teams and sports at this level and beyond have a formula that features side games, appearances and giveaways that keep fans engaged and enthusiastic from the time they walk in the door to the time they leave.

McCoshen said the Jets owners have talked to their counterparts at teams with strong attendance to learn their tricks. The popular Madison Mallards summer baseball team might offer ideas, as well.

This season is winding down, with 11 games left on the Jets’ regular-season schedule. If the team gets hot, the playoffs could follow. Every game, especially at home, is critical to the Jets’ success.

Next year, however, is when the puck really hits the ice. McCoshen said the team hopes to be in Janesville for many years, but the lease change and the attendance challenge make it clear that 2014-2015 could be a make-or-break season.

Will the community step up and support the team in the numbers that it needs to remain viable? Check back in a year for the answer.

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