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Hockey’s Green Bay Packers? ECHL Elmira Jackals become ‘community owned’

Greg Wyshynski
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There are 71 hockey franchises in the U.S. Were one to rank them based on size and strength of market, Elmira would sit at No. 71. 

The western New York city population of 29,200 according to the 2010 census, is home to the ECHL’s Elmira Jackals. Every winter, the hockey team owns the hearts and minds of thousands of fans in the community.

Now, it’s the community’s turn to own the hockey team.

Chemung County Executive Tom Santulli and Jackals co-owners Tom Freeman and Nate Cook announced on Wednesday that the ECHL team was being turned over to the community. The owners are essentially donating the franchise to Elmira – they’ll receive no public money, but the community will benefit from whatever profits the Jackals make.

 

The Green Bay Packers were cited as an inspiration, as the NFL team remains one of the only community-owned franchises in pro sports and a thriving one at that. Pending ECHL approval the team expects to receive, the Jackals will be similarly for the people and by the people.

Well, some of the people.

The team announced that a board of directors comprised of local business leaders, politicians and fans will have control over the Jackals’ profits. Anything above cost – salaries, arena operations, marketing budget – are funds the community will control for various charitable aims, including promotion of youth hockey in the area.

The more the community spends on the Jackals at home games, the more money ends up helping the community.

It’s like the largest charity bake sale in hockey history.

“This is a small community, embracing the only sports team in the area,” said Jared Abbott, assistant general manager of hockey operations and the team’s communications director.

What's an ECHL team worth? As late as 2008, the franchise fee was around $1.5 million. The annual budget for a typical ECHL team is anywhere from $2-4 million. 

The Jackals began play in 2000 as a member of the UHL, moving to the ECHL in 2007 as an affiliate of the Columbus Blue Jackets; then the Ottawa Senators; then the Anaheim Ducks; and now the Buffalo Sabres and the AHL Rochester Americans.

Attendance as been as high as 3,600 people per game; last season, it stood at 2,629 fans per home date at First Arena.

In 2012, that arena faced foreclosure, so an Elmira businessman named Tom Freeman stepped up and purchased the building in downtown Elmira. Later, with partner Nate Cook, he purchased the Jackals as well.

Freeman and Cook will still have control of the arena and the hockey operations part of the Jackels. The marketing, ticketing and advertising will still be under the team’s control as well. But when it comes to the profits they make above cost – from ticket, advertising and other sales – the control moves to the community board of directors, who will determine their use.

Unlike the Packers, no stocks will be sold to residents. Their proxy is the board of directors. “We need people who know how a business is run,” Santulli told the Star Gazette.

This decision comes at a critical time for the team. Minor league hockey franchises are relocated every season. There was a need to revitalize the fan base, create interest in the downtown arena and strengthen the bonds between the team and its city.

“We don’t want this team moved to another city,” Freeman told the Star Gazette.

Abbott downplayed the relocation angle as something that forced this partnership.

“No one was threatening to leave. There wasn’t a threat,” he said. “At the same time, there’s always a chance that if someone wants to buy a pro hockey team, they can contact [another city’s] pro ownership.”

Relocation remains a possibility, though, which is why this rallying-to-the-cause card was played. Santulli, who was contacted for this story, called it “crunch time” for the city and its line pro team.

If the Jackals fail to turn a profit? Well, The Leader (NY) reports that taxpayers are in no danger of losing money. In fact, since the board controls the profits, any sale of the team would then benefit Elmira.

But Abbott doesn’t believe the team is headed there.

The positive momentum from this community “donation” is one reason. The upgrades to First Arena are another. Not only does it have its own microbrewery, but there’s a new LED scoreboard to allows fans to access five different camera feeds and watch the game on their smartphones.

(Seriously, how cool is that?)

It’s all about getting back to the roots of small town sports: Instilling a sense of pride in having a local team, and creating a collaboration with the community in fueling that pride.

NHL teams spend millions of dollars in an attempt to make fans feel like they’re a part of the team.  The Jackals have simply decided to formalize that relationship.

“[It’s] making people understand how precious having a pro hockey team in the area,” said Abbott.

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