Pro sports, Jackson: Can it work?

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Published: April 28,2003

JACKSON — “Your town. Your team. Gotta be there.”

That was the slogan of the Jackson Bandits, Jackson’s first and only minor-league hockey team. And now it seems all hopes of any future hockey games at the Mississippi Coliseum, at least in the near future, have been dashed.

The idea of a minor-league hockey team in Jackson began with then MCI WorldCom president and CEO Bernie Ebbers and a top associate, Gary Brandt, and for a few years it at least seemed as if it might work. The Bandits’ first season in 1999 had an average of 4,108 fans.

Lately, however, the number of fans has dropped drastically. This year the Bandits averaged just 2,200 fans, and the team’s crucial play-in game against Pensacola drew a crowd of just 1,139.

And so, on April 4, the Bandits ceased operations after the East Coast Hockey League denied the team’s request to suspend operations for one year. J.L. Holloway, majority owner of the Bandits, said low attendance, low sponsor support and a lease with the State Fair Coliseum that requires the team to play two months on the road each season were the reasons for suspending the team’s operations. Most of the Bandits staff were let go except for Bandits general manager Chris Bates, head coach Derek Clancy and a few others. The Bandits players, whose contracts are year-to-year, will now look for jobs with other teams while Clancy weighs his options.

And while owners are holding out hope that a new arena can be built and serve as a future home for the team, academics throughout the state and others aren’t quite as optimistic about the future of hockey in Jackson. Some even wonder about the future of professional sports in general in the Capital City.

Dr. Kirk Wakefield, a former University of Mississippi marketing professor and now the chairman of the marketing department at Baylor University, said in his opinion, two things contributed to the demise of the Bandits.

“One is kind of obvious, which is hockey in the South,” Wakefield said. “It’s made it some other places — even in Biloxi it’s done okay. But there’s still the matter that you’re trying to teach folks about a game they knew nothing about while they were growing up. There’s no base of involvement in participation.”

The size of Jackson and the feeling of “team ownership,” was the other thing that contributed to the failure of the Bandits, Wakefield said.

“Smaller cities, if they do it right, can be successful with the minor league teams because it’s all they have in terms of entertainment and sports entertainment,” Wakefield said. “But the key is making it seem like it’s their team. It’s all about fan ownership — kind of what you get with local universities. You really identify with that organization, the team and the players.”

Multi-use facilities can also be tough on sports teams, Wakefield said. He recalled the San Antonio Spurs, who were on the road for a month because of a contract the Alamodome had made with the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo. Of course, Wakefield said, the Spurs were so good that being on the road for a month didn’t affect them overall. But, he said, for a smaller team in a smaller town the effect could be devastating.

Another thing that impacts how sports teams do in cities has to do with self-esteem, Wakefield said. He said the relationship Ebbers had with the Bandits, Ebbers’ eventual resignation and the bad blood between WorldCom and so many of the company’s stockholders and employees could have affected many of the fans’ self-esteem.

“Those types of factors influence fans’ feelings toward a particular sports team,” Wakefield explained.

But there’s one thing that affects sports teams more than self-esteem or anything else, and that’s group sales, season ticket sales and corporate sponsorship sales.

“The off-season is when you make your money,” Wakefield said. “That’s when the work is done for the season. My guess is (the Bandits) probably knew what would happen before the season started because of season ticket sales and corporate sponsorships.”

Dr. Ziad Swaidan, a marketing professor at Jackson State University, agreed. He said, “In these current conditions now the whole economy is going down. Everyone is suffering nationwide and global-wide. And this affects many things including sports. The focus now is more to put bread on the table than to be entertained. We’re just taking care of the basics now.”

Swaidan said Jackson’s size didn’t help much either.

“There are about 400,000 people in metro Jackson,” Swaidan said. “I think there’s no market.”

Con Maloney, chairman of the board of Cowboy Maloney’s Electric City and minority owner of the Express in Round Rock, Texas, formerly the Jackson Generals, had similar sentiments.

“I think there’s a lot of interest in professional sports in Jackson,” Maloney said. “The major problem is that Jackson is not a large enough community to support professional sports programs that have a fairly high cost of operations. It’s not like there’s not interest or that people don’t want to support them, but so many things push the entertainment dollar in different directions in Jackson. People don’t really understand there are programs like summer soccer for youngsters, which takes parents and grandparents out of the professional sports scene.

“I’m in favor of that,” Maloney continued. “But that makes the difference between making money and surviving in a smaller town.”

The bottom line, Maloney said, is simple. How closely can one control their expenses and how much money can a team generate in the operation of a program?

“And it’s a catch-22,” Maloney said.

Dr. Bryan Hayes, assistant professor of marketing at Mississippi College, said Jackson’s history is not good when it comes to professional sports programs, hockey or otherwise. No professional team in Jackson has stayed for long. Teams that have made Jackson their home include the minor-league baseball Mets, in Jackson from 1975 until 1990, followed by the Jackson Generals from 1991 until 1999, the DiamondKats in 2000, and finally the Senators, now in their second season.

“I don’t know that it’s demographics that are the cause of that but I think it’s apparent that Jackson doesn’t have a good history of supporting minor-league professional sports teams,” Hayes said. “My personal feelings on the subject — I certainly wish that Jackson could successfully support a minor-league sports franchise. It adds to the quality of life here and it’s certainly something I think that many people would like to see.”

The jury is still out on how the Jackson Senators, part of the Central Professional Baseball League, will do.


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