WHEELING - Things have settled down a bit for the Wheeling Nailers' ownership group in year two, but there's still plenty of work to be done.
It's been almost two full years since the Hockey Club of the Ohio Valley - a pairing of the Regional Economic Development Partnership and the Wheeling Amateur Hockey Association - stepped forward to keep professional hockey in Wheeling. The teams future was in serious doubt for several months following former owners Rob and Jim Brooks' announcement they wanted to step away from the team to focus on other pursuits.
With nearly two full seasons under their belt, things are "going better," said Nailers Alternate Governor Brian Komorowski, but "we're not quite where we want to be."
For one thing, the ownership group knows that improving attendance is a must if the Nailers are to remain viable in Wheeling.
Through the first 26 games of the season, the Nailers drew an average of 2,179 fans per game to WesBanco Arena - last in the ECHL. That's down from an average of 2,488 during the 2012-13 season, and 2,923 five years ago, in 2008-09.
For that reason, marketing will continue to be a focus moving forward, Komorowski said. He said the team has added to its sales staff, and that the team is "just trying to figure out what people want to see."
Komorowski pointed to a Feb. 1 promotion during which fans got to meet "Mountain Man" from the popular television series "Duck Dynasty."
"There were a lot of people in the building that I don't think have come to a hockey game before," Komorowski said.
Maintaining a professional sports franchise in a city of only about 28,000 can be challenging, Komorowski acknowledged, making effective marketing and promotion even more essential. And Pittsburgh - a city with major league sports franchises including the Pirates, Steelers and the Nailers' own National Hockey League affiliate, the Penguins - is just a short drive away.
But Komorowski doesn't think that proximity hurts the Nailers. In fact, he said, Pittsburghers often come to Wheeling to see a high-quality, affordable alternative to NHL hockey.
"We're definitely a much, much cheaper ticket. ... It's tough to take a family of four to a Penguins game and afford it,"Komorowski said.
Upgrades to the 36-year-old WesBanco Arena also will play a role in the team's future. The team, in tandem with the city of Wheeling, has taken steps to improve the fan experience with video boards, a new sound system and expanded ability to accept credit cards at the arena.
But more is needed. The city of Wheeling plans to use revenue from its new 0.5-percent sales tax to replace seats, shore up the building's facades and renovate restrooms and concession stands. Komorowski said other improvements the team would like to see include locker room upgrades and an indoor box office.
"It's an old building," he said. "Things need to be done to compete with other markets and other events."