YOUNGSTOWN -- At last, someone directly involved with the city's next grand sports experiment admits what most of the rest of us have suspected for some time -- selling minor league ice hockey in Youngstown won't be easy.
It's refreshing to hear because turning on the Mahoning Valley to a sport that has, at best, cult status across the United States and virtually no grassroots support here is going to be Herculean.
Now, there's an extra price for Valley sports fans to pay -- the loss of an Arena Football2 franchise for the Youngstown Convocation Center in 2006.
This city, which has taken more than its share of lumps for nearly three decades, needs all the success it can muster. Keeping arena football away for at least another year seems like Charlie Brown finding another rock in his trick-or-treat bag.
Can't play hereuntil 2007 season
A group of investors, fronted by Dr. Michael Slyk of Warren, have been told by Youngstown Convocation Center management that they will not be permitted to bring an Arena Football2 franchise to Youngstown before the 2007 season.
For those of you keeping score at home, that's eight spring dates of what probably would have been near-capacity crowds being replaced by emptiness.
Why? Selling ice hockey here will be a challenge.
Can Youngstown afford to let arena football revenues slip away? Apparently. No one has called Slyk's group to say, "Wait a minute -- we've changed our minds."
Global Entertainment, the Phoenix company that operates the Central Hockey League, will operate the Youngstown arena when it opens in November.
Steelhounds slatedfor 32 home games
The Youngstown SteelHounds, a CHL expansion team that will play will play 32 home games in the arena, have been given sports exclusivity in their first year.
George Manias, SteelHounds general manager, says the team needs it if it is to take root.
"Since we play 32 home games and want to fill the arena to capacity nightly, I feel it is vital that we are able to create a fan base and community interest with our team, without muddying the waters with too many sports teams right off the bat," Manias said.
"As the primary tenant of the Youngstown [arena], we felt we had the right to make sure that the SteelHounds be the exclusive sports franchise to play in the Youngstown Convocation Center in year one," Manias said.
Youngstown officials must agree.
Slyk, naturally, disagrees.
"We thought the object [of building an arena] was to keep it full, to keep events in there as much as possible," Slyk said. "Why not let the people of Youngstown decide what they want to go see?"
Did we mention that Global owns the CHL?
The CHL season runs from October to late March, followed by three rounds of playoffs. Arena Football2 plays a 16-game schedule from late March into summer.
Half the CFL teamsare based in Texas
By blocking arena football in the inaugural year, the SteelHounds are saying they need every dollar they can get. We're not surprised -- the SteelHounds are joining a league that has more than half of its teams in Texas. This is going to be a very expensive venture.
Most minor-league ice hockey teams have nearby rivals where buses are the main mode of transportation. The SteelHounds are going to be earning plenty of frequent flier miles when they visit Colorado, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and the Lone Star State.
SteelHounds owner Herb Washington said he's hoping that the CHL will schedule roadtrips so that the SteelHounds will play four games over eight-to-10 days per trip.
We don't blame him. Anyone who has priced a vacation recently knows it's going to cost Washington a bundle to fly, bus, house and feed the SteelHounds' traveling party of 22.
Where is that money coming from? Obviously, ticket sales will be important to the SteelHounds' bottom line.
Washington owes the CHL $1 million for his team rights. The league has a salary cap of $8,500 per week for 17 players so that expense is controlled. But how much it will cost to put a team on the ice for 64 games is anyone's guess.
Prepared to payown expenses
Unlike the SteelHounds who have access to $2 million in an interest-free loan from Youngstown, Slyk's group was prepared to pay their own way.
Slyk says the cost of an af2 franchise is $500,000. Factoring equipment costs of $200,000, Slyk's group figured it would cost approximately $1 million to field a team in the first season.
Manias said the SteelHounds will "welcome af2 to the Convocation Center in year two because it will help continue to bring people to the downtown area as well as create a new buzz for the Convocation Center after we have done so in year one."
Slyk isn't sure he's interested.
"What if it doesn't do well [for the SteelHounds]?" Slyk speculated. "What's to stop [Global] from giving the SteelHounds another exclusion?"
Slyk says that giving the SteelHounds preferential treatment "doesn't make sense to us. You have two groups both looking to invest in sports franchises to bring in revenues and generate tax dollars, and you have an intermediary party putting one off."
Would arena football be a hit in Youngstown? Probably, but it looks like it's going to be awhile before we find out.
XTom Williams is a sportswriter for The Vindicator. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.