By Todd Franko
The Covelli Centre’s newest hope for successful sports entertainment hit the ice last night.
Is this newest hope also the last hope?
The facility turns four this month, and it’s had as many sports franchises asit’s had years on Earth:
-Youngstown SteelHounds professional hockey.
-Mahoning Valley Thunder professional indoor football.
-Mahoning Valley Phantoms amateur ice hockey.
-Welcome now, Youngstown Phantoms.
The Phantoms play hockey in the United States Hockey League — the Big 10 football of U.S. amateur hockey. From this league, the players move on to professional hockey or premier Division 1 university programs.
While we’re talking “hockey,” this team’s real game is filling seats at the Covelli and pleasing everyone from city council members to arena boss Eric Ryan to Vindy columnist Bertram de Souza.
(While I plan to be at the game, I’m writing this Friday. Thus, I can’t offer you any reaction to Saturday’s score, the turnout or the painful beer prices from Boston Culinary food services.)
In reality, the game is already a win just in that it actually took place.
A year ago, Ryan and Mayor Jay Williams would have converted the Covelli into a Goodwill SuperStore before allowing the Phantoms to become the lead sports tenant.
They believed then the oft-stated mantra that people will buy only “professional sports.”
There were many conversations back then about professional indoor sports, especially hockey. The reality was: People were not even buying pro sports, at least pro hockey in venues similar in size to Covelli.
Over a 10-year span, the ECHL professional hockey league desired by the city had more franchise failures than it had successes.
So now it’s Take 4, and Ryan is seeing this effort differently than the three previous sports efforts there. He’s seeing it as his only focus right now.
“I want to see this franchise get all it needs to succeed. It’s not easy to succeed,” said Ryan, drawing on the recent history of the Thunder. “There’s nothing worse than looking at someone who just lost money on a season and say ‘Keep going ... ’”
Ryan said since the Thunder’s collapse, he’s had several calls about other sports franchises in the facility. He’s not acting on them.
“Before I start thinking about [another sport], our focus is on the Phantoms.”
It’s his hunch of what this market can support. Perhaps two sports franchises — baseball’s Mahoning Valley Scrappers and the Phantoms — are enough, Ryan reasons, especially when you factor in Youngstown State University sports.
“How much money is in the market?” Ryan asked. “When you consider sponsors, corporate sales, season ticket sales — that’s a huge part of a franchise’s success. I question whether there’s enough marketing and sponsor money to sustain another minor league team.”
So now he finds himself more a partner of Phantoms owner Bruce Zoldan than a tacit landlord. There’s a five-year contract to make their marriage work.
The owner is key to making a small-market sports franchise succeed, said Scott Rosner, associate director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania.
“A poorly run team is going to suffer no matter where you are and what sport it is,” said Rosner.
He also shares a view similar to Ryan’s: The sport does not matter as much in the smaller world of minor league franchises. Rosner asks:
How much bang are you giving for the buck?
“Your town may not be a hotbed for any sport. But if [the owner] can sell it well, that’s the key. With all minor league sports, it’s about entertainment.”
Ryan said that while the sport is important, what happens off ice may be more important.
“People come here to be entertained.”
Hence, the Phantoms sport admission prices for several hours of live entertainment are similar to a movie ticket (far less, actually, if two people used the buy-one-get-one coupons from The Vindicator this past week).
From Ryan’s end, he’s worked with the food vendor to ensure several games with $1 beers and $1 hot dogs. He’s also worked with the Phantoms to get a special lighting system to make the arena a livelier place.
Will the fourth time be a charm?
“The business end of the USHL is superior to anything else I’ve looked at,” Ryan said. “I saw [the USHL] work in Nebraska — a diehard football place. I see the numbers of all that’s been tried here.
“This has the best chance to succeed.”
They’ve got five years to figure it out.