Ryan: Covelli game the beginning of something big

Arena director has big plans

for college basketball events

By Joe Scalzo



Since the LPGA tournament left in 2004, the Mahoning Valley hasn’t had a signature annual sporting event.

Eric Ryan wants to change that.

Tonight, the Youngstown State men’s basketball team will play Hiram in the first Downtown Round Ball Classic at the Covelli Centre. It’s a trial run for what Ryan, the Centre’s executive director, hopes will evolve into a multi-day event that showcases the city, the arena and YSU’s emerging basketball program.

“If I can convey anything, it’s that I want this to be a staple event in our community,” Ryan said. “I can totally see this as a three-day event that everyone looks forward to every year.”

Hiram, a Division III team from Portage County, obviously isn’t going to create that kind of buzz. But in future years, YSU wants to attract the type of big-name programs — Penguins coach Jerry Slocum mentioned Notre Dame, Michigan State and Pitt as possibilities this week — that can sell out the arena and create a unique game-day atmosphere.

The Covelli, which actually seats fewer fans than Beeghly (5,900 compared to 6,300), has extras like video boards, arena seating (half of Beeghly’s seats are bleachers), suites and, yes, beer. Local businessman Sam Covelli, who holds the arena’s naming rights, is providing free parking on Saturday and Ryan has hired a company that handles in-game promotions for the Cleveland Indians and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“We’re certainly pulling out all the stops, all the bells and whistles,” Ryan said.

YSU chose Hiram as its first opponent because this is the arena’s first college game — it has hosted several prep games — and the university wanted to make sure it irons out all the kinks before bringing in a major program. For instance, the Centre had to add a collegiate 3-point line and bring in newer shot clocks.

“I don’t want to insult Hiram, but if it were up to me, I’d love to have a big-name school in there this year,” Ryan said. “But we have to crawl first. This is just the first step.”

After finishing last in the Horizon League in back-to-back seasons (2009-10 and 2010-11), the Penguins went 16-15 last season and started this year 3-0 with a win over SEC-member Georgia.

But YSU athletic director Ron Strollo said that has nothing to do with scheduling a big-name opponent.

“We play those teams anyway,” Strollo said. “Obviously, playing Ohio State on a neutral court is different than playing Ohio State at Ohio State, but the competitiveness of our program has nothing to do with it.”

In fact, the Buckeyes are an intriguing opponent possibility since Sam Covelli recently donated $10 million to OSU. Also, YSU played the Buckeyes in football in 2006 and 2007 and is expected to play them again in 2015.

Ultimately, Ryan envisions a three-day event that has, say, a gala on Thursday, high school games (or the YSU women’s team) on Friday and the men’s game on Saturday. For it to work, he needs sponsors (several from the area are already interested) and fans.

“It’s obviously a lot more money to bring in a major team, so, yeah, we have to sell it out,” Ryan said.

Slocum doesn’t want to give up a league home game and, financially and competitively, Strollo said it doesn’t make sense for YSU to play more than one Covelli game a year.

So, for now, it’s viewed as a once-a-year event.

“I think what this is, is an opportunity for us to play in a game in front of different people,” said Strollo. “I think there’s a core group of fans who enjoy going down to the Covelli Centre who might not otherwise come to a game at Beeghly.”

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