By David Skolnick
The Youngstown Phantoms owner’s plan to have families of those who use the Ice Zone help sell 1,000 season tickets for his junior hockey league team failed only one month into the effort.
Bruce Zoldan — who owns both the team that plays its home games at the Youngstown-owned Covelli Centre and the indoor ice-skating facility in Boardman — said reaction from Ice Zone families to the Phantoms’ ticket deal has been poor.
Only 28 season tickets were sold by Ice Zone families as of last week, he said, with his expectation of about 300 to 400 by May 15 nearly impossible to reach.
If 1,000 tickets were sold by Ice Zone families, Zoldan said he would keep the facility open for another year. The Ice Zone will close permanently sometime between May 15 and early June, he said, barring a miracle of significantly more ticket sales.
If that happens, and Zoldan said he seriously doubts it, the Ice Zone could reopen in September.
But Zoldan essentially is throwing in the towel, planning to refund those who bought the 28 season tickets at the end of this week.
“I’m not optimistic that those at the Ice Zone are taking the offer to buy season tickets to keep the facility open seriously,” he said. “I believe the Ice Zone is going to close. Truthfully, I don’t have the time to be involved with this.”
Zoldan contends the families of figure skaters and hockey players don’t get along and never got behind his proposal, which he unveiled March 14.
Zoldan, who is also chief executive officer for the B.J. Alan fireworks company, took particular aim at the parents of youth hockey players at the Ice Zone — saying they were “screaming and crying” about the business closing.
“It’s all just chatter about keeping the Ice Zone open,” he said.
Bob Gray, spokesman for the 125-family Youngstown Area Amateur Hockey Association, disagreed with Zoldan’s assessment, and said the question marks about the future of the Ice Zone and the Phantoms team made it “difficult” to sell season tickets.
“I’m flabbergasted,” Gray said in response to Zoldan’s comments. “All the groups are working together. ”
There are another 125 families at the Ice Zone for figure skating and adult hockey, he said.
“Having 250 families try to sell 1,000 tickets when [the Phantoms] only sold 350 this season is challenging,” Gray said. “I can’t force people to buy tickets.”
Also, there are a number of Ice Zone families with season tickets for Phantoms games, and if they purchased them for next season, they wouldn’t count toward the 1,000 figure, Gray said.
“I’ve had people who called to say they plan to re-up, and we’re not getting credit for those,” he said.
Without the 28 season tickets bought through the Ice Zone families, the Phantoms have sold 44 season tickets with a large majority of those tickets purchased by current season ticketholders, Zoldan said.
On top of that, the Phantoms ticket plan for next season eliminates $6 seats on the east end of the arena. Zoldan said those tickets weren’t selling well.
By doing so, the least expensive season tickets for Phantoms home games are increasing from $180 to $240 under the new plan. Though the seats are better, the plan increases the cheapest season tickets by 33 percent next season.
The game-day prices of some seats would be reduced next season and be even less costly under a season-ticket plan. But the best seats in the arena would remain the same for season tickets because of a fee added to them by the Covelli Centre.
This is assuming there is a next season for the Phantoms.
The Phantoms’ home-game attendance has been among the worst in the U.S. Hockey League since the team started nearly four years ago.
Zoldan has said people in the area have been slow to embrace hockey.
William A. Weimer, B.J. Alan Co. vice president and general counsel, was more blunt. “Unfortunately, as much as we’ve tried to push ice sports, there’s a disconnect there — it’s a hard-core football and baseball area,” he said in February.
The USHL says the Phantoms average attendance at home games during its first three years was 1,760 while the center says the average number of people who show up to watch the team was 1,226.
This season, the USHL says the Phantoms average attendance is 1,339 [not including this weekend’s final two home games before the playoffs] and the center says it’s 1,189.
The team had to average at least 2,000 people a game per season for the first four years at the center for it to automatically play a fifth season. It hasn’t reached that number in any of its seasons.
The contract states the “city may elect to terminate the agreement prior to the fifth season” if the team fails to reach that 2,000 average. Also, the contract states: “The Phantoms may play the fifth year after termination of the agreement by the city by paying an extra $75,000.”
“Once the season is complete, I plan on giving the city the attendance numbers and financial data,” said Eric Ryan, the Covelli Centre’s executive director. “The final decision whether to terminate the contract or let the contract go to the fifth year is the city’s decision.”
Mayor Charles Sammarone said he will get an opinion from Ryan, and then make a decision on the Phantoms’ future at the center.
“I hope to have a decision by June 1,” he said. “Will it happen? I don’t know, but I hope it happens by then. I want to get it over with and move on. The goal is June 1, but it could be later.”
The center loses a small amount of money on each Phantoms game, Ryan has said.
Zoldan, who’s said he’s lost more than $1 million running the team, wants another year at the center without paying the $75,000.
When his season-ticket plan included 1,000 sold by those associated with the Ice Zone, Zoldan told The Vindicator last month that he would attempt to sell 1,500 season tickets in a “last-ditch effort to keep hockey” at the center.
But with that plan essentially scrapped, Zoldan’s new goal is to sell 750 season tickets for next season.
The team sold about 350 season tickets this year.
With 750 season tickets and 900 people buying single-game tickets, Zoldan said he’d be satisfied. That’s 1,650 fans a game, which is lower than what the USHL lists as the team’s average during its first three seasons.
The Phantoms also pay an attendance penalty of $750 a game to the center in which it doesn’t draw a crowd of 1,500. The team paid $12,000 in the 2009-2010 season, and $15,750 for both the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 seasons.
During those three seasons, the Phantoms played 30 home games, failing to reach at least 1,500 fans for 18 games during its inaugural season and for 21 games during its second and third seasons.