By David Skolnick
The city’s Covelli Centre could earn an additional $75,000 to $100,000 annually by replacing Youngstown Phantoms’ hockey games with other events, according to an operational study of the facility.
PA Sports & Entertainment, the firm that did the study, wrote that “consideration should be given to the long-term benefit of retaining the team as a tenant and enabling management to book more profitable shows with the added open dates.”
In the three-plus years the amateur hockey team has played its home games at the center, it has struggled with attendance, which has also led to financial issues for the team and arena.
PA’s $50,000 study states the center averages $215 in profit per Phantoms game.
But Eric Ryan, the center’s executive director, said the arena loses money for Phantoms games.
The $215 doesn’t include “wear and tear on mechanical equipment, some of the utilities [expenses], and the cost of changing from a hockey game to another event such as a concert,” he said.
Ryan added it’s typical for arenas the size of Covelli to not make money from their main sports tenant.
The study doesn’t directly state the city should get rid of the Phantoms.
“We recommended the city take a hard economic look at the relationship it has with that tenant,” said Steve Costa, PA’s owner.
But the report states: “Covelli Centre staff and city officials need to evaluate the relationship with the Youngstown Phantoms and consider options for more profitable events at the facility.”
Councilwoman Janet Tarpley, D-6th and chairwoman of council’s finance committee, said the report is a “polite way to say ‘we should drop them.’ You can’t argue with the data. We need to look elsewhere for another alternative.”
Costa said he spoke to a number of center suite holders who said they are “not interested in hockey. Our employees don’t want to go to the games. We can hardly give those tickets away. They’re not interested in that one part of what the center provides.”
The contract signed with the Phantoms in 2009 required the United States Hockey League team to average at least 2,000 fans a game for four years or else the city could terminate the deal.
The Phantoms have ranked near the bottom of the USHL teams in attendance since its first season — 1,794 people a game for 2009-10, 1,878 for 2010-11, 1,609 for 2011-12, and 1,242 through two-thirds of the 2012-13 season. The team’s last regular-season game is April 13.
The only way for the Phantoms to return to Covelli for a fifth season, according to the team’s contract, is for it to pay $75,000 to the city.
Bruce Zoldan, the team’s owner, said he hopes the Phantoms will be able to develop a following with larger crowds given more time — even though its having its poorest-attended season.
Zoldan said he lost $400,000 running the Phantoms this season and has lost more than $1 million in the three-plus years of owning the team.
“Certainly, for myself, it hasn’t been a money-maker to this point,” he said.
Zoldan wants the city to give the Phantoms another year at the center without the $75,000 fee.
Mayor Charles Sammarone is considering the possibility of leasing the center even though PA’s study urges the city not to do so.
A proposal to lease would have to strongly benefit the city to be considered, Sammarone said, and council would also have to agree. If that happens, negotiating that fee would be between Zoldan and the leasing entity, Sammarone said.
Zoldan — president and chief executive officer of B.J. Alan Co. fireworks business — has expressed interest in leasing the center.
If the city stays with JAC Management Group, Ryan’s company, Ryan would negotiate a deal with Zoldan. A waiver of the $75,000 would need council approval, Sammarone said.
“If the city wants us to leave, we wouldn’t fight it,” Zoldan said. “I’d like to stay. It is a long road to profitability. I hope they want us to stay.”
Requiring the $75,000 fee would “probably lessen our desire to want to stay,” he added. “We’ll need some cooperation. We’re not asking for lower rent or fees. Just waive the $75,000.”