By Tom Williams
The future of the Youngstown Phantoms remains anything but clear as the amateur hockey team heads into the homestretch of its fourth USHL season.
The Phantoms play their 32 home games in the city-owned Covelli Centre, which can seat 5,700 for hockey.
Two weeks ago, a $50,000 study commissioned by the city to determine what’s best for the eight-year-old arena urged ending its relationship with the Phantoms because of low attendance.
The study by PA Sports & Entertainment, a Downingtown, Pa., consulting firm, estimated that the arena could generate $75,000 more if hockey games were replaced with other events.
On Monday, Phantoms owner Bruce Zoldan criticized the study as “juvenile.”
“My feeling is that the city wasted a lot of money on that report,” said Zoldan, the chief executive officer for Phantoms Fireworks. “They never interviewed me or anyone at the Phantoms office.”
Zoldan said the Covelli Centre is like other similar-sized arenas in that they all struggle to book profitable events. He doubts the arena could get 10 events to fill 32 open dates.
The study said the Covelli Centre has made $215 per home game in the first three seasons. When the study was released, Eric Ryan, the Covelli Centre executive director, said that amount doesn’t cover the expenses for equipment wear-and-tear and utilities.
Zoldan said the Phantoms have lost money in each season and the team needs more fans.
“No question, we struggle to get the fan support we need just to break even,” said Zoldan, saying a 2,000 average is the magic number.
This season, the average has been about 1,200.
“We’re 800 fans [a game] short,” Zoldan said. “I think we have a great product on the ice. The guys are playing their hearts out striving for college scholarships or even a shot at the NHL.”
The Phantoms have improved each year. Last season, the Phantoms qualified for the USHL Playoffs for the first time. They swept a best-of-three series against Cedar Rapids before falling to Green Bay, 3-1, in the second round.
This season, the Phantoms (22-19-0, 44 points) are in fourth place in the USHL Eastern Conference standings. The top four teams in each conference qualify for the postseason.
More importantly, the team has been playing extremely well since dropping 11 of 12 games during an October-November stretch. Sunday’s 3-2 shootout win in Indianapolis over the Indiana Ice was the team’s ninth in the past 12 games.
Zoldan has a five-year contract for the Phantoms, but a clause in the contract stipulates that the Phantoms must pay $75,000 for the fifth season if attendance hasn’t been averaging 2,000.
Zoldan said it would be foolish to pay the fee because his team has been losing more than $100,000 per season. He’s hoping that city officials realize the importance of a team calling the Covelli home.
“I believe that the Youngstown Phantoms belong in Youngstown, belong in the Covelli Centre,” said Zoldan, saying the team has invested plenty in advertising and good coaches. “I want to be there next year and will make every effort to do so.
“It’s important to have sports anchor in the Covelli Centre. We need to get people to the games.”
The Phantoms have 11 home games remaining before the regular season ends on April 13.
Ryan says no deadline has been set for when the $75,000 attendance-clause payment is due if Zoldan decides to pay it.
Also clouding the issue is the Phantoms’ commitment to the USHL. Commissioner Skip Prince said the Phantoms and the other 15 members of the league all committed in January to participate in the 2013-14 season, which begins in late September.
Prince said the league has no plans to expand before the 2014-15 season.