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Could this be hockey's last season at the Covelli Centre?



Published: Sun, March 10, 2013 @ 12:01 a.m.

By DAVID SKOLNICK | skolnick@vindy.com

YOUNGSTOWN

Since it opened in 2005, the Covelli Centre — the city-owned sports and entertainment arena originally called the Youngstown Convocation Center — has had a hockey team as its main tenant.

Attendance has never been strong for most of the team's eight seasons there, and today it's at its low point. Since the facility loses money on each game, the future of the sport at the downtown center is on thin ice.

“It’s a football town, it’s a basketball town, and it’s a baseball town,” Bruce Zoldan said of the Mahoning Valley. “Hopefully, it will be a hockey town.”

However, even Zoldan’s top executive has his doubts. When Zoldan’s B.J. Alan Co. announced the pending closing of the Ice Zone, an indoor ice rink in Boardman, William A. Weimer, the company’s vice president and general counsel, said, “Unfortunately, as much as we’ve tried to push ice sports, there’s a disconnect here — it’s a hard-core football and baseball area.”

Zoldan owns the Youngstown Phantoms, a member of the United States Hockey League, which has called the Covelli Centre home since 2009.

But the contract with the city requires the team, which plays in what is considered the top junior hockey league in the country, to average at least 2,000 fans a game annually for four years — a number it’s never reached — or the city can terminate the contract unless the Phantoms pay $75,000 for a fifth season.

Zoldan wants the $75,000 fee waived, saying he’s lost more than $1 million running the team, and is committed to improving attendance.

“Unlike others who have tried [to have sports teams play at the center] and left because they sustained losses,

we’ve sustained losses and are moving ahead,” he said.

Previously, both the AF2 Youngstown Thunder football team and the Central Hockey League Youngstown SteelHounds called the city’s center home. Both are now defunct.

“We’re asking [the city] to reinvest in our team by

waiving the $75,000. If they don’t, it shows the city doesn’t want us back,” Zoldan said. “It’s adding insult to injury or pouring something on the wound.”

City and Covelli Centre officials say they’ll wait until the season ends next month before discussing a possible contract renewal.

If a deal isn’t worked out with Zoldan, the city may look at a return to a mid-level professional hockey team next season.

During the first three years at the center, the

minor league pro SteelHounds drew considerably larger crowds than the junior hockey league Phantoms.

“We had considerably more people attend the SteelHounds games, but the economics of a pro team makes it difficult to be successful,” said Eric Ryan, the center’s executive director.

“Just because you have more people attending doesn’t necessarily mean the team is more profitable. From a venue standpoint, more patrons through the doors always means more ancillary revenue and building profit.”

Ryan said the facility loses about $200 for each Phantoms

game when the wear and tear on mechanical equipment, utilities and the cost of changing from a hockey game to another event such as a concert are considered.

“Obviously, hockey doesn’t have the rich tradition other sports do in our community, but minor-league sports are as much about the entertainment value as they are about the sport,” Ryan said. “I think we offer quality entertainment at a fair price.”

Seats for Phantoms games are as inexpensive as $6 each. But those are located in five sections of the center — behind one of the goalies and near where the Zamboni machine access is to the ice — that just last season were curtained off. Meanwhile tickets for certain seats behind the penalty box, for

example, jumped from $13.50 each to $25.

The lackluster attendance — though business has picked up in the last three games as the Phantoms’ winning season continues — isn’t because of the ticket prices, Zoldan said.

“Our prices are fair,” he said. “A family can buy tickets for $6 each.”

A large majority of those who lease luxury suites at the center don’t use them for Phantoms games, and hockey doesn’t play much of a factor when it comes to sponsorship, Ryan said. Steve Costa of PA Sports & Entertainment, the firm that conducted the city’s recent study, said suite holders aren’t interested in hockey and have trouble giving away tickets.

The Phantoms haven’t hit a 2,000 attendance average during any of its three full seasons, and with a few games left this season, it’s averaging 1,354 fans a game, according to USHL

statistics.

Covelli Centre officials say the Phantoms average attendance

this season has been about 1,050, based strictly on the number of people who show up for the games.

Also, the team’s average attendance for its first three seasons is 1,760 per home game, according to USHL statistics. But center officials say the average number of people who actually showed up to watch the Phantoms games was 1,226 during the first three seasons.

It’s not just the Phantoms. There’s also a difference in attendance figures for the SteelHounds during the team’s three years at the center.

The CHL reported an average of 3,670 fans at each SteelHounds home game while center officials, counting people who actually attended the team’s games, said the average was 2,520.

The Phantoms attendance this season is the second lowest in the USHL, officially and unofficially. Only Team USA — based in Ann Arbor, Mich., with a focus on being a national development program for hockey in this country rather than marketing itself as a local team seeking a fan base — is worse with only an average of 284 fans at its home games.

A 2,000-per-game average isn’t that hard for the rest of the teams in the league, since the Phantoms joined in 2009. Team USA and the Chicago Steel are the only other teams not to exceed that attendance number.

“We wish the attendance was better like the Phantoms wish the attendance was better,” Ryan said. “A main tenant is an important piece of the puzzle for arenas. We feel from an arena’s standpoint that we are doing everything we can to maximize

this brand of hockey.”

The center has offered special food and drink discounts at 16 of the Phantoms home games such as $2.25 for a hot dog [a $1 discount], and smaller-size beer and sodas for $3 and $2, respectively.

“As far as attendance and profit is concerned, it hasn’t been a success, but it’s a hard sell,” said Mayor Charles Sammarone. “This area’s been a big supporter of high school sports. You have to overcome that, and it’s tough to overcome.”

Today, the Phantoms are in Green Bay to play the Gamblers, one of the USHL’s most successful franchises. The Gamblers have been among the top five teams in the league in attendance for the past several years.

Its average attendance last season of 3,692 was fourth best among the league’s 16 teams. Its average attendance this season of 3,216 per game is fifth-best in the league.

The city’s $50,000 study politely recommended that the city “evaluate the relationship with the Youngstown Phantoms and consider options for more profitable events” at the facility. That prompted Ken Wachter, whose company owned the Gamblers and manages Green Bay’s Resch Center, where the hockey team plays its home games, to write an email to Phantoms management who provided it to The Vindicator.

Wachter wrote that he took issue with the report stating that without the Phantoms at the center, it would open up 30 event dates, and gave a “conservative estimate of [an] additional $75,000 to $100,000 net profit could be obtained with alternative event bookings.”

“If that is the case, they are wrong,” Wachter wrote. “It looks to me like they do a good job booking the venue, but they have a ton of open dates.”

In an interview with the newspaper, he said: “If the hockey team goes away, you’re not going to go from six concerts to 18. You might go from six to eight, but you can work around hockey for most events.”

Ryan said the Phantoms have been accommodating to changing the team’s schedule for concerts, such as the recent Rascal Flatts show. The center loses one to two events a year, Ryan said, when the Phantoms can’t change their schedule.

Steve Costa, owner of PA Sports & Entertainment, which conducted the study, said if three or so concerts could be booked in place of Phantoms games, the center

would make $75,000 to $100,000

annually. If nothing else, the study should be a starting point to look at what are the best events for the center.

So why is amateur hockey a success in Green Bay, best known in sports for its Packers NFL team, and not in Youngstown?

“We have a much deeper hockey tradition” in Green Bay, Wachter admitted.

Also, the Resch Center is the home to other sports teams, including the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay men’s basketball team, the Blizzard Indoor Football League team, and the Chili, a women’s football team in which the players wear

bikinis that averaged about 3,500 fans a game last season,

Wachter said.

“My whole gist is there is [more] value in having a hockey team with 30 dates at the facility than nothing,” he said. “It’s an asset to the community. I don’t think the city is losing anything by having hockey. But if it goes away, the center is dark 30 days a year. It’s not strictly a dollars-and-cents issue. It’s a process to sell, and it takes time for people to buy into the team. We sell our shows as a family event with discounted food items, skating with the team, and holding promotions with groups like the Boy Scouts.”

The Phantoms games have discounted foods and some ticket deals to various organizations for special nights.

The start of the USHL season

in September is slow, Zoldan said, as it competes with football.

The USHL plans to cut four season games next season, start with a few games in October and November, and then have a majority of the games played in December through mid-April, Zoldan said.

Another problem is the other USHL teams aren’t nearby, he said. The USHL is close to putting a team in Pittsburgh and also working to get one somewhere in Ohio, he said.

That should help sell tickets if the Phantoms return to the Covelli Centre next season, Zoldan said, because it could create regional

rivalries.

The Phantoms have fewer than 500 season-ticket holders now, he said.

He said he is working on a plan to increase the number of season- ticket holders to 1,500. “We’re going to kick off a strong season-ticket campaign” in a few days, Zoldan said.

“I’m hoping there’s a next season and the city sees the benefit of having the team and the fans support this and make it work. We’re planning on a next season. We’re not thinking otherwise. We’re aggressively selling tickets.”

Meanwhile, the city is seeking companies interesting in leasing the center for $700,000 annually plus $75,000 a year for capital

improvement work.

Zoldan has put together a team of investors that was interested in leasing the center.

But the $700,000 price tag is far too much for the center, which made about $300,000 to $325,000 in 2012 in operating surplus. The final

figure for 2012 will be available next week.

“It’s cost-prohibitive,” he said. “But that’s what negotiations are for.”


Comments

1hotwings(41 comments)posted 1 year, 1 month ago

Noone is going to pay to watch high schoolers play.

At least the Steelhounds were a professional team and not amateurs.

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2hotwings(41 comments)posted 1 year, 1 month ago

And good luck finding support in a team when it's ripped out every two years.

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3TB(1167 comments)posted 1 year, 1 month ago

Hockey also can't gain traction in the area because the high schools don't have teams and the sport is an expensive one for people with kids.

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4sue(166 comments)posted 1 year, 1 month ago

Maybe the YMCA could take over the Ice Zone?
Perhaps it could be gifted to the YMCA.
Good tax deduction.

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5papa1(542 comments)posted 1 year, 1 month ago

no

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6atownreader(33 comments)posted 1 year, 1 month ago

Bring back real minor league hockey. The SteelHounds were great, but they did not get enough publicity. The whole town, including the media, needs to be promoting this. There really wasn't any PR for the STEELHOUNDS. IF YOU
CAN GET A DECENT TEAM WITH A DECENT OWNER, IT WILL WORK!

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7AustintownPenguin(27 comments)posted 1 year, 1 month ago

Problem is the Phantoms do a horrible job of marketing. No one knows about the chances these kids have going to the pros. The Phantoms have had 3 former players drafted to the pro's.

1) Forward Brandon Saad, currently playing for the league leading Chicago Blackhawks, 2) Defenseman Scott Mayfield who was drafted by the New York Islanders 3) Goalie Matthew Mahalak drafted by the Carolina Hurricanes.

Now I did enjoy the Steelhounds hockey when they were here, but none of them had any chances of making it to the big show, as they were all past their prime, but the big draw was the fights, not the actual playing of the game.

Some of you that keep putting down the Phantoms, I'm willing to bet you have never seen one of their games in person. They have 6 games left at home this season, spend $11 ($5 for parking and $6 for a ticket) and see a game.

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82swild(3 comments)posted 1 year, 1 month ago

as usual, Youngstown is 50 years behind the times.....Hockey is one of the fastest growing sports in the U.S. and especially in the Rust Belt...These (kids or high schoolers) as one person put it actually have a chance at making the "league" unlike 99.99999 percent of the other high-schoolers players the other sports here in the valley....These athletes were drafted and choosen to play elite league junior hockey....The steelhounds while they were fun to watch, had a 0% percent chance of ever stepping foot on an nhl ice surface....Funny how those towns that is 65 miles to the south of us and 90 miles to the north of us are booming with hockey...Ignorant comments from people in this town always amaze me...Please go see a Phantoms game, u just might be impressed...

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9arod(258 comments)posted 1 year, 1 month ago

My suggestion is to have Mill Creek Park take over the Ice Zone and have all Mahoning county tax payers keep it up and running. You can then have each area high school that wants to field a team do so and the expenses are paid. So tired of the "Valley" being 30 years behind the times. Everybody says they want a better future for their children, it's not free people, you get what you pay for.

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10sweatpea(108 comments)posted 1 year, 1 month ago

This area sucks. There aint never nuttin to do.
You cant compete with the bars and keno or even the casinos within 2-3 hours of here.

but seriously,

Here is the simple fact. People in this area are not going to spend money on an inferior product. I know that comes across as anti-Phantoms, but we do not have a hockey fan culture that will support "anything on ice". The indoor football did not go over well here, the Mickey Monus basketbal league did not either.

They would be better served to have tournaments down there every weekend for volleyball, basketball (girls and boys), gymnastics, and even bowling. What about a combined local band concert from 4 or 5 different schools all playing together. Every kids family would go see that! The country and rock concerts appear to be doing very well, they could do the ice shows, boxing, etc.. YSU boys and girls nbeed to move their games there also. I'm just not ever going to the Beeghly Center-period.

I remember going to the Cleveland Coliseum to see the LA Kings play the Edmonton Oilers in the early 90's for an exhibition game. Maybe the Pittsburgh Penguins could play Team USA here and maybe the Cavs could play Team USA in an exhibition game.

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11Pyroc(107 comments)posted 1 year, 1 month ago

I went to a Phantoms game recently with my Grandson and his Cub Scout pack. Later that evening I ran into a friend of mine who happens to be a popular DJ on one of the local radio stations. I mentioned to him that we were at a Phantoms game earlier in the evening. He said that he used to go to the Phantoms games, but quit going because of the "Attitude" that the Covelli Centers security guards seemed to have. I said to him that I could see why. When we were leaving the center after the game, we were headed towards the Main front doors, when the security guards started screaming at myself and my 6 year old grandson like we were terrorists with assault rifles. You Can't go that way! You have to use the back door! The security guards were "Herding" everyone out the back doors into the parking lot. We happened to be parked on Boardman Street, but had to walk clear around the Covelli Center, outside in the cold because it seemed that going out the main doors would have been an inconvenience to the Security guards. I had to agree with My DJ friend that the $8.00 per hour rent-a-cop security guards do seem to have an attitude problem, and really need some training in people skills and polite etiquette. They would be more effective by acting as professionals, rather than trying to intimidate the patrons.

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12Travolta(11 comments)posted 1 year, 1 month ago

Let this hockey team fold, and watch the Canton Charge move to the Centre. They wanted to come here the first time, but Mr. Zoldan would not give up any weekend dates. They'll train at the Niles Wellness Center, and will expand that facility for its players, and the community. Trust me, this was the original plan. They'd jump ship from Canton in a heartbeat for a newer, modern arena, and the Cavaliers would love to draw from the entire region.

Next, get a true minor league team in here, perhaps in the ECHL? And market the heck out of it. Players in that league are young, and can make it in the NHL. You have teams as close as Wheeling, Cincy, and Toledo.

It's a beautiful facility, and it's an area where things can work. But you have to invest in a marketing and public relations staff firmly committed to making things happen. That means spending some money to make money.

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13Erplane(447 comments)posted 1 year, 1 month ago

First - I give Mr. Zoldan credit. He's put his money into making the Phantoms work, and well it hasnt. The quality of the hockey is pretty good. And I'm not there to see fighting. Here are a couple of ideas:

1) I think Mr. Zoldan or somebody should seriously consider linking up to the Pittsburgh Penguins franchise. Tix in Pittsburgh are pricey and they sell out. Yet most of the Valley pulls for the Penguins. So why not have a relationship with them? The Wheeling Nailers do, and they play 10 home games a year in Johnstown, PA in a very old arena. Logistically its tough to do, but why not play those 10 games in Youngstown, and rebrand the team the Wheeling-Youngstown SteelPens? I'd rather have 10 quality games with 4000 attendees than 30 games that cannot hit 1000.

2) The other option is to help fund a YSU team. Its too bad the CCHA is being disbanded - can you imagine YSU playing Ohio State, Michigan, Notre Dame, Bowling Green, Mich St, Miami, in Youngstown? They would draw 4000. Anyways, college hockey is not cheap, but at least students and alumni would be compelled to go.

I hope hockey stays in some form. Maybe the Phantoms get rebranded the SteelPens, and Mario drops the first puck on Opening Day.

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14poland21(92 comments)posted 1 year, 1 month ago

So let me get this straight....

The Covelli Centre which currently has only SIX non-hockey related events booked for the rest of this year, feels they could make more money without hockey?

If they are loosing $200 a game, why not charge Zoldan that cost? Isn't drawing people to the arena ""free" advertising for upcoming events? Not to mention for the downtown?

At no point when this facility was built was there ever a plan for how this community could support it. And now they want to kick out something that at least draws people there frequently? Only in Youngstown...

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