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

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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


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


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.”

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