Skating on the race track

In discussing the lack of fan support for the Youngstown Phantoms hockey team, Atty. William A. Weimer, a close advisor to the team’s owner, Bruce Zoldan, offered this poignant observation:

“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.”

If you substitute the words “ice sports” with “horse racing” (hence the headline of the column), you’ll understand why Penn National Gaming, which is building a $125 million thoroughbred horse-racing track and slots casino in Austintown, locked horns with the Ohio State Racing Commission over the issue of trackside seating.

Just as Friday night high school and Youngstown State University football and baseball are fan favorites, slot machines and other casino games are the activities of choice for area gamblers. Horse racing is an acquired taste and while there are punters in the tri-county area, their numbers pale in comparison to those who play the slots.

Empty seats

Take a drive on any given Saturday (yesterday’s Kentucky Derby was an exception) to Mountaineer Race Track and Casino and compare the number of empty seats at the track with the number in the casino.

That’s the argument Penn National, the largest pari-mutuel operator in the United States with 11 racetracks, has been making over the past several weeks before the state racing commission.

Indeed, the company, which is building a racino on 195-acre site on state Route 46 near Interstate 80, noted that because the horses will run during the daytime in the winter months (the commission sets the thoroughbred racing calendar for the state), there will be smaller crowds than if racing were in the spring or the fall.

“The Commission must also take into account that today’s economics of horse racing and track management are greatly influenced by the simulcast marketplace,” Penn National’s Senior Vice President-Corporate Development Steven Snyder said in a letter sent last month to the commission’s chairman, Robert Schmitz. “For many racetracks, including those in Ohio, finding a ‘niche’ on the national simulcast calendar can result in increased handle, revenues and nationwide exposure. This often means racing on weekdays or weeknights, which would lend itself to lower on-track attendances, but higher overall wagering and interest.”

The letter contained Penn National’s last attempt to reach a compromise with the Ohio State Racing Commission on the trackside seating.

The panel wanted many more enclosed seats with a view of the track than the company had planned.

Snyder also made it clear that the future of the Austintown project would be in jeopardy if the commission continued to delay the transfer of a license from Beulah Park near Columbus to Hollywood Slots at Mahoning Valley Race Course.

“We conduct over 1,200 race dates each year that generate over $1 billion in annual pari-mutuel wagering,” the vice president wrote. “Our namesake racetrack opened in 1972 and racing continues to be an important part of the company’s past, present and future. In short, we are well versed in racing and we take our rich racing heritage very seriously.”

The message from Penn National got through loud and clear because the state racing commission last week approved the license transfer based on the company’s last proposal for seating at the track.

Making money

The video-lottery terminals (electronic slot machines) will be the draw, but if horse racing takes off, Penn National will expand the seating at the race track. After all, the company isn’t in the gambling business to lose money.

But while the Austintown racino is now a reality, the Phantoms hockey team that plays at the Youngstown-owned Covelli Centre is struggling to expand its fan base.

Zoldan, chief executive officer of B.J. Alan Co. fireworks (Weimer is vice president and general counsel), acknowledges that hockey has been a tough sell in the Valley and that the attendance at home games have failed to meet expectations. The attendance has been among the worst in the U.S. Hockey League since the team was launched nearly four years ago.

What’s the answer? Slot machines at the Covelli Centre so Valley residents can gamble and watch a hockey game.

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