By David Skolnick
The Covelli Centre has come to an agreement in principle with the Phantoms for the amateur hockey team to play its home games at the city-owned facility for the next three seasons with an increase in the cost of rent.
A deal could be finalized as early as today, but the main points of the agreement won’t be changed, officials on both sides said Monday.
Attendance has improved in recent weeks for the Phantoms with crowds of at least 2,000 at the team’s last four games. But with two home games left, its average attendance this season is 1,333 a game — the second-lowest in the United States Hockey League.
After lengthy negotiations, JAC Management Group, which runs the center, and Phantoms ownership — Bruce Zoldan, and Troy and Aafke Loney — ironed out particulars of the deal Monday. JAC’s attorney is expected to sign off on the contract as soon as today.
For the five seasons at the center, the Phantoms have paid $2,750 in rent per game. That amount will increase to $4,500 a game beginning next season, said Eric Ryan, who heads JAC and serves as the center’s executive director.
Because of the expenses — largely utilities — of having hockey, the center has lost a small amount of money having the Phantoms play there, Ryan said.
The team also pays a $750 penalty for every game with attendance under 1,500, which has happened all but about six times this season.
The new contract eliminates that penalty as well as a $750 fee the center pays to the team for tickets given to luxury-suite owners. Each suite owner will get 14 tickets per game without the center paying for them, Ryan said.
Instead of an attendance penalty, the new deal calls for a rebate if the team exceeds 47,500 fans — slightly more than 1,583 a game for the 30-game season — in the first year of the contract, 50,000 fans the following year and 55,000 in the third year.
The team would receive a $2 rebate for every fan over those numbers, up to $60,000 a year, Ryan said. To max out, the team would need to average a fraction more than 2,583 a game.
With two games left, the Phantoms’ total attendance this season is 37,340. It was 43,880 last season.
“We are pleased with the agreement and believe it’s a fair contract for all parties involved,” Ryan said. “It covers the city if attendance does not improve, yet helps the Phantoms when attendance does improve.”
If the Phantoms’ attendance improves, it would mean more money for food and beverages, and parking, he said.
Other changes include the team’s paying 75 cents per ticket, up from 50 cents, to the center. The 50 cents will continue to go directly to the facility with the 25 cents going into the center’s new capital-improvements budget.
Also, the Phantoms’ office-space rent at the center will be locked in at $18,000 annually. It was $12,000 a year if average game attendance exceeded 1,500 — which it never has — and jumped to $24,000 annually if it didn’t reach that attendance number.
Ryan said he’s excited to be working with the Loneys, who bought 50 percent of the team’s ownership last month.
They’ve “been great to work with thus far,” Ryan said. “They are tremendous assets to their organization.”
As for Zoldan, Ryan said, “Bruce is obviously a very successful businessman, but he can only be at one place at a time. With this change in ownership, we will now have an ownership in-house, making day-to-day decisions.”
The contract is fair to all parties, Zoldan said.
“I’m very optimistic we’ll have a much brighter future,” he said. “Youngstown is going to have exciting hockey. The old thought that Youngstown is not a hockey town is going to change. This contract gives us a lot of stability.”
While a decision on ticket prices hasn’t been finalized, Zoldan said, it’s likely to remain the same.
Loney, a former National Hockey League player who played on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 1991 and 1992 Stanley Cup teams, said running the Phantoms’ day-to-day business is his focus.
“There’s an opportunity and an upside to this team,” he said. “This is a viable business with a good, sound marketing effort. We have to make our product better for folks to come. If you can get people excited to come to the building to watch the team, then you get the sponsors excited and that ripple effect starts to grow.”
Mayor John A. McNally said he’s pleased that a fair deal has been reached.
Ryan’s “concern was the rent issue,” McNally said. “If attendance continues to improve, there will be systems in place for the Phantoms to be rewarded.”