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Youngstown Phantoms’ Promos Build Local Ties

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – For most of their 60 games each season, the Youngstown Phantoms take the ice in their standard purple and orange accented uniforms. But a few times every season, the hockey team gears up in attire of a different color.

Once each spring, the team colors are replaced with pink for the Phantoms’ Pink in the Rink night. Tomorrow, the team will dress as Stormtroopers for its first Star Wars Night. Players have dressed in camo, as Captain America and in jerseys that look like they’ve been splattered with paint.

These sartorial decisions aren’t just because the Phantoms front office or 25-man roster thinks it’d be fun to sport a different look now and again.

“This is the success of our team,” says Shane Stout, the Phantoms’ director of sales and service. “If you look at these nights, they’re the ones that generate the most people at our games. They’re our most successful nights throughout the season.”

The promotional events benefit local organizations. Star Wars Night on Friday, for example, supports Akron Children’s Hospital Mahoning Valley through a portion of ticket sales and a post-game auction of the jerseys. The same goes for the camouflage jerseys on Feb. 17, with proceeds supporting local chapters of Disabled American Veterans, and pink uniforms March 10 for the Joanie Abdu Comprehensive Breast Care Center.

“We want to be a community partner. We are a business, but we want to be that community partner,” Stout says. “We want to give back by tying these promotions to the community.”

Developing such partnerships works both ways, he adds, with the team approaching a group if they believe there’s a natural fit for an event and, at other times, a group coming to them with ideas.

There are also smaller promotional nights throughout the season. On Dec. 1, the Phantoms welcomed wrestler Jerry “The King” Lawler for a game-long autograph session and ceremonial puck drop. For the Jan. 15 game, the team is hosting Library Day and encouraging kids to dress as their favorite literary character. Later that week, the team will have the Pittsburgh Penguins mascot, Iceburgh, in attendance.

“With these themes, you have something for everybody,” says Julie Mros, director of game operations and marketing coordinator. “You have something for the person who wants to watch hockey. There’s the person who wants to watch the mascot. There are the people who want to help the community. You have all of that for the whole family.”

Like minor league teams across the country, a full promotional schedule is essential for the Phantoms. Ticket sales for those games are between 25% and 35% higher than those with no special event attached, Stout says.

With so much on the line, supporting both the team’s operation and community organizations, planning for these nights begins months in advance.

Not long after the season ends in the spring, the Phantoms front office gets together for a day-long meeting. Everyone from owners Troy and Aafke Loney to those in the ticket office get together to toss around ideas for the upcoming season.

“It’s what the best response was,” Mros says of the events brought back for another season. “We always do a survey at the end of the year that fans can take. But going back to the community, as long as what we did benefited them, we’ll go back to events.”

The group reviews the success of the previous season’s special nights and pitches additions for the next. Should a promotion fall flat but the organization it supported liked it, they’ll talk about what can be modified and improved.

Sometimes it’s as simple as rescheduling an event, as was the case with Pink in the Rink and Military Appreciation Night. The former, Mros says, took place in October during Breast Cancer Awareness Month while the latter was in December. While attendance for both was good, it could have been better.

The result was moving Pink in the Rink to March and Military Appreciation to February.

“Our military night does well in February. A lot of teams do it around Veterans Day, but we do ours in February and that’s where [Disabled American Veterans] wants it,” she says.

The organizations the team supports are consulted in setting a date, with long-time participants given preference for the bigger games. In some cases, the organizations come to the team with ideas for how to update their night from year to year.

Akron Children’s Hospital, for example, wanted to do something different than years past and threw out the idea of Star Wars Night. Through contacts at Lucasfilm, Stout secured the production company’s blessing.

“It gives it legitimacy in knowing that we have approval from Lucasfilms. They sent [an announcement] out to their costumed fan groups and so now they’re coming out to the game,” he said. “There’ll be a ton of Star Wars characters walking around the concourse.”

Mros adds, “It also makes it easier on the marketing side. We promoted it with a video that we made with their approval where we were able to use the Star Wars entrance with the stars and text to make it more of that feel.”

In addition, the team will give away miniature lightsabers to the first 1,000 fans.

When it comes to new events, ideas are drawn from a multitude of places. With 12 years’ experience in hockey, including time with the Detroit Red Wings and Florida Panthers, Stout has brought in ideas he used elsewhere.

Among the new events for the Phantoms: Hockey for the Homeless to benefit Rescue Mission of the Mahoning Valley. It was something that worked for another junior hockey team and one that Stout is excited to bring here.

Another source is the United States Hockey League’s annual meeting, where teams discuss what they have planned for promotions. One event the USHL is looking to emulate leaguewide is the Phantoms’ School Day Game.

“First and foremost, it’s about providing an educational aspect. We bring in STEM and other aspects during the game,” Stout says. “It’s about bringing in kids who normally wouldn’t come to a hockey game – or even couldn’t come to a hockey game – and starting them off at the high school level.”

But beyond just welcoming students through the doors for a game, the team is also educating them about the game. The team donates equipment to area schools and, in some cases, has players teach the fundamentals to students during their gym classes.

“[Students] can start understanding hockey so that by the time they come to a game, they know what’s going on,” Mros says. “If you’re just thrown into a sport you don’t know, it isn’t as much fun.”

Putting players out in the community serves a few purposes. It can serve as a marketing tool, letting people know about the team and get to know players beyond what’s listed in their biographies in game programs. The activities also serve as a form of team-building.

Roster turnover in the USHL is high – only seven players on the roster were with the Phantoms last season and, of those, only three were with the team for the 2015-16 season. So every season the players have to get acquainted with new teammates.

“Getting them out to the Rescue Mission to serve dinner is huge for them. They’re having fun. They’re meeting people and they’re using those team skills,” Stout says.

Adds Mros, “I try to change up the players as much as possible so it’s different groups. Having them do things they wouldn’t normally do are good exercises. Because they have to use each other to figure out how to get it done.”

Another aspect of the Phantoms’ marketing focuses on the caliber of play in the USHL. Five former Phantoms have played in the NHL and 46 have gone on to play in the NCAA.

“I don’t think people yet realize the level of play the Phantoms are at,” Stout says. “These are future NHL stars. They’ll go on to [NCAA] Division I and then on to their NHL careers. That’s part of this marketing: getting people through the doors to see this product.”

Pictured: The Phantoms’ Julie Mros and Shane Stout are part of the team that comes up with the schedule of promotions.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.