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Wheeling arena sees hockey attendance boost

618196_1WHEELING, W.Va. — People who attend a sporting event usually spend money on more than just their ticket, so increased fan enthusiasm for the Wheeling Nailers this year could be good news for WesBanco Arena’s bottom line – to the tune of several thousand dollars per game.

Those dollars, however, are more than just additional funds in the arena’s coffers – they could help erase an operating deficit if they hold steady.

The Nailers’ average paid attendance through the first five home games is 3,250. That’s about 1,000 ahead of the average during the 2013-14 season, when the team ranked dead last in the ECHL.

“There’s obviously a buzz. People are talking about the Nailers on the street. That’s a good thing,” said Denny Magruder, executive director of the Greater Wheeling Sports and Entertainment Authority, which oversees operations at the arena and Capitol Theatre.

Magruder estimates each person spends an average of $4.75 to $6 on concessions or other merchandise, which translates to $4,750 to $6,000 in additional sales per game. If those attendance numbers hold up throughout the hockey season, that would mean an additional $171,000 to $216,000 in sales over 36 home games, not counting revenue from potential playoff contests.

Such an increase in revenue would more than erase the arena’s operating deficit, which was about $151,000 for the 2013-14 fiscal year.

The true impact of the boost in attendance isn’t yet known – the arena’s latest financial report is through Sept. 30, before hockey season began – and Magruder isn’t quite ready to make that bold of a prediction just yet.

“I think compared to last year, we’re right on target,” he said.

Sometimes, attendance numbers can be misleading, Magruder said. For example, the most well-attended game this year was Education Day for area schools on Nov. 19, a rare Wednesday morning event – and with so many students in the crowd, that didn’t necessarily translate to big sales.

“They’re not running up there buying a beer and a hot dog. Most of them probably brought their own lunch. But that’s not all bad,” Magruder said, adding the game those students saw – a come-from-behind thriller that saw the Nailers erase a 2-0 deficit to force overtime, and win in a shootout – is the kind that builds a loyal following. “You’re still drawing an audience.”

The increased attendance comes as the city prepares to make major improvements to the 37-year-old arena.

An $853,000 videoboard system remains on track for installation in January, the first of three phases in the planned arena overhaul, overall cost estimates for which have fluctuated between $4 million and $5.5 million. City leaders plan to sell bonds to fund the project backed by a portion of municipal sales tax revenue.

“It’s not only the center-hung, but the auxiliary boards and the ribbon boards. … As many as five people will work in the control room on game nights,” Magruder said. “This is much more than just a scoreboard.”

Magruder said the existing center-mounted scoreboard, which dates back to the 1970s, likely will be scrapped.

“It certainly will have no resale value to anybody. … It’s pretty tired,” he said.

Magruder said preparatory work, such as wiring, can be done during off days leading up to January, and it should only take contractors about a day and a half to install the videoboard system. After that, they’ll have to tiptoe around a busy month of events at the arena to get the work done.

“Disney on Ice” runs from Jan. 1-4, then there’s a four-day break before the Nailers have home games on three consecutive nights, Jan. 9-11. The OVAC Wrestling Tournament, one of the arena’s biggest events, is slated Jan. 15-17, and the Nailers are scheduled for back-to-back home dates Jan. 23-24.

The annual Red Cross Media Blood Donor Day is Jan. 26, and the Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce Home and Garden Show begins Jan. 31.

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