Indiana Ice owner Paul Skjodt is rolling out a plan to build a 5,000-seat hockey arena in Hamilton County to keep his team skating into the black. If he pulls it off, he could be the first franchise owner to achieve long-term financial stability in Indianapolis' seven-decade hockey history.
To fortify his effort, Skjodt recently hired a vice president of sales and marketing-someone with experience launching new arenas-and launched a grass-roots marketing campaign he hopes to parlay into profitability.
Skjodt, 48, said the franchise is breaking even, but he needs more control of revenue sources like luxury suites and concession outlets to secure the team's financial future. Now, the team plays in the 7,800-seat Pepsi Coliseum, which Skjodt said would need a major renovation to keep the Ice.
He isn't tipping his hand on sites for a new arena, but Skjodt already is putting together a financing package and said he'll likely seek state and county assistance to build the $25 million facility. He'd like to have it done within three years.
"It's not really a secret that we've been looking to build a new facility on the north side," said Skjodt, a native of Canada who played minor-league hockey for the Indianapolis Checkers in the 1980s. "We need something that is more in line with newer arenas around the country and in our league."
Founded two years ago when Skjodt bought the assets of the Indianapolis Ice, a minor-league team that folded in 2004, the franchise has established itself as a top-flight under-21 amateur squad in the U.S. Hockey League.
Skjodt chose Hamilton County as the franchise's future home because he said nearly three-fourths of ticket buyers live there or in northern Marion County. Sports marketers said the suburban location also would get the Ice out of the crosshairs of Pacers Sports & Entertainment, which operates Conseco Fieldhouse downtown.
Pacers officials had objected to a plan by a former Indianapolis Ice ownership group that proposed an 8,000- to 10,000-seat arena near downtown.
"When you start talking about trying to attract events beyond hockey to an arena that seats between 8,000 and 10,000, you're talking about direct competition for a lot of the acts the Pacers bring into Conseco," said Milton Thompson, president of Grand Slam Cos., an Indianapolis sports marketing agency. "Event hosting is a big revenue stream for the Pacers."
Skjodt, who is married to the daughter of Pacers co-owner Mel Simon, said he has talked to Pacers officials about his proposal.
"We're not interested in competing with the Pacers," he said. "If we have a 5,000-seat arena, we think we can work with Conseco Fieldhouse to handle some of the events they can't."
Skjodt thinks he can attract 130 to 150 non-hockey events per year to a facility with 75,000 square feet of convention space. Ticket sales for those events would augment the extra revenue from luxury suites and concession sales. The Ice has 30 regular-season home games and last year averaged 4,800 spectators per game.
The recent hire of Canadian Joe Kantor, 33, is a big step toward growing the franchise and starting on the stadium project, Skjodt said. Kantor worked for the London Knights hockey franchise outside Ontario for four years, overseeing development of the Knights' new 10,000-seat arena-handling naming rights and other corporate sponsorships for the John Labatt Centre.
Before that, Kantor worked for the McCann Erickson advertising agency, doing sports marketing out of Budapest, Hungary, for clients such as Gillette, Coca-Cola, General Motors Corp. and Duracell. Kantor wanted to move to the Midwest to be closer to his wife's family, and Skjodt said he was a natural fit for the Ice.
"With his background in hockey and sports marketing, he had all the skills we sought," Skjodt said. "And with his experience in opening and selling sponsorships in a new arena, we think he'll be invaluable."
One of the first things Kantor did was bring on 10 summer interns to launch the "Play Hockey" youth-outreach campaign in cooperation with area YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs and other youth organizations. Kantor and his staff talk to children about playing hockey and set up "street games" in parking lots and gymnasiums so kids can experience the game sans the ice and skates. Pucks are usually replaced with a small ball.
"Hockey isn't like basketball, baseball and football in this region," Kantor said. "Kids don't grow up with it, so we want to introduce it to them at a young age. We think that helps grow the youth leagues, which in turn will help build a fan base for our franchise long term."