From the Tribune-Democrat in Johnstown, PA
Local natives build careers with SMG
By CHIP MINEMYER
Jon Petrunak’s father has a dentist’s office on Franklin Street in Johnstown, not far from the Cambria County War Memorial Arena.
Jason Varnish remembers learning to skate at the arena when he was a youngster in Westmont.
Both local natives have been climbing the corporate ladder at SMG Sports and Entertainment, the national company now managing the War Memorial.
And they take special pride in seeing their company help elevate the venue in their hometown with enhanced technology and better access to a variety of entertainment options.
“It’s very exciting with SMG being in the Johnstown market,” Petrunak said. “I have a personal tie to the community, so I take a lot of pride in being able to help as the War Memorial moves forward.”
‘I love the variety’
Varnish attended Westmont Hilltop School District through ninth grade before moving to the Pittsburgh area, where he graduated from Plum High School.
He earned a communications degree from IUP and followed up with a master’s degree in sports management from Slippery Rock.
Varnish said a marketing internship with the Pittsburgh Steelers helped launch his career. SMG had handled ticketing at Three Rivers Stadium, and the company followed the football team to Heinz Field.
He eventually joined the staff at Heinz Field and became events manager after a stint in ticket sales and marketing at Robert Morris University.
“The first thing is that you’ve got to learn how to turn off being a fan,” Varnish said. “I learned that first when I started with the Steelers. I grew up a Steelers fan. Working with the team is different.”
The next team he worked with was the Pittsburgh Penguins. Varnish moved to Mellon Arena six years ago, working with SMG, and has been the box office manager at Mellon for four years.
The job has gotten busier, he said, as the Penguins were improving on the way to the 2009 Stanley Cup championship. Now, every home game at Mellon is sold out.
“The first couple of years I worked here, the Penguins were struggling,” Varnish said. “You used to be able to work the first and second periods and then go out and find an empty seat to watch the rest of a game. It’s not like that anymore. I haven’t watched a game in four years – not since they drafted Sidney Crosby.”
Like the War Memorial, Mellon Arena is home to many nonhockey events.
“I love the variety and diversity of the people you see,” he said. “You could have George Strait in for a country show on Friday, Rod Stewart doing rock and roll on Saturday and then a Stars On Ice family show on Sunday. And for that reason you are constantly adjusting what you do for your customers.”
Varnish also manages ticket sales for non-Pitt athletic events at nearby Petersen Events Center.
He is now involved in preparing for the move to the new Consol Energy Center across the street this fall. The facility will become the new home of the Penguins and downtown Pittsburgh’s top entertainment venue.
“SMG is working on a seating chart for the new arena, getting ready for a September opening,” he said. “We’re going to have to go up for sale with seats that aren’t even bolted down yet. But years of experience, especially working with Ticketmaster, should make it an easy transition.”
Varnish said his father and grandparents still live in Johnstown.
“The bulk of my family is still there,” he said.
He recently spent time in his hometown helping with SMG’s transition at the War Memorial.
Varnish is married with two children.
‘Every day is different’
Petrunak is national director of booking for SMG.
He is a 1997 graduate of Forest Hills High School in Sidman, where he wrestled and played on a Rangers football team that reached the state championship game.
Petrunak earned a sports and entertainment degree at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va.
He also has an MBA from Kutztown University.
His career began with an internship with the Reading Phillies minor league baseball team. He met his future wife while working in Reading.
In 2001, he joined SMG as box office manager for the Sovereign Center and Sovereign Performing Arts Center in Reading.
Then in 2007, Petrunak moved to Philadelphia to help oversee booking for all of SMG’s venues across the country.
“It’s exciting. Every day is different,” Petrunak said. “You deal with so many personalities. It’s an interesting business, for sure.”
Petrunak said he was back in the Johnstown region over the holidays.
And each month he leads a conference call with all SMG venue managers to discuss opportunities to book entertainment tours.
Timothy Landis, general manager of the War Memorial Arena since the summer, is among those taking part in those monthly strategy sessions.
“Whenever tours are being set up and routed, we have the relationships to bring those shows to our venues,” Petrunak said. “I present the ability to represent numerous venues with one phone call. That’s a big advantage.”
And he enjoys seeing tours with which he works take shows to his hometown venue.
“Our bread and butter at SMG is venues that are midsized – like Johnstown, like Reading, like Youngstown (Ohio),” Petrunak said. “You’re dealing with the same promoters, the same agents – having those relationships that have been in place for years. And we have a nice core of GMs that we can work with.”