Unwanted Break in the Action
By Mark Morris
When discussing the impact COVID-19 has had on the AHL’s Springfield Thunderbirds, team president Nathan Costa doesn’t mince words.
“There’s no way to sugarcoat this — it’s a challenge, and it stinks,” he said, noting that, with seven games remaining in the regular season, the Thunderbirds were close to making the playoffs when the American Hockey League (AHL) suspended play on March 12, then formally canceled the remainder of the season on May 11.
“I’ve been in the pro-sports world for more than 10 years, and none of us have ever seen anything like this,” he told BusinessWest, using that phrase to talk about everything from the sudden end to the 2019-20 season to the prospects for the season tentatively scheduled to start in just four short months.
And those sentiments were echoed by executives with teams in another sport — baseball.
Indeed, in Holyoke, the Valley Blue Sox will not be playing in 2020 as its league, the New England Collegiate Baseball League (NECBL), announced on May 1 it would cancel the entire season.
Meanwhile, the Futures Collegiate Baseball League (FCBL) has not yet canceled its season, but it has pushed back opening day from May 27 to an as-yet-undetermined date, which affects the Westfield Starfires, a team in only its second year of existence.
Chris Thompson, owner of the Starfires, said the student athletes on his roster have already missed the spring college season because the NCAA canceled it due to the coronavirus. He remains hopeful there will be some opportunity for his team to play ball this summer, adding that this will happen only if the health and safety of the players, fans, and staff at the ballpark can be assured.
“From our perspective, we won’t play until it’s safe to do so, but we won’t cancel until we’re told we have to,” Thompson said. “There’s no blueprint for this.”
Taking a Timeout
With that last statement, Thompson, who once worked as an executive with the Thunderbirds, spoke for everyone involved in professional sports. There is no blueprint for how to proceed, but teams can try to plan for the short and long term and adjust for what will certainly be a new normal.
Costa said his team and the AHL are having discussions about what the experience will look like for fans at the MassMutual Center, and other buildings in the league, if and when play returns.
He pointed out that the NHL and the NBA may be able to play in empty arenas because of lucrative TV contracts that provide a great deal of income to the teams, but playing with no fans is just not just not feasible for the AHL because so much of its revenue is from ticket sales, concessions, and other in-arena activity.
“As a league, we cannot play without people in the stands,” said Costa. “It’s pretty much impossible to generate any type of revenue, yet we would have the same amount of expense.”
“As a league, we cannot play without people in the stands. It’s pretty much impossible to generate any type of revenue, yet we would have the same amount of expense.”
Before the season was cancelled, Costa was pleased with the momentum the Thunderbirds had been building in their four years as a franchise. Through 31 home games this season, the team had nine sellouts and anticipated at least three more for their remaining games. By contrast, last year they had nine sellouts in their entire 38-game home schedule. He also cited a promotion that received national attention when the team rebranded for one game as the Springfield Ice-o-topes, in a nod to The Simpsons.
With the beginning of a new hockey season four months away, Costa said the AHL has an opportunity to see how other professional leagues handle reopening for games and get a feel for what might work, or not work, as the case may be.
“The NFL will start its season before us,” he noted, “and that will be a real barometer in terms of social distancing at stadiums and what the experience might look like for people going to games.”
He added that state officials and MassMutual Center staff continue to look at ways to make the environment safe for everyone who enters the building. The AHL is also looking at contingencies such as delaying the start of the season to December or January.
“There’s nothing stopping us from pushing back the start and then playing a little longer next year,” Costa said, “especially if it gives us a chance to get a full season in.”
Costa has good reason to be optimistic for a full season next year as it marks the fifth anniversary of the Thunderbirds and begins a new affiliation with the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues. “We’re already deep into planning what the fifth anniversary season is going to look like, and we’re excited about what the future will bring.”
Thompson had similar thoughts on the Starfires and what lies ahead for that team.
While the FCBL has been working on a plan for social distancing at the ballpark — in this case Bullens Field in Westfield — Thompson said working through an unprecedented challenge like this generates more questions than answers. How teams manage ballpark seating and concession operations are just two of the areas where he has concerns. It even affects travel, as the teams play games in three New England states.
“We usually travel on one coach bus,” he explained. “We can’t afford to have fewer people on two buses; it would double our transportation expense.”
Even if summer baseball happens this year, Thompson said coronavirus has already wrecked a special dynamic in the league. Starfire players often come to Westfield from different parts of the country and stay with local host families for the summer.
“Sometimes a family has an 8-year old Little Leaguer in the house who then has a college roommate for the summer, or we have empty nesters who are looking to host a player or two,” Thompson said. “Host families are one of the great things about summer baseball.”
Now, of course, the model of families hosting players is on hold until next year at the earliest.
Rather, Thompson is now looking to have more players from the eastern part of Massachusetts and the Hartford area of Connecticut so they could commute to games in Westfield.
With the Starfires in a holding pattern, it’s doubtful they will get to play their full 56-game schedule. During this time, Thompson has been reaching out to his corporate sponsors to keep them engaged.
“We’re looking at different ways to use our social-media platforms to get our fans involved and to give our corporate sponsors exposure,” he said.
Finding a Winning Formula
The Thunderbirds are also using social media to extend the reach of their sponsors. Costa said one effective technique has been running ‘rewinds’ of notable games from this season on Facebook. In some cases, the potential audience for sponsors can be larger than in-arena exposure.
“Our Facebook presence has grown to more than 22,000 followers, and on Instagram we have 15,000 followers, giving us a core audience of nearly 40,000 eyeballs,” Costa said, adding that many sponsors have already assured him they will be back next year.
When play was suspended, he placed a high priority on reaching out to season-ticket holders about the seven games they would be missing this year. The team provided options such as a refund for the remaining games, or a credit that would apply to tickets for next season. Costa and his staff also offered a third option.
“We’re setting aside some funds to provide tickets to frontline workers next season at no charge and to recognize all their efforts,” Costa said noting that nearly 25% of the season-ticket holders chose that option.
In a similar move, Valley Blue Sox General Manager Kate Avard said the team had planned to dedicate its opening day in 2021 to “honor and support community organizations and first responders who are currently on the front lines of combating COVID-19.”
As the area’s pro sports teams search for some answers concerning the future, they acknowledge they are hard to come by, noting that perhaps the only certainty is no shortage of uncertainty.
But guarded optimism still prevails.
“We have great community partners who want us to succeed for a long time,” said Thompson, speaking, again, for all those in his profession. “Setbacks like this make us more resilient.”