In a typical year, the Grand Rapids Griffins would be more than a month into its season on the ice.
This year, though, the American Hockey League organization has found itself sitting, waiting and bracing for what promises to be a rough season on the balance sheet — that is, if the team laces up the skates at all.
A broad surge in COVID-19 cases has not only delayed this year’s AHL season by several months, but if a season ever does get rolling, Griffins management doesn’t know what to expect from one of its primary revenue sources: Fans in the stands.
“It’s not going to be a good financial year even if we come back under limited fans,” said Griffins President Tim Gortsema. “Whether that’s 25 percent or whatever — it’s still going to be not a good financial year at all for the team. However, we have always been committed to being a good league partner to the AHL as a whole and try to be a good partner to our affiliate,” the Detroit Red Wings.
The AHL normally begins its season in October. On the heels of a premature ending to last season, Gortsema said it became apparent over the summer that the October start date was not realistic.
The National Hockey League plans to kick off its new season at the beginning of January while the board of governors for the AHL settled on a Feb. 5, 2021 start date, even with no signs of COVID subsiding.
Gortsema said AHL team leaders will reconvene this month for discussions. Individual teams will decide whether to play the season.
For the Griffins, it’s too early to tell.
“Every American Hockey League team, I think first and foremost, they want to be a good partner to their NHL team,” Gortsema said. “So, in our case, be a good partner to the Detroit Red Wings. If the NHL comes back in January or February, they’re going to need access to a player supply base in terms of supplementing their rosters due to injuries and call-ups and things of that nature. … But it’s to be determined how the next number of weeks or months will play out with the virus.”
Roughly two-thirds of the AHL teams are directly owned by their NHL affiliate. These teams might find it in their best interest to subsidize a financially hobbled AHL team if it means maintaining access to players. The Griffins are independently owned.
“I think the league is sensitive to all of the independent teams,” Gortsema said. “At the end of the day, it has to work for both sides. ...We’re just trying to figure out if we can find a happy medium here that works.”
Kalamazoo, Muskegon teams forge ahead
[UPDATE: Kalamazoo Wings call off 2020-21 season]
The Kalamazoo Wings, which compete in the ECHL, get a small jumpstart on the Griffins while the Muskegon Lumberjacks — a tier 1 junior hockey team of the United States Hockey League — has already kicked off its season, although recent statewide health restrictions have delayed their home opener at Mercy Health Arena.
The K-Wings are slated to start their season on Jan. 15.
Barring any major changes in regulations, K-Wings Business Operations Director Toni Will is tentatively planning to welcome roughly 500 fans into the Wings Event Center for the early season. That’s 10 percent capacity for an arena that seats 5,100, and the scant crowds won’t do the K-Wings any favors.
“Does that cover our costs? No, not even close,” Will said of the 10 percent capacity scenario. “But, we are privately owned and we are fortunate in our ownership of (Greenleaf Companies Chairman) Bill Johnston and (Stryker Corp. Director) Ronda Stryker — they are very community focused and are very passionate about the Kalamazoo Wings.”
Will added that the organization has around 500 season ticket holders, which would give those fans exclusivity to watch the team play and, if regulations ease up during the course of the season, the organization could sell additional tickets.
With limited fans, both the K-Wings and Griffins are forced to think outside the box on how to recuperate revenue lost to both ticket sales and traditional sponsorships that rely on signage and in-game announcements at the arena.
“The inability to have games is devastating,” said Tom Sullivan, president and co-owner of LEAD Marketing Agency in Grand Rapids, which works with both the Griffins and Grand Rapids Drive basketball team. “They get their revenue from ticket sales and when there are no games there is no ticket sales. Even if there is 25 percent occupancy, or whatever it ends up being, that is very difficult for minor league local teams.”
Social media is one avenue to generate visibility for sponsors.
The Griffins’ Gortsema praised the organization’s robust social media following, which is among the top in the AHL. When the pandemic started to interfere with operations, he said the organization leaned on social media to provide exposure for sponsors.
The Griffins also have a radio broadcasting deal and stream games on AHLTV, just as all other teams in the league do.
“These are all small potatoes relative to the bigger dynamic of being able to have fans in the stands and everything that goes with that,” Gortsema said. “But at least it’s an opportunity to generate some revenue.”
The K-Wings will also be unveiling a league-wide streaming platform through FloSports.tv to increase visibility for the team and sponsors. Will said the team is using every available resource, which includes its digital marquee that faces I-94 and receives 33,000 impressions per side each day.