Current social distancing guidelines, requiring fans to be 6 feet apart, would put Memorial Coliseum's capacity for sporting events at about 1,400 this fall. Unless those restrictions are loosened, it's unlikely the Komets would start play as scheduled.
Komets president Michael Franke and Coliseum manager Randy Brown affirmed that, stating financial losses for the team and the arena would be too great for it to be worthwhile. They remain hopeful health regulations will soften by October, but as Brown said: “When that'll happen is the million-dollar question.”
The ECHL's owners will meet virtually next Tuesday, Franke said, to determine a process of moving forward. They won't know then if the season can start on time, but they will try to figure out how long they can wait to make a determination.
“I'm very optimistic that we will play. Whether that's starting in October or November, that's anybody's guess right now,” Franke said.
The Komets are slated to open the regular season Oct. 16 at Indianapolis and face the Indy Fuel at the Coliseum on Oct. 17.
The Komets' base of season-ticket holders is around 3,300. The team drew as many as 10,479 spectators last season.
“With social distancing at 6 feet, there would be no way for us to play,” Franke said. “Whereby I can't speak for the entire league, I would pretty much be able to tell you that if 6 feet was still intact, I don't think anyone would be able to be financially viable.”
The NHL may have the financial infrastructure, including TV contracts, to play with no fans in buildings, but the ECHL is more reliant on ticket-buying fans.
“The big guys, they can play in front of empty stadiums because they have all the revenue,” Franke said. “Minor league hockey and baseball and basketball, we all count on sponsorship revenue and ticket revenue. If you don't have fans, you're not going to have either one of those.”
The Komets led the ECHL in average announced attendance last season – 8,090 fans per game – and the league average was 4,327. Every building would have a reduced capacity with social distancing. Some newer arenas, with more space between seats, might be able to get a greater proportion of their fans into games than Fort Wayne.
The ECHL's offseason schedule has, so far, remained the same as past years. Teams can begin signing players to contracts today.
Social distancing isn't the only big issue that could hinder the start to an ECHL season; it will also have to come up with a plan to field teams without NHL- or American Hockey League-contracted players. The NHL still expects to conclude this season and begin the 2020-21 season as late as January.
“Your ECHL teams are going to go out and they're going to sign (all) ECHL-contracted players, so that when things fire up we can start playing again,” Franke said. “Everybody can put a team out on the ice and it would remain to be seen whether or not the NHL and AHL would allow any of their players to come to (our) minor league.”
Playing in front of only 1,400 fans wouldn't just be a financial obstacle for the Komets; it would also be problematic for the Coliseum.
“It doesn't make much sense because we have to staff at a greater level,” Brown said. “If you think of guest services, the usher crew, we will have to have more staff to manage the social distancing. So it's a lose-lose situation for everyone.”
Brown, a member of the Event Safety Alliance, said the Coliseum will have more stringent sanitizing that includes using electrostatic spraying units on seats, in restrooms and in locker rooms. During games, it will take more staff to clean touchpoints and monitor employees, athletes and reporters with temperature checks upon entering the building.
The Coliseum expects to lose between $2.9 million and $3.4 million this year from sports, concerts and other events. About 400 people, roughly 80% of the Coliseum's staff, have been furloughed.
“I'm not sure what's going to happen with this fall or even going into 2021,” Brown said. “We were off to an amazing start this year, too. Kiss was sold out (in February) and other shows to be played were either at sellout proportions or nearly sold out. The other concerts that we had on sale, everything was past break even.”
Limited capacity might have less of an impact on the Mad Ants, who aren't expected to start their season until December, or Purdue Fort Wayne basketball, which regularly draws in the hundreds. New leases with the Coliseum – the Mad Ants and PFW are in negotiations and the Komets have a year left – could include shared cleaning costs.