The ECHL now plans to begin its season in mid-December. Fans of the Komets are going to have to wait more than a month longer.
The league announced its return-to-play plan Friday and 13 teams will start Dec. 11. Another 12, including the Komets, are slated to begin Jan. 15. One team, the Atlanta Gladiators, has opted out of this season altogether amid COVID-19 concerns.
It’s important to recognize that member teams, generally considered small businesses, are facing different challenges when deciding whether or when they can play amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. Their decisions are predicated on factors including safety protocols set by local health officials; the amount of money they’re willing to potentially lose because of reduced attendance; who owns and operates the arena, and how much revenue is split between the building and the team; and even the size and construction of their arenas.
In the case of the Komets, they don’t get a portion of the concessions or parking from Memorial Coliseum, so their revenue is largely dictated by attendance and advertising, which is affected by the number of fans in the building.
Last season, the Komets averaged a league-best 8,090 fans per game, in a building that can seat up to approximately 10,500. Under current social-distancing restrictions, the Komets could only allow about 1,400 fans -- less than half their base of season-ticket holders -- though that number could increase soon. Despite its size, because the Coliseum was built in 1952, it doesn’t have as much space between seats as some newer arenas.
“The Komets cannot start in December based on capacity restrictions for the Coliseum and for the safety of our tremendous fans, staff, players and coaches. We want to make sure that we are doing the right thing when it comes down to having Komets fans in The Jungle,” Komets president Michael Franke said in a news release. “The teams that have chosen to play in December have different building leases and health department requirements that allow them to play.”
The teams slated to begin play in December include Allen, Florida, Greenville, Indy, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Orlando, Rapid City, South Carolina, Tulsa, Utah, Wheeling and Wichita.
Local fans will surely wonder why the in-state rival Indy Fuel can play in December but the Komets cannot, and Franke said: “Indy has a different lease situation than we do in Fort Wayne. They are able to play at a larger percentage of total capacity than we are at this moment. Our business model in Fort Wayne is set up for ticket revenue and sponsorships since we do not get a portion of concessions and parking, so their economic model is different than ours.”
The two Canadian teams, the Newfoundland Growlers and Brampton Beast, face particularly significant challenges because of border crossings, an issue that hasn’t been resolved.
The Komets have 20 players under contract so far, with a roster than looks much stronger than last season, and their full anticipated schedule will come at a later date.
The teams that begin play in December will skate 72-game regular seasons. The others will play 62 games. Standings will be based on winning percentages, and a format for the playoffs hasn’t been announced.
“Our goal is to work closely with the Coliseum and our local health officials to create an environment that is committed to the safety of our fans. When play commences all of the necessary precautions will be in place to put our fans at ease when they enter the building,” Franke said.
“We will need patience from our great fans as there will be reduced capacity when play starts in January. Fans might sit in different seat locations for a while until this awful pandemic is controlled. We are hopeful that everyone will understand this and help us bring back Komet hockey safely.”
The regular season is expected to conclude June 6.
“This delay to start playing in mid-January will give us more time for restrictions to be relaxed. It’s been frustrating and disappointing for our staff, players and fans, but safety is our primary concern,” Komets general manager David Franke said.
“We feel we have a great group of players assembled at this point. More will be added to start training camp sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Day. For the 2021 season, let’s all stay positive and hope that science will free us from the grips of this world pandemic.”