Cary Kaplan entered mid-March thinking the Brampton Beast would finish the winter strong. The club ranked third in the ECHL’s North division after 62 regular-season games.
Kaplan, the team’s president and general manager, thought a postseason run could lend momentum to the crucial summer selling season, when clubs such as his make money on season tickets and sponsorships.
Then, on Mar. 11, NBA player Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, becoming one of the highest-profile patients in the worldwide pandemic. His diagnosis prompted the NBA to suspend its season, and soon other outfits – from heavyweights such as Major League Baseball to minor leagues including the ECHL – followed.
Suddenly Kaplan, whose team was averaging 2,452 spectators per game, had to suspend his medium-term strategy to boost attendance and focus on mitigating long-term damage then ramping up business after a prolonged pause.
Kaplan isn’t alone. From beer leagues to the NHL, the hockey industry is trying to prepare for what happens after COVID-19, even though nobody knows what even happens next.
Much depends on just how long social-distancing orders force leagues to suspend play, but Kaplan is confident that both his team and the NHL will rebound.
“Optimism is important,” he says. “Hockey endured through the Spanish flu and two World Wars. Things happen. Hockey stops, and it comes back.”
Players in the pro-hockey business are hesitant to speculate about the industry’s post-pandemic future. The Maple Leafs declined to comment for this article, as did the NHL.
Their silence is understandable. By late March, infection rates in the United States hadn’t leveled off, with the number of new cases doubling every three days in New York state.
By then, the league had already announced it was cutting office employees’ salaries by 25 per cent, a temporary measure meant to prevent layoffs and a sign of the situation’s gravity. On Mar. 25, the league also confirmed it would postpone its annual entry draft, scheduled for June 25 and 26.
In public statements, however, Commissioner Gary Bettman has expressed confidence that the NHL will finish the 2020-2021 season and playoffs – eventually.
“[The proposed postseason] has to have integrity,” Bettman said Mar. 19 on the ESPN talk show Get Up. “It has to be respectful of the over-100-year history of the Stanley Cup. That’s something we’re focused on.”
The suspended season comes midway through the NHL’s 12-year, $5.2-billion broadcast deal with Rogers Communications, a contract that broke records but the value of which depends on games actually happening.
Sports-business professor Norm O’Reilly says a cancelled season would cost the NHL and its partners a fortune, but adds that the league could actually benefit if it can return to arenas and airwaves by late spring, especially with events such as the French Open and 2020 Summer Olympics postponed.
“This would be an incredible opportunity if there was content [to broadcast],” says O’Reilly, director of the University of Guelph’s International Institute for Sports Business and Leadership. “Everybody is at home, bored. This is a dream time for the Leafs to have 4 million viewers instead of 2 million.”
During the hiatus, the NHL’s communications team is encouraging fans to binge-watch old games on league-controlled platforms and engage with players on social media. Those strategies aim to keep fans connected while play is suspended and weren’t available during the previous significant stoppage, the lockout that cost the 2004-2005 season.
Kaplan points out that fans came back after the lockout, and this time they may not stray as far.
“The lockout wasn’t going to last forever,” says Kaplan, who also runs the sports business consultancy Cosmos Sports. “But it felt like it right in the middle of it.”
O’Reilly stresses that an NHL rebound depends on the length and breadth of the pandemic and its economic ripple effects. If the worldwide health crisis triggers an economic recession, hockey won’t be the only industry hobbled.
“This is much bigger than hockey,” he says. “This is where concern over a recession really hits us all.”
Otherwise, the pause in play could create opportunities. By Mar. 26, equipment manufacturer Bauer had seized its chance to help, for example, producing protective visors for doctors and nurses.
The hiatus will also spur teams and leagues to optimize their health and safety habits. Kaplan says the post-pandemic Brampton Beast will make a renewed commitment to cleanliness everywhere, from the team bus to its home arena, the CAA Centre. Kaplan likens future countermoves to the now-ubiquitous netting that protects spectators from projectiles leaving the rink.
“These things certainly can make organizations better,” he says. “You don’t see people complaining about the netting behind the goal.”
O’Reilly thinks the time off will prompt NHL teams to merge better business practices with the benevolent goal of stopping the spread of infectious diseases at public gatherings. It could result in teams perfecting touch-free digital technology in arenas or downsizing offices while employees work remotely.
Or, he says, teams may intentionally limit crowd size while finding more ways to distribute live content digitally.
“Maybe we’re going to see 5,000-seat arenas, fewer people there and more people consuming in other ways,” he says. “We’ve been forecasting these things for years. Maybe this will speed up the process.”