When asked how he’s holding up through all of this – through a season suspension turned campaign cancellation, through bans on mass gatherings, through travel bans, through an ever-changing response to a crisis – ECHL commissioner Ryan Crelin laughs. Not because any of this is funny, of course. No, it’s a laugh that's all too familiar in times such as these, one that's equal parts exhaustion and disbelief. It’s also the laugh of a commissioner who is in his second season at the helm of one of North America’s top minor leagues and had to make the impossibly difficult decision to pull the plug on his league’s 2019-20 campaign amid a literal global pandemic.
To be sure, this isn’t a position Crelin could have ever dreamt he and his league would be in, not even in his worst nightmare. Right about now, he was supposed to be overseeing a league that was playing out the final weeks of its regular season and gearing up for the post-season, a league that had two teams tied for top spot and a trio of clubs within eight points of that coveted first seed. Crelin was supposed to be looking forward to the Kelly Cup presentation and the ECHL playing out what had potential to be a successful playoffs. Instead, after following the NHL’s lead and announcing last week that the ECHL had suspended play, Crelin was penning an announcement regarding the cancellation of the 2019-20 season.
So, yeah, when Crelin is asked how he’s feeling, he laughs.
“I'm not certain I can put it into words,” Crelin said. “It's been a drain and it's been a lot of hours, which I've got not problem putting them in, it just becomes frustrating when you can't find a way to make it work.”
And try to find ways he, along with his staff, the ECHL's Board of Governors and the players' association, did. Said Crelin, there was a consistent sentiment among stakeholders that they wanted to find a way to make this all work, find a way to stay in lockstep with the NHL and AHL who have remained steadfast in their decision to keep their respective seasons on pause. But the ECHL simply couldn’t. The situation surrounding the coronavirus outbreak has been evolving by the hour. The guidelines and mandates put in place governments at all levels have increased in magnitude as the virus has spread. And the only real constant for the league’s decision-makers as they monitored the situation was the ability to poke holes in every conceivable course of action as it pertained to resuming the season at some point down the road.
“We couldn't find a way to check all the boxes, and the longer we waited, the more things were changing,” Crelin said. “All parties involved, the players' union and us, recognized that speed was of importance here. As we sit here, even a few days after the decision, that's been reaffirmed.”
Right decision or not, though, there are going to be financial impacts felt from the closure of the league. That’s particularly true when it comes to ticket sales, which is where much of the revenue is generated in a league such as the ECHL that doesn’t have a considerable streaming audience and little or nothing in the way of television agreements.
“It’s totally gate-driven league,” said Cary Kaplan, president and GM of the Brampton Beast. “Revenues in the ECHL come from ticket sales and, secondary, from sponsorship, and sponsors are there because there’s people in the seats. So, you can really say that in essence all the revenue is based on the gate.”
And despite the fact the vast majority of the season was in the books – all but two teams had played 60 games of the 72-game schedule – that leaves a few teams looking at considerable losses. “We had a number of teams that had five, six, seven, eight home games left, so that's a lot of revenue, a lot of excitement, a lot of staying relevant in our markets thats no longer there,” Crelin said. “The playoffs, a very exciting time, brings out a lot of fans especially as we get into round three and round four, those are no longer there.”
If there is a silver-lining to be found, however, it might just be the timing. Despite a number of teams losing several home games and potential post-season revenue, Phil Cyrenne, an economics professor at the University of Winnipeg, noted that much of the costs incurred by teams at the minor league level come at the beginning of the season. Not only that, but that contracts were essentially terminated as a result of the league shutdown will free teams from their largest expenses. “It’s all player salary and associated with that is travel,” Cyrenne said. “Basically it’s a labor-cost driven industry.”
But does that mean each team will make it through this unscathed? Crelin can’t say. “I'm not going to sit here and say I'm concerned about a certain team,” he said. “I'm concerned about everybody in the league. Even the teams at the top are going to feel a financial impact from this and a community impact and potentially lose some relevancy in their community because we were set to go for another three weeks regular season and after for those teams that made the playoffs.”
As for what comes next, no one knows. No one can, not really. There is still so much uncertainty as to a timeline for the slowing of the spread of coronavirus or when there will be a return to some sense of day-to-day normalcy. But Crelin’s belief is the ECHL will survive through this.
“That's part of making this decision,” Crelin said. “We're going to work together with the league and the players' association to try and put steps in place so that it isn't the straw that breaks the camel's back and we can ride out this tough time and come out of it together.”
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