A season without fans could mean no season for many ECHL teams

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The ECHL affiliate of the New York Rangers and Hartford Wolf Pack, the Maine Mariners, have released a 62-game schedule for the 2021 season. The ECHL and Professional Hockey Players’ Association released plans for a strange split season, with some teams playing a 72-game season starting Dec. 11 and the rest of the league playing 62 games starting on Jan. 15. The Maine Mariners and the rest of the North Division of the ECHL are included in the group starting in January. Most of New England and Eastern Canada still face heavy restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, so the decision was made to push back the start in the hope that restrictions may be lifted. 

Danny Briere, the vice president of operations for the Maine Mariners, said in a statement, “Due to the current indoor capacity restrictions in the state of Maine, as well as similar challenges faced by each of our divisional opponents, we concluded a Jan. 15 start was the most realistic possibility.” 

The issue that teams face this season is that states like Maine still have very strict limits on the amount of people allowed in indoor gatherings, with Maine still being capped at 100 people. ECHL teams don’t bring in the advertising and broadcasting revenue or fan numbers that teams in the National or American Hockey Leagues do, so they are reliant on the ticket sales brought in by their small, dedicated fan bases. Teams like the Mariners play inside arenas designed for attendance twice the amount that they bring in, so operating costs are quite expensive for the smaller teams in the league.  

Jim Gailey, the manager for Cumberland County who owns the Cross Insurance Arena, told reporters, “As you can imagine, 100 people doesn’t really cut it for a 6,000-seat arena, particularly when we have a minor league hockey team dependent on revenue from ticket sales. We also understand safety. By no means are we asking to sit 6,000 in that building or even half that.” 

The Mariners will also face struggles when it comes to playing games away from their home arena in Portland. The state of Maine has mandatory 14-day quarantines for travelers returning from states that it deems hotspots, and the only ECHL locations that are exempt from Maine’s current list are the Worcester Railers of Massachusetts and the Adirondack Thunder of Glen Falls, New York. 

Mariners management have said that a business model like this is completely unsustainable for the team long term. As a result of the economic downturn and an increase in spending on safety measures, there is a lot of pressure on organizations. 

“No fans in the stands is pretty much a non-starter for us,” Adam Goldberg, the Mariners’ vice president of business operations said. “Based on the business model of the ECHL, everyone needs to have fans in the stands.” 

Without fans in the stands for the season, many ECHL fans may have to shut down or relocate if the owners are no longer able to financially support the organization. This will definitely be one of the most stressful and most interesting seasons for the ECHL.  

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