GRAND RAPIDS — Tim Gortsema’s office at Van Andel Arena might not seem like the locale for optimal social distancing.
However, with his Grand Rapids Griffins stuck in limbo and a statewide halt on sports and entertainment events, it’s offered him plenty of personal space.
“We made the decision corporately that ... our staff would be working remotely,” said Gortsema, president of the Griffins. “I’m kind of the exception to that rule for today, but I’ve got better social distancing at the office than I do at home.”
However, even if Gortsema were surrounded by his staff, the American Hockey League organization would still find itself in the same position as the rest of the minor league sports franchises in Grand Rapids and teams of every level across the country, which are facing prolonged cancellations due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The AHL suspended operations on March 12 and, in a follow-up announcement on March 16, said that the suspension would not be lifted before May. The regular season was scheduled to end in the middle of April.
The Griffins had seven remaining home games on the schedule when the stoppage was announced. That’s seven games of ticket, merchandise and concession sales, signifying a sizable blow to revenue. (The 2019-2020 season includes 38 home games.) The Griffins were also in position to clinch a playoff berth to extend their season.
Despite the financial hit, Gortsema is confident in the organization’s chances of bouncing back.
“We have terrific ownership that is very well capitalized and that helps in the ability to weather a storm like this financially,” he said. “We also have a terrific staff and team. I’m super confident in our group once we get the green light and dig in our heels to go hard in preparation for either the post season or 2021.”
In the meantime, the organization is emphasizing communicating with fans as best as it can despite the volatile day-to-day nature of this pandemic.
“The social media and media departments are staying active, keeping our customers informed,” Gortsema said. “We want to combat a lot of what is largely negative news and keep people connected.”
Per recommendations from the National Hockey League, Griffins players were permitted to return to their home cities but remain prepared to return to Grand Rapids if the season does continue.
Gortsema acknowledged that it would be difficult to jumpstart the season at the playoff stage and pointed out that his organization would benefit from preparing for next year’s season, which will be Grand Rapids’ 25th anniversary.
Either way, he acknowledged that it was going to take some time and work to get fans back out.
“I think we’re going to have to rebuild some of the momentum,” Gortsema said. “This shelter in place timeline will be sufficient enough in length where it will take some work to get this process rolling again. Certainly right now, we don’t know how long that timeline is.”
Facing similar dilemmas
Like the Griffins, the Grand Rapids Drive of the NBA G League suspended play on March 12 with five home games left on its schedule.
Team co-owner and President Steve Jbara was unavailable for comment, but the Drive issued a statement to inform the media and fans of the shutdown.
“The Grand Rapids Drive and the NBA G League will continue to coordinate with infectious disease and public health experts along with government officials to determine safe protocols for resuming our games,” the team said. “As the NBA G League develops the appropriate course for future games and events, we will keep you informed of any changes as soon as they happen.”
The West Michigan Whitecaps also announced it was delaying the beginning of the 2020 season, in line with Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball. The club’s first game was slated for April 9. No new date has been set.
The Whitecaps organization did not respond to a request for comment, but it recently sent out a similar statement as the Drive to update fans. The Whitecaps instructed ticket holders to keep their tickets to affected games.
WMSC schedule in jeopardy
The West Michigan Sports Commission uses sports events to drive economic development in West Michigan — a feat that is proving difficult with all amateur and professional sports around the country sidelined.
Sports Commission President Mike Guswiler said the recent statewide quarantine effort has not yet disrupted core operations, but certainly could.
“Our core operations are trying to attract statewide and national sports tourism and we work six months to a year or two out,” he said. “That part can continue with minimal impact apart from trying to reach people.”
Some of the events that the WMSC has worked as a third party to help coordinate and promote have been cancelled, including the 2020 Griff’s Sled Hockey (March 20), Special Olympics Michigan state basketball tournament (March 20) and the 23 Elite Super Power Classic basketball tournament (March 27).
“Right now, our role for those is to communicate cancellations,” Guswiler said.
The United States Bowling Congress Intercollegiate Team and Singles Bowling Championship was scheduled for April 13 and was set to draw participants and fans from around the world. That event has been postponed, but not cancelled.
The Meijer State Games of Michigan, which operates as its own entity, looms ahead in the early summer.
“With sport tournaments, we’re reliant on lodging tax and hotel assessments and hotels are taking a hit,” Guswiler said. “It’s something we know is going to affect our bottom line, no question. Right now, it’s just in the short-term.
“We’ve been around for 14 years and we’ve managed the revenues we’ve had to work with. We’ll live through the short term, but who knows how long it will go. Right now, we’re not in emergency mode. Our board is on top of it and our budget is going to take a hit. At the same time, we’ll refocus when we get out of this pandemic.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated from its original version.