Pandemic could change landscape of minor league sports

As North America’s pro football, basketball, baseball and hockey leagues try to play again in a pandemic, minor league sports face a more treacherous climb to return.

While the NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball can run on television revenue, it’s virtually impossible for many minor leagues to survive with empty stadiums. The possibility of no games in 2020 could put some teams in jeopardy and change the landscape for attendance-driven sports in the short- and long-term future.

“There’s no future for minor league sports with empty stadiums. There’s zero,” said Gary Green, who owns Triple-A and Double-A baseball teams and an expansion franchise in the United Soccer League that plays in suburban Omaha, Nebraska. “If some of the teams don’t have deep-pocketed ownership groups or owners, I don’t know how they’re going to pay their bills.”

It is by far the most pressing question facing Minor League Baseball, the American Hockey League, ECHL, USL and others. The minors are deeply baked into the North American sports landscape as talent developers for the majors and cheap, family-friendly entertainment in towns big and small. Experts are divided on how they will survive and how soon they can bounce back.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred estimated a 40% loss of revenue if baseball is played with no fans and Herrick Feinstein sports law group co-chair Irwin Kishner estimated it is probably twice that for minor league sports. As it is, Green doesn’t expect minor league baseball this year, while both the ECHL and the AHL canceled the rest of their hockey seasons.

Plans for 2020-21 include the grim possibility of empty or near-empty arenas.

“There’s a million questions that need to be answered,” minor league hockey player Nathan Paetsch said. “What’s next season going to look like? What’s the possibility of it starting? What type of season is it going to look it? Is there going to be fans or no fans? Is it going to be the same length of the season?”

Smith College economics professor Andrew Zimbalist agreed with Green that ownership will affect which teams survive. He also pointed to the ill-fated second attempt by the XFL as a cautionary tale.

“Some of the younger leagues that are out there I think are really, really fragile,” Zimbalist said. “I suspect that we’re going to see a lot of organizations and some leagues going out of business.”

There already were 40 minor league baseball teams scheduled to lose their MLB affiliations before the pandemic under a restructuring plan that would have to try to make it independently.

Beyond those teams, Syracuse University sports analytics professor Rodney Paul is worried about the status of others as the crisis goes on. He said there could be a redistribution of teams in multiple sports around the U.S. and Canada — and perhaps smaller leagues.

“Maybe it’s the same number of teams, but it’s in different cities based upon how things have changed over time,” Paul said. “Some of those areas that can’t afford that level of team because of either population change or income change in the area or something like that changes to a different area. But my guess gets to be that the longer this goes out, the fewer of those minor league teams in total we’ll have.”

That worries Professional Hockey Players Association executive director Larry Landon because jobs will be lost if teams fold, and players like Cameron Gaunce might be left trying to make ends meet.

“I think you’d be naive if guys weren’t worried about it,” Gaunce said. “I’ll make sure that I plan far enough in advance and I’ll have a contingency plan in place, whether that’s getting something to supplement my income or whether that is playing in a league that is going.”

Pro leagues elsewhere could be operating, providing other opportunities to baseball, hockey and soccer players short of the elite level. Foreign prospects could stay home longer to play.

Or North American minor leagues could discover different ways to make money. Kishner suggested mascot, coach or player appearances or selling ad space outside stadiums or arenas, and Paul pointed to gambling or daily fantasy game possibilities as potential sources of revenue.

AHL Rochester Americans GM Randy Sexton said he thinks minor league hockey teams can get going as long as 1,000-2,000 people are allowed in buildings. It might not be a full season, either.

“I think it may force us to be more creative,” AHL president and CEO David Andrews said. “I think we need to be really flexible as we look ahead as to what the league might look like and be open to whatever we need to be open to to do the best we can.”

Green already has thought ahead to what “socially distanced” crowds might look like and hopes that treatments and a coronavirus vaccine gets things back to normal eventually. But the end of the pandemic may not be enough to pack minor league arenas and stadiums if Zimbalist is correct about the situation and economic downturn changing people’s behaviors.

“It’s just going to take several years to get through it all, in my view, and while that adjustment or recuperation is happening, it means that there’s going to be higher rates of unemployment, lower rates of income and people are going to be more careful about how they spend their free income, their leisure income,” Zimbalist said. “So I don’t expect the leagues to really start flourishing again for several years.”

Paul, whose parents are season ticket holders for the Single-A baseball Daytona Tortugas, is more bullish on minor league sports in the near future because of their affordability and value to communities.

“Those types of entertainment experiences, we’re still craving those type of things,” he said. “Hopefully this doesn’t destroy that for the super long term or forever.”

Islanders sign goalie Sorokin to $2M deal for next season

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The New York Islanders on Tuesday signed goaltender of the future Ilya Sorokin to a $2 million contract for next season.

The deal includes $1 million in salary and a $1 million bonus. A day earlier, the Islanders signed Sorokin to an entry-level deal for the remainder of this season even though he’s not eligible to play.

Sorokin, 24, is considered one of the top prospects at any position not currently in the NHL. A third-round pick of the Islanders in 2014, he was among the Kontinental Hockey League’s best goalies this past season with a 1.50 goals-against average and .935 save percentage.

Two other teams signed Russian prospects Monday who can’t compete in the resumption of this season. The Montreal Canadiens signed defenseman Alexander Romanov for three years, and the Minnesota Wild signed forward Kirill Kaprizov for two years.

All three players are burning a year by signing for this season, a way of getting to more lucrative contracts sooner in the future.

The Islanders are one of several teams going into the NHL’s expanded 24-team playoffs with a goaltending competition. Coach Barry Trotz said he’ll let it play out between Russian Semyon Varlamov and German Thomas Greiss to determine who might start Game 1 of the qualifying round against the Florida Panthers on Aug. 1.

While Varlamov is under contract for three more seasons — perhaps in later years to mentor Sorokin — Greiss is a pending free agent. Sorkin backed up for the gold medal-winning Olympic Athletes from Russia at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games and showed his NHL potential over several KHL seasons and world championships.

Draisaitl, MacKinnon, Panarin are 2019-20 Ted Lindsay Award finalists

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Leon Draisaitl of the Oilers, Nathan MacKinnon of the Avalanche, and Artemi Panarin of the Rangers have been announced as the finalists for the 2019-20 Ted Lindsay Award, which is given “to the most outstanding player in the NHL.”

The is voted on by fellow members of the NHL Players’ Association. Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov won the award last season.

Draisaitl and Panarin are first-time finalists, while this is the second time that MacKinnon is up for the award. The winner will be announced at some point during the conference finals.

[2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule]

The case for Leon Draisaitl: The 2019-20 Art Ross Trophy winner, Draisaitl led the NHL with 110 points and finished third in the league with 43 goals. He played every game for the Oilers this season and was first in points per game (1.55), assists (67), and power play points (44). He was second in power play goals (16) behind David Pastrnak and second in even strength points (66) behind Panarin. A win would mark the third time the Oilers have taken home the award in the last four seasons. Connor McDavid was voted the TLA winner in 2016-17 and 2017-18.

The case for Nathan MacKinnon: After missing only one game for the Avalanche this season, MacKinnon finished fourth with 93 points and led his team in scoring by 43 points. He was also seventh in goals (35), third overall in even strength points 962), fourth in power play points (31), and fifth in points per game (1.35). The 2019-20 season was the third straight year he finished with at least 35 goals and 90 points. It was also the third consecutive season he finished with exactly 58 assists. He would become only the second player in franchise history to win the award following Joe Sakic in 2000-01.

The case for Artemi Panarin: The Bread Man’s first year on Broadway was nothing short of spectacular. He set career highs in goals (32), assists (63), and points (95), led the NHL in even strength points (71), and was third in points per game (1.38). Prolific in production, he recorded points streaks of 12 and 13 games this season. He would become the second Ranger to win the award joining Jaromir Jagr (2005-06).

NHL AWARD FINALISTS ANNOUNCEMENT DATES
• Wednesday, July 15: Jack Adams Award, Calder Trophy
• Thursday, July 16: Lady Byng Trophy, Masterton Trophy
• Friday, July 17: Willie O’Ree Award, Vezina Trophy
• Monday, July 20: Norris Trophy, Selke Trophy
• Tuesday, July 21: Hart Trophy

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Oilers remember Colby Cave as training camp opens

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As the Oilers skated for the first time together since the March 12 NHL pause, Colby Cave looked on from above.

With Rogers Place sporting some fresh ice, the image of the late Cave was on the scoreboard as the Oilers practiced Monday as training camps opened for the 24-team Return to Play.

Cave, 25, died April 11 after suffering a brain bleed. He was set to be one of the team’s Black Aces when play resumed.

“Colby was an unbelievable young man, great teammate. Obviously a friend to everybody in our locker room,” said Tippett. “He would be with us today if he hadn’t passed. He planned to be with our group. He’s with us in spirit.”

[Related: Cooper Marody honors late Colby Cave with tribute song]

The Oilers are preparing for their best-of-five Stanley Cup Qualifier series against the Oilers, which begins Aug. 1. Cave played 44 games with the Oilers in the last two seasons and spent most of 2019-20 with AHL Bakersfield. He had many friends on the roster, and his teammates will use his memory as inspiration going forward.

“This is first time we’ve all been together in a big group since Colby passed,” said Oilers captain Connor McDavid. “Those emotions are still fresh, and it makes it even more real now that we’re all together and he’s not able to join us. He’s going to be in our thoughts and in our hearts as we go forward and move through training camp and into the [playoffs], and hopefully, go on a deep run here.

“We’re going to play for Colby, and he’ll be with us throughout.”

MORE: Day 1 of NHL training camps: Uncertainty about Crawford, and more

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: Toews on COVID-19; Olympic roster projections

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from the NHL and around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit for the PHT Morning Skate? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Jonathan Toews on COVID-19: “Does anybody really know how and when people catch this thing? The best you can do is get good rest, eat healthy, take care of your body, do the little things that lower your chances. What else can you do? Sitting around and worrying about it is just going to drive you crazy. The NHL’s gone to great lengths to create a safe environment. It’s far from perfect, but everyone has their own beliefs in seeing where they stand with all this.” [Sun-Times]

• Blackhawks forward Andrew Shaw, who last played Nov. 30 and has been out with concussion issues, said he will not return this season but plans to come back in 2020-21. [NBC Sports Chicago]

• Panthers assistant coach Mike Kitchen, 64, has opted out of the rest of this season. [TSN]

Alex Ovechkin‘s contract expires next summer. Is he thinking about an extension? “Not even talking, not even thinking about it because right now we have lots of stuff to do.” [NBC Sports Washington]

• Olympic Talk projects the 2022 Olympics rosters for Canada and the U.S.

• Can Oshie, other established Olympic hockey stars hold on for 2022? [Olympic Talk]

• How Edmonton won the bid to be one of the NHL’s two hub cities. [Edmonton Journal]

• Mikhail Grigoreko’s one-year, $1.2 million deal that was voided back in April was approved Monday. [Sportsnet]

• A flat cap will cause plenty of headache for Jim Benning and the Canucks. [Sportsnet]

• If Brock Boeser is indeed on the trading block, how aggressively should the Wild pursue the Canucks forward? [Hockey Wilderness]

• A pair of UMass Boston hockey players are going to inline skate from Boston to Michigan to raise money for the American Cancer Society. [WCVB]

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.