Minor league sports teams at a standstill

Griffins, Drive and Whitecaps are running multiple scenarios for next season.
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Players like 2019 first round draft pick Riley Greene would have been a significant draw for the West Michigan Whitecaps. Courtesy West Michigan Whitecaps

The futures of the West Michigan Whitecaps, Grand Rapids Drive and Grand Rapids Griffins are in limbo, courtesy of COVID-19.

The Whitecaps, an affiliate of the Detroit Tigers, have yet to throw out their first pitch of the 2020 season and there is no telling when they will be able to do so.

Their season was set to begin on April 9, but now the club is at the mercy of Major League Baseball, according to Joe Chamberlin, CEO of the Whitecaps. As of June 19, MLB had yet to reach a consensus on when — or if — professional baseball would resume.

“Frankly, we don’t have control over what is happening at the major league level,” he said. “There are so many moving parts in that equation in terms of the MLB and the players association and the deal they are working on getting done. Unfortunately, for us, we are just sitting here in West Michigan and watching everything play out in the press.”

The team already was supposed to have played approximately 35 home games at this point of the year. Teams play 70 home games in a 140-game regular season. However, the Whitecaps get their players from the Tigers every year.

The MLB season was on track to begin as players started spring training but that was halted. Currently, different variations of the schedule for the 2020 MLB season are under negotiation between the league and the players union.

“We really hope we will have a season because everyone is really starving for live sports at this time,” Chamberlin said. “Once the major league level has a plan, we will be waiting for them to decide how the minor league fits into it for 2020.”

Steve Jbara, co-owner and president of the Grand Rapids Drive, an NBA G-League affiliate of the Detroit Pistons, said team officials have been a part of bi-weekly calls with NBA leadership about “what the landscape looks like for next season.”

The NBA is looking at different scenarios for next season because of the volatility of the pandemic. The G-League already has been canceled for the rest of this season.

“For now, we are planning for a couple different potential models,” Jbara said. “One would be emulating what the NBA will do, which is to have everyone playing at one location. I think that is everyone’s least favorite option, but nonetheless, that is what is out there. That is the worst case.

“The best case is playing the season as usual, but because of what the NBA is doing right now, their current season will not end until early October and the players will get some time off and then their 2020-21 season will start in December, which probably means that the G-League season will not start until January. So, a full season starting in January is an option. Potentially (with) a limited fan base. Another doomsday scenario is playing with no fans.”

Last year, the Drive announced the organization will stay in Grand Rapids after it was revealed the Pistons have plans of bringing their own G-League team to Detroit to play in a new arena at Wayne State University when their hybrid operating agreement with the Drive expires after the 2020-21 G-League season.

Jbara said plans remain the same.

“The pandemic has taken precedent over everything,” he said. “We haven’t necessarily really sat down to discuss next year. We have a few options moving forward. Obviously, we love our partnership with the Pistons, but as of right now we have not sat down and discussed it. We will when everything gets back to normal. We will talk to the Pistons and the NBA and try and figure out if there is another team out there that wants to partner or whether we will be an independent team, but we are committed to Grand Rapids. We will do everything we can to stay in the league and stay in Grand Rapids.”

For the Griffins, the 2017 Calder Cup champions and an American Hockey League affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings, the path ahead of the 2020-21 season is unclear, but the AHL recently established a Return to Play task force to bring some clarity to the situation.

The task force is made up of 12 NHL and AHL team owners, presidents and executive directors, and is chaired by the outgoing president of the AHL, David Andrews. It is designed to provide strategic leadership to the league in developing or identifying opportunities for a return-to-play process that can gain widespread support in both the AHL and the NHL. Steve Yzerman, executive vice president and general manager for the Red Wings, is a part of the task force.

In addition to the task force, Tim Gortsema, president of the Griffins, said all member teams participated in a schedule survey a few weeks ago and there are a few scenarios floating around about how to approach the 2020-21 season.

“That survey is trying to understand teams’ receptivity to different scheduling scenarios,” he said. “The schedules included a normal season that runs from October to April, or a late start where the season begins in November and carries out to May but still have full season. Or (there’s) a shortened schedule from December through May, and play fewer games, or a January start and end in May and play less than our full complement of games. The league is just trying to figure out these different scenarios and whether teams operate under these scenarios.”

Along with the schedule, Gortsema said the league is trying to figure out different attendance constraints.

“Hypothetically, could teams play games with no fans?” he said. “How many teams would say yes or no? In reality, most teams are going to say no because in this league most revenues are localized. They are driven (by) fans and whoever is coming to your venue. To have no fans, it would have a massive impact on your budget because you would mostly have all of the same costs but virtually no revenue to offset it.”

The Griffins played 31 home games before the 2019-20 season was cut short with an average attendance of 7,466 per game. The 2018-19, 2017-18 and 2016-17 seasons saw a full schedule of 38 home games.

Average attendance at Griffins home games was 8,206 for 2018-19; 7,960 for 2017-18; and 8,245 for 2016-17.

What happens next for minor league sports in Grand Rapids ultimately will depend on COVID-19 and resulting restrictions on large gatherings, said Gortsema.

“The challenge we have is that we have 31 member teams that operate in 31 different markets in different states and different countries because we have some Canadian teams, all of whom may have different protocols and different restrictions,” he said. “So, the challenge that the league has is you can have states that say, ‘Hey, we are good to go right now’ whether it is at full capacity or at a percentage capacity, and then there are other states that say, ‘Nope, we can’t do anything until ‘x’ date.

“It is a waiting game right now. The league is trying to manage that process and see how things develop across all states.”

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