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Peoria Chiefs, Rivermen seeking federal COVID-19 aid package for minor league pro sports teams

The Peoria Rivermen hockey team and the Peoria Chiefs baseball team are seeking support for a federal COVID-19 financial relief package that would include minor-league professional sports teams.
Joe Deacon; Emily Bollinger
The Peoria Rivermen hockey team and the Peoria Chiefs baseball team are seeking support for a federal COVID-19 financial relief package that would include minor-league professional sports teams.

Peoria's two primary minor league sports franchises say their industry was overlooked in federal COVID-19 relief as they seek support for a possible new financial aid package.

The Chiefs baseball team and Rivermen hockey team issued a joint statement last week asking fans to urge their elected representatives to support passage of a Minor League Sports Relief Act.

Chiefs general manager Jason Mott says franchises like the Chiefs and Rivermen were cut out of previous federal COVID relief packages at the last minute.

“We've been working on this since June of 2020,” said Mott. “We've been working with legislators for almost two years, or a year and a half now talking about this. For the baseball side, we've been to the finish line probably twice, and then when they went to vote on it, they took us out on the day of the vote.”

According to multiple published reports, lawmakers led by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) have been discussing another wave of federal COVID-19 financial assistance. The potential package could provide $60 billion in Small Business Administration grants across a variety of industries, including hotels, fitness clubs, tour bus companies and minor league sports.

Rivermen owner Bart Rogers says if the package does get passed, he hopes it will provide enough for the teams to recoup their losses.

“It's based on your revenues of the 2019-20 season and what your loss was of the 2021 season, which most teams in minor league sports – baseball and hockey, for our case here – our teams lost over 95% of the revenue in 2021 compared to ’19-20,” he said. “So that's millions of dollars; it's not $10,000, it's a couple million dollars minimum.

“So, we're hoping for some sort of relief that will actually make up the difference of all the losses that we've incurred so far, and hopefully have a little chunk of change left to be able to, to remarket, rebrand, hire more staff do all the things that the relief is meant to do to try and get the business back up and going like it was.”

While both local teams did receive two rounds of Payroll Protection Program funding, Rogers says that money did not last long. He says other aid packages were focused on other types of entertainment businesses.

“One specifically was a ‘Shuttered Venue’ grant that went out to arenas and stadiums that were hard hit, just like our industry was,” said Rogers. “Minor league sports was left out of that (package) even though our teams and entities are some of the largest users of dates inside of those stadiums and arenas.”

While the Rivermen are tenants at the Peoria Civic Center, the Chiefs own Dozer Park – presenting them with an added financial responsibility.

“We’ve got to control the expenses for the building; if something breaks, we fix it. That's very uncommon around the sports industry now, for the team to own their stadium,” said Mott, noting the stadium will require mandatory upgrades over the next few years to comply with their player development agreement with Major League Baseball.

“For us, just the owning of the ballpark will always be a challenge. I think this relief, not only does it help a little bit with making up for a lost season but it also potentially helps kickstart the renovations as well.”

Both the Chiefs and Rivermen lost one entire full season to the pandemic: the 2020 minor league baseball season was canceled, and the Rivermen did not play in 2020-21 because the state’s COVID-19 capacity restrictions made it financially unfeasible.

“We didn't close on our own accord,” said Rogers. “We were either told to be closed or we couldn't open up because of the mandates that prohibited us from generating revenue. If you as a business owner make the decision to say, ‘Hey, I'm not going to operate moving forward next year because COVID is going to kill my business,’ that's one thing. The Peoria Chiefs and the Peoria Rivermen, we were ready to play, wanted to play, but couldn't play.”

Mott said losing the entire 2020 season left them with no money-making alternatives.

“There's really not a lot of ways for me to make revenue if I can't open the ballpark,” he said. “That was why it was such a challenge, and that's why we're making this big push.”

Returning last season, the Chiefs saw their attendance drop off significantly from 2019. Rogers says the Rivermen are dealing with a similar problem as a residual effect from sitting out last season.

“Our attendance is, for sure, not what we're used to,” he said. “It's interesting to see that our avid fans, they're coming out, for the most part, no matter what; they're going to come, because they love hockey.

“Our corporate base is very, very strong, so that's another part of it. But it's the group sales – it's the schools coming out to sing the anthems, or it's the Boy Scout groups – or it's all the things that make up our attendance, those casual fans is where we've seen the decrease in attendance. And that's across the board, I don't care what level of hockey or baseball you play, it's the same – and in probably college basketball and college sports as well.”

Mott says he thinks the smaller professional clubs often get overlooked because people view them much the same as the big-time franchises.

“Minor League sports, I think we get lumped into the major league sports a lot of times and we're not the same,” he said, noting minor league clubs owned by MLB franchises would not be eligible for the potential new relief. “We don't have $200 million TV contracts that we're splitting revenue with and things along those lines. We don't have $75-$100 tickets when people walk in the in the ballpark.

“It truly is small business teams that are locally owned in the small... in these markets.”

Anticipating resistance from some lawmakers who oppose putting more taxpayer money into COVID aid, Rogers said there's enough existing federal relief that hasn't been allocated to cover this new package.

“There's hundreds of billions of dollars that are left, already approved through all these different programs, that have not been used,” he claimed. “We're only asking, I think for minor league sports the total is $1 billion for all teams that would qualify, and there's plenty of money there to help offset that.”

Mott said the teams are seeking the assistance so they can remain viable for the long term.

“At the end of the day our goal is: you've got the Peoria Chiefs and you've got the Rivermen, and we've been here for almost a combined 80 years in this community. We want to be here for 80 more,” he said. “We feel like we're a pretty big part of the community, like we both bring a lot to the community – not only for things to do, but tax dollars and stuff like that.

“We want to continue to be a big part of Peoria. I feel like Peoria is going to continue to grow and get better, and we want to be a part of that for long term. These are two of Peoria's big attractions here. We want to keep them and make sure we're here for the long haul, and I think just this relief would be a game changer for both of us.”

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.