Komets president Michael Franke used the word “agonizing” repeatedly, when he recalled Sept. 1, the day he and fellow co-owners Stephen Franke, David Franke and Scott Sproat informed their full-time employees they had to furlough them because of financial hardships the team was suffering amid the pandemic.
“That was an agonizing day for us,” Michael Franke said. “We had a lot of circumstances within the organization. We had one employee, and he and his wife had just had their first child in the spring. We had another employee who was about to get married. And here we are, we're furloughing people.”
The heartbreak didn't dissipate, as Franke heard they had headaches getting unemployment payments and would have trouble buying gifts for the holidays. The full-time staff of 15 was furloughed in waves – the owners went without paychecks, too – and everyone didn't return until January.
While the Komets rule the local winter pro sports landscape, the TinCaps dominate the summer and lost an entire season, also furloughing staff, some of whom never returned.
The Komets' 2019-20 season was halted March 12 because of the pandemic, costing the team revenue of six remaining home games and the entire playoffs.
By August, it was clear this season wouldn't start on time in October. As 12 ECHL teams opted out of this season altogether, the Komets delayed a decision and waited for the pandemic to weaken before announcing in January they'd start play in February, two months after 13 other teams had kicked off.
The Komets will lose money this season, since they are playing 22 fewer games than usual, have only about 28% of their normal capacity because of mandates from the Allen County Department of Health, and aren't able to get as much sponsorship money from cash-strapped local businesses.
Deciding to play under those circumstances, with the knowledge that an outbreak of COVID-19 could shut down the team's entire season again, was a risky endeavor for the Komets. But they felt, if nothing else, it was important for the community to have hockey back.
“The decision to come back and play was probably the biggest decision that we've ever made, because of the financial ramifications of it,” Franke said, noting it was even riskier than when the Franke family bought the defunct Flint team in 1990 and moved it to Memorial Coliseum to save hockey in Fort Wayne, after David Welker had moved the former Fort Wayne franchise to Albany, New York.
What has really enabled the Komets to be able to play this season – and bring back all their staff – has been the season-ticket holders. With reduced capacity, and fans sitting in pods throughout the Coliseum, season tickets aren't being honored. According to Franke, 93% of the season-ticket holders agreed to leave money in their accounts for the 2021-22 season and, to attend games this season, buying single-game tickets at a reduced price.
Had the Komets had to write more refund checks to season-ticket holders, the impact would have been more dire for the team.
The Komets are 11 games into their season, and broadcaster Shane Albahrani described it as: “Wonderful. It's just one step closer to normalcy. And it feels pretty good.”
As soon as last season was shut down, Shane and his wife, Kathi, who works at WFFT-TV, began realizing the financial ramifications would extend beyond just the spring of 2020.
“When it happened, I said, 'You know, we need to be prepared for next season to be pushed back or even canceled altogether,'” Shane Albahrani said. “You know what, we're obviously not going anywhere. We don't go out to eat. We're not going on vacations and we're not doing much of anything. We just save our money and we'll be OK.”
But mortgage and car payments, and tuition for daughter Riley to attend Purdue Fort Wayne, began to add up and make things stressful.
“You don't want to make your problems bigger than anyone else's,” Shane Albahrani said. “You just make sure you take care of everything, and ... we put every dime we had in the bank in preparation for this.”
Along the way, a family friend was cleaning out their house and gave Shane and Kathi a bunch of antiques. What began as a pastime led to a new source of income: an Etsy store in which the Albahranis sell antiques.
“It's pretty cool. It was nice to research things, and Kathi and I like antiques and old things like that,” Shane Albahrani said. “Next thing you know, we're going through our attic and finding a few items and researching it and then that leads to, 'Hey, let's go to an auction on a nice sunny day in September.' Or, 'Let's go to a garage sale and find some stuff.' It became really kind of a cool thing for the wife and I to team up on and we've had a lot of fun doing it.”
Their store is at Etsy.com under the name “Itsstillcool.”
Shane Albahrani said he understood that the Komets' owners had no choice but to institute furloughs and that the sentiment was shared among the staff.
“It was going to be inevitable. And hats off to the Frankes because they held out to the very last second,” he said. “I think they did whatever they could. And we all understood. I mean it's a small business, and they can only go so long without any income coming in. We all were aware of that, and I think everyone was just like me, being responsible over the summer and stashing (money) away and hopefully it was only going to be something that would only be a few months.”
Tough times for TinCaps
According to team president Mike Nutter, 80% to 90% of the TinCaps' revenue comes from the five or so months in which games are played. That means the team hasn't generated much money since early September 2019. Tack on to that the expenses of preparing for a 2020 season that didn't happen and a 2021 season that will begin in May, and the impact of the pandemic is clear.
“For us, it couldn't have come at a worse time because we had taken the six, seven months of all the expenses in the (2019-20) offseason. The season was about to start in April of 2020 and, boom, (the pandemic) hits,” Nutter said.
The TinCaps' 2021 season is scheduled to open at Parkview Field on May 4 and run through the middle of September, encompassing 60 home games. The team is currently hiring part-time help for the season.
Compared to the Komets, the TinCaps are a different animal. Their full-time staff is bigger – they have 32 – and total staff can balloon to almost 600. It's important to note, while the Komets are a tenant at the Coliseum, the TinCaps operate Parkview Field and all of its functions, which run the gamut of weddings, graduations, corporate meetings and concerts.
It's helped that the TinCaps have been able to roll season-ticket money and sponsorship dollars into this season, but furloughs of up to 25 staff members at a time have been ongoing since May. Job descriptions dictated when they were furloughed. For example, the field had to be maintained and that couldn't be done without groundskeepers.
The TinCaps lost some furloughed staff members to other job opportunities.
“A lot of these guys were like, 'I just can't make it anymore,'” said Nutter, adding the team's staff size will shrink to alleviate financial losses and because, with things like concessions, there won't be as much need with limited capacity. “I could tell you the name of a team and they went into this (pandemic) at 40 full-time people and they're going to be playing this year in the low 20s.”
The Komets and TinCaps received money through the government's Payroll Protection Program, and that helped them delay furloughs for a while. (The Mad Ants basketball team, Fort Wayne's third professional franchise, didn't respond to requests to be interviewed.)
“(The PPP) was very, very helpful to help keep people around while we were still trying to figure everything out,” Nutter said.
Nutter looks back on a meeting with his staff in March 2020, informing them that'd be shutting down operations because of the pandemic, and admitted he couldn't have envisioned just how difficult the ensuing year would be.
“I called everybody up to the suite lounge,” he said. “This is a ridiculous statement to make now, with what the world has been, but I called the staff together and said, 'We're not going to work next Monday and I don't know how long we're going to be out – whether it'll be a couple weeks, a month, a couple months or longer.' That was (more than) 11 months ago and we haven't reopened.”
About the series
This is one of several Sports stories that will explore issues affecting local and state athletics as the one-year anniversary of the coronavirus outbreak being declared a pandemic approaches in March.
The stories are part of “COVID-19: Caught in the Grip,” a Journal Gazette series about changes prompted by the virus – at least temporarily – as individuals and communities rallied to respond and learned to cope.