PEORIA — The Peoria Rivermen reached agreement on a new lease with the Peoria Civic Center on Thursday, but warned that state restrictions from COVID-19 might force them to opt out of the 2020-21 SPHL season, a decision they'll have to make in the next 30 days.
The Rivermen signed on to a significantly more expensive one-year deal plus an option year the team can trigger by Jan. 31 to play at Carver Arena.
But the pandemic has caused operating issues for both the 39-year pro hockey franchise and the Civic Center.
Issue one: COVID has shut down business at the Civic Center since March 13. The facility, in a statement earlier this week, said it needs nearly $4 million from city or state sources to give itself a new lease on its own financial life. Without the bailout, the Civic Center says it will shut down permanently in 60 days.
That would leave the Rivermen without a place to play.
"We understand what they are going through," Rivermen co-owner Bart Rogers said. "We are in the same boat. We've been put out of business just like they have. Until they can get back up and going, we can't either. Whether you operate a baseball or hockey or football team or an arena, it's a very challenging and scary position to be in."
If the Civic Center shuts down, Rogers said the team would not pursue playing at an alternate venue, but go dormant for the 2020-21 season.
Issue two: If the facility stay opens — and it almost certainly will find the money it needs — the Rivermen might still opt out of the season because of Illinois' COVID protocols.
Rogers says the SPHL plans to open its 2020-21 season on Dec. 26. The 10-team league faces different COVID protocols in each state. Illinois is by far the most restrictive. SPHL teams in Peoria and Quad City, if faced with playing games without spectators, might have to opt out of the season.
Both the Rivermen and Civic Center officials interpret Illinois' current Phase 4 protocols as meaning no spectators are permitted at events in Carver Arena, and participants are limited to 50.
The Rivermen say that won't work. And a move to Phase 5 in November or December, they say, is too late for them to get their business ramped up in time for the Dec. 26 season start.
"We have about 30 days left to make a decision on whether we will opt out of the 2020-21 season," Rogers said. "Governor JB Pritzker's COVID restrictions do not allow spectators at our games in the current (Phase 4) level we're in. We'd have to reach Phase 5 — which would require a vaccine or cure for COVID — and even then we’re not sure if there would be spectator restrictions.
"We can't operate that way. Minor league pro teams don't have lucrative TV broadcast contracts to fall back on, and don't have the ability to absorb a huge loss.
"The regulatory and state restrictions put on us by the state of Illinois have prohibited our business from operating since last spring.
"In a normal season, we'd need at least a 90-day window to sell our tickets and gather our sponsors. But this isn't normal.
"For us to operate a 2020-21 season under these current state guidelines, we project a $500,000 loss."
At least the lease, at times a contentious issue as winter arrived last season, is now settled and seems secondary compared to the COVID operations issues.
"We're excited to be moving forward with our lease," said Rogers said. "Carver Arena has been our home for 39 years. Our banners hang on those walls. Our Hall of Fame is there. Our history has been made there. We're trying to improve our working relationship with the Civic Center and serve our fans."
Said Peoria Civic Center Authority Board chairman Matt Bartolo:
"We've negotiated and come to terms with the Rivermen on a new lease. We talked with local ownership and Monarch (the Rivermen corporate owners) for a while now, we're having monthly meetings to improve communication and build a relationship. I think we're in a great place, we're trying to cooperate with the team.
"The Rivermen are a benefit to the building and the community."
The Rivermen, meanwhile, are faced with figuring out how long they can wait. They are down to three staff members — including Rogers — and to get a season under way will have to navigate players across the border, deal with no spectator ticket revenue or reduced arena capacity restrictions, housing issues that could expand if players get sick and must quarantine, and close deals on sponsorships.
"We want to play," Rogers said. "We are selling sponsorships and selling season tickets and preparing to open the season on Dec. 26.
"Ultimately, it's going to be a decision forced upon us by the State of Illinois. How do we close business deals and collect from people without knowing if there will be games?
"And some of our major corporate sponsors now have their own COVID protocols that prohibit them from distributing tickets to their employees for large group nights. Groups are about 100,000 spectators in our season. They are vital to us.
"Look, it's no different for the Rivermen, the Peoria Chiefs, we're all facing this huge task. Any team without revenue from a TV deal can't operate and survive.
"It’s a situation where it’s likely, ’No fans, no season.’ "
Dave Eminian is the Journal Star sports columnist, and covers the Rivermen and Chiefs. He writes the Cleve In The Eve sports column for pjstar.com. Reach him at 686-3206 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @icetimecleve.