PEORIA — The Peoria Rivermen never finished the 2019-20 Southern Professional Hockey League season because of the COVID-19 shutdown.
And now they'll never start the 2020-21 SPHL season because of the pandemic, either.
The Rivermen were among five SPHL teams that opted out of the '20-21 season on Tuesday — half of the league's members — because of operational issues triggered by COVID restrictions in their states.
"To our fans, our sponsors, our players, coaches and employees — we are so sorry about this, just devastated," Rivermen co-owner Bart Rogers said. "This is a big, BIG deal, we understand that. But we are caught up in a perfect storm of issues that we just can't solve.
"We have no choice."
The Rivermen, Quad City Storm, Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs, Fayetteville Marksmen and Evansville Thunderbolts will all sit out the coming season because of COVID restrictions in their respective states that will severely limit their revenue streams.
The SPHL will go forward with a five-team, 42-game season that starts Dec. 26. The five teams that will play are Knoxville (Tenn.), Pensacola (Fla,), Birmingham (Ala.), Macon (Ga.) and Huntsville (Ala.).
"This is a tough day for the SPHL, particularly because the circumstances that forced these decisions are out of our control," SPHL commissioner Doug Price said. "When we were forced to suspend play back in March, we immediately turned our focus to the upcoming 2020-2021 season.
"We waited as long as possible for things to improve so that all of our teams could play this season, but I don’t think any of us imagined we would still be facing these restrictions seven months later."
The Rivermen were in first place in the SPHL at 33-8-5 when the league shut down the 2019-20 season in March because of the pandemic. The league eventually canceled the rest of the season, and has never declared a champion.
Now the top two teams from last season — Peoria and Fayetteville — will sit out in '20-21.
"It's a terrible, terrible situation for the rest of us," Rogers said. "We can't operate games without fans, and the Illinois event restrictions won't allow us to have fans. Without them, we can't generate revenue to cover a $1.6 million operating budget.
"There's just no way for these five teams to know if and when those restrictions will be lifted. It's an unknown, and we're simply out of time.
"We continued to hold out hope that the restrictions would be lifted, but the clock ran out on our franchise."
Peoria Civic Center general manager Rik Edgar has said the state’s current COVID restrictions would limit Rivermen games to 50 people. Those restrictions are still in place under Illinois’ Phase 4 COVID regulations.
The Rivermen signed a one-year lease extension with an option for a second year in early September.
"Today is really about the team," Edgar said. "We support the team’s decision and look forward to next season."
For the Rivermen, it was a choice between losing money by opting out of the season — or losing a projected $1.6 million by trying to operate with no fans at their games.
"In a normal year, five-plus months of ramp-up time is needed to prepare for an upcoming season to sell season and group tickets, corporate sponsorships and create promotions," Rogers said. "Being closed for the last seven months and not having the ability to rely on our normal, ongoing financial-generation tools; in addition to the needed testing supplies for our staff and players, foreign border restrictions for professional players, along with the stark reality of having less than three months to prepare for a non-normal season, including a host of other issues, just confirmed our unfortunate and necessary decision today.
"We just couldn't wait anymore."
That message was the same around the league.
"In our state, we can have 1,000 people in the building for a game," Roanoke team president Mickey Gray said. "That includes players, coaches, arena staff, everyone. That leaves us with room for about 700 fans. That's not enough to even cover all of our season ticket holders.
"And it sure isn't enough to operate without an enormous financial loss. It will cost us money to remain dark for this season. But first and foremost we want to make sure we're here next year, and in five years.
"We're doing what is needed to remain a strong franchise. This is not a business issue, it's a COVID issue."
The 39-year Rivermen franchise is the seventh-longest continuously operating team in minor league hockey. They will continue to operate this season, but not on the ice.
"We were in first place when the 2019-20 season shut down, and we've spent the last seven months now just spinning our wheels," Rogers said. "We're going to need our business sponsors and season ticket holders to stick with us. We had already put together a terrific sales effort, at and beyond what we had last season. Our initial thought is to push all of that forward to ’21-22.
"For minor league sports and many colleges with no large television contracts, the path forward to try and operate in bubbles or play with no fans in attendance, creates little to no revenues to cover multi-million-dollar operating budgets.
"Trying to operate that way would put the franchise in jeopardy. It would be a path toward financial disaster in the end."
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.