American Hockey League president David Andrews wouldn't rule out the 2020-21 season having less than 31 teams participating if fans aren't cleared to return to arenas.
"I would say there's a chance ... you know, anything can happen. There's so much uncertainty. But we're hoping that isn't the case," Andrews told the ESPN On Ice podcast on Wednesday.
"We have a very strong league in terms of our ownership. We have 19 NHL-owned teams and 12 independently-owned teams. And the independently owned teams are in very good financial condition, even after what happened in this 2019-20 season," he said. "But if their businesses aren't viable, if they have to play in front of an empty building for six months, some of those teams will likely choose not to play."
The AHL formally canceled its 2019-20 season on Monday after pausing it along with the NHL on March 12 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Andrews said it's vital that the AHL get fans back in its buildings in order to be financially viable.
"We're a gate-driven league. We have very little in the way of rights fee revenue for television We have fairly decent streaming revenue, but not enough to sustain [31 teams]. Our corporate partnership revenue is all linked to having people in the seats. Without being able to put fans in the seats, it would be a much different-looking league," he said.
The AHL is currently building schedules for the 2020-21 season that optimistically forecast an October start but that also plan for start dates in November, December and January. The message is clear: The AHL is willing to wait for as long as it can to start playing until the fans can return to games. Hence, Andrews doesn't believe it's "necessarily going to be the case" that teams will have to play in empty buildings.
"We're in the middle of May here. It's a long time before we get to the point where we won't be able to play with fans in the building. If we can play in November or December or January with fans in the buildings, we're going to play," he said.
In fact, Andrews said there's a chance the AHL could restart before the NHL's 2020-21 season, depending on when the league's restarted 2019-20 season finishes -- should it restart, that is.
"My sense was that we would start before the NHL if we could, if they're on a break," he said. "If we were allowed to get back into all of our buildings by the public health authorities, with some mass gathering restrictions that could work for us, and we could play in October while the NHL doesn't play until December, I think most NHL teams would want their AHL players playing even though the NHL won't have restarted yet. Let's face it: They'll have been off since mid-March."
Andrews ends his 26-year tenure as AHL president on June 30, but will remain chairman of the board of governors. Scott Howson, the former Columbus Blue Jackets general manager, takes over as league president, leading the AHL through some very uncertain times that it's already attempting to get a handle on.
"We want to get ahead of it," said Andrews. "You can't be paralyzed by the uncertainty. You have to move forward and make contingency plans."