In early March, not long after Florida reported its first confirmed case of coronavirus, Bill Burke was in Fort Myers checking out the Boston Red Sox spring training facility, meeting with the Portland Sea Dogs coaching staff and seeing which prospects might be headed to Portland.

As the virus took hold not only in Florida but across the country, Burke soon realized minor league baseball in 2020 would not be business as usual.

“Our revenue is entirely based on having people in the ballpark,” said Burke, chairman of the Sea Dogs. “The major leagues, if they can get games in, they’ll have some TV revenue.”

By contrast, the Sea Dogs and other minor league teams were, in Burke’s words, “going to take a bath.”

Nationwide, the landscape for minor league sports teams is changing. Not all franchises will be able to survive a season without any games, as is the case with minor league baseball.

Restrictions on large gatherings, currently limited to 50 in Maine by the Mills administration, call into question whether the Maine Red Claws and Maine Mariners can draw crowds to their basketball and hockey games this coming winter, should they be given the green light to play.

Even so, the three minor league franchises that call Portland home all appear to be in good shape financially and able to survive the pandemic. What’s more, the local professional ranks soon could swell beyond the Sea Dogs, Red Claws and Mariners.

Empty seats at Cross Insurance Arena. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Portland Rising was about to embark upon its first season in the women’s Premier Ultimate (Frisbee disc) League this past spring, and Falmouth native Gabe Hoffman-Johnson is working on bringing a men’s United Soccer League expansion franchise to town by 2022.

T-SHIRTS, DINNER AND GOLF

For the Sea Dogs, losing an entire season is one thing. What Burke and his sister, team treasurer Sally McNamara, hoped to avoid losing “is our standing with our employees, our fans and our sponsors,” he said. “So very early on we tried to be as transparent as possible.”

Ticket-holders got their money back or an exchange for 2021 tickets. The 18 full-time staff members continue to be paid. Even the 220 game-day employees returning from 2019 have received monthly checks as if the 2020 season went on without a hitch. The team also lived up to the terms of its $150,000 yearly lease with the city of Portland.

Instead of baseball this summer, Hadlock Field has been host to curbside concession food, target golf from temporary platforms constructed in front of skyboxes and a souvenir store selling T-shirts that lament “I miss Slugger” or boast of an “undefeated” 2020 season.

Fans snapped up all 200 time slots at $30 a pop for the first session of target golf earlier this month, prompting another four-day session scheduled for Aug. 6-9. On Wednesday, the team announced it would be taking reservations for dinner July 24-25 on tables set up on the baseball diamond. They sold out in eight hours, so Thursday morning the team added two more dates, July 31 and Aug. 1. They sold out even more quickly, so the team added a third weekend, Aug. 14-15.

Light rain falls outside Hadlock Field on June 30, shortly after Minor League Baseball announced that the 2020 season would be canceled. The Portland Sea Dogs will return next season, according to team chairman Bill Burke, but many other minor league franchises may not survive. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“We’ve got a myriad of other ideas we’re trying to work through,” said team president Geoff Iacuessa. “Obviously, we’re trying to generate some revenue, but even more important for us is to stay connected with the community and give fans another opportunity to make a memory at Hadlock.”

BETTING BIG ON BOSTON

The Red Claws were 28-14 and heading toward a playoff run when their G League basketball season fizzled out with four home dates remaining. Thanks to a winning team and the larger-than-life presence of 7-foot-5 fan favorite Tacko Fall, all four remaining Expo dates were expected to sell out, which would have meant 21 sellouts in 24 home games.

Of course, Fall wasn’t the only draw. Point guard Tremont Waters earned Rookie of the Year honors and Bryce Brown, Yante Maten and Kaiser Gates all shined under the guidance of new coach Darren Erman. As part of their two-way contracts, both Fall and Waters are currently with parent team the Boston Celtics in Orlando preparing for a resumption of the NBA season.

“Anytime you don’t have games it’s an impact,” said Dajuan Eubanks, president of the Red Claws, “but because we had been doing so well it wasn’t a major hit.”

In October the Celtics took over ownership of the Red Claws from a local group headed by Bill Ryan Jr. Earlier this month Boston promoted Eubanks to Celtics vice president in addition to his role with the Claws, further strengthening the affiliation. He had already been traveling to Boston every other week for meetings.

Fans snapped up the time slots at $30 a pop for the first session of target golf this month at Hadlock Field. Here, Evan Lonstein of Westbrook watches his ball fly to the outfield at the redubbed “Hadlinks Golf Club.” Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“Luckily enough, the purchase by the Celtics has put us in a position where we’re financially stable and we haven’t had to lay off anyone,” Eubanks said of his 10-person staff. The team also employs another 75 to 100 workers on game days and Eubanks said they were paid for the four canceled home dates at season’s end.

The revamped NBA schedule for this year pegs the finals for October, which undoubtedly will push the 2020-21 G League season into a much later start.

“It’s all still to be determined,” Eubanks said. “Everything’s going to be based on when the NBA comes back for the ’20-21 season. Look for us to begin two or three weeks after they begin.”

Whether Tacko comes back to town is a determination that won’t be made for a long time. Eubanks would welcome such news, of course, but he also noted that the Celtics own three selections in the first round of the next NBA draft, also rescheduled for October.

“You never know how things will develop in the off-season,” he said, “but I’m confident the Celtics will continue to provide great talent for us.”

PLAYOFF HOPES ON ICE

As for the Mariners, they had all but sewn up one of four available ECHL North playoff berths when the hockey season abruptly ended. Players did not get paid beyond March 14, when the league officially canceled the season. They were allowed to remain in the Redbank Village housing provided by the team, but few chose to stick around.

“Honestly, from the business side of things, it’s as close to business-as-usual as you can get,” said Adam Goldberg, the Mariners vice president for business operations. “This is a slow time of year. We’re having our weekly meetings, there’s constant communication with our staff and we’re working on a plan to safely stagger our staff to come back to the office within the next few weeks.”

Comcast Spectacor, which owns the Mariners along with the Philadelphia Flyers and their host city’s Wells Fargo Center arena, released a prepared statement last week from general manager Danny Briere about the two-year-old Maine franchise, saying that its “commitment to the Mariners and the Portland community remains strong. We look forward to the team’s return to the Cross Insurance Arena and thank our passionate fans and sponsors for their continued support.”

The company also owns Spectra, the hospitality firm hired to run Cross Insurance Arena. There were no furloughs or layoffs among the Mariners full-time staff, who are trying to plan for a season that might involve socially distant entry, seating and concession stands.

Operations manager Jim Leo checks on a new “chiller” for the ice at Cross Insurance Arena on Friday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“There are times when you have to stop yourself on going off on all these contingency plans,” Goldberg said. “Only one of them is going to be the reality of it.”

And if there is no season?

“Unfortunately, I guess no season would be easiest to prepare for,” he said. “Just pull the plug. It’s in the back of everyone’s mind, but at this point, we feel like we’re going to have a season.”

ULTIMATE FALSE START

The first season of women’s professional ultimate Frisbee never got underway for Portland Rising, which had formed a roster of 27, conducted indoor practices, lined up sponsors, held a team retreat in Maine’s western mountains and sold tickets for a five-match schedule from April to June that would have included two home dates at Fitzpatrick Stadium. On March 12 the Premier Ultimate League suspended a season that soon after was canceled.

Having that weekend retreat in February turned out to be a blessing, said co-founder Chloe Rowse, in terms of setting team goals, establishing a culture and getting to know each other.

“We feel so lucky to have done that,” she said. “Getting that personal connection has prepared us for this not-on-the-field team.”

Although contracts technically run through December, Rising allowed players to opt out because of pandemic-related disruptions. All but two decided to stick with it. They stayed in touch with weekly Zoom meetings, a newsletter, film study and team trivia, then turned their attention to outreach and social justice.

Rowse and co-founder Maddie Purcell say the team is currently on a two-week hiatus, or off-season, before embarking on what they’re calling “phase 2.” They still have yet to hold a practice outdoors.

For the next six months, Purcell said the focus will be on virtual outreach, community building and activism “as we strengthen the organization internally and build out the leadership structure beyond what we were able to do during our highly accelerated launch this winter.”

SOCCER PLANS STILL KICKING

If the pandemic threw a monkey wrench into most team sport activity, it had little impact on the goal of Gabe Hoffman-Johnson, a 2010 graduate of Falmouth High School, to bring a United Soccer League franchise to Portland. Hoffman-Johnson, 28, played college soccer at Dartmouth and professionally for a USL team in St. Louis.

“The league continues to be very, very supportive” of expanding to Portland, he said. “I don’t think they could be higher on a market, and we certainly agree, both from a sport and a community perspective.”

Hoffman-Johnson said he put together a group of investors and raised $500,000 to fund infrastructure work, evaluate site selection and do environmental and engineering studies for a 4,000-seat stadium. He and local real estate developer Jonathan Culley have been looking for a suitable home for a team they originally were calling Portland United but have since left open.

“There is no team name,” Hoffman-Johnson said. “That will be a process we will include the community in.”

Portland’s Fitzpatrick Stadium isn’t wide enough for pro soccer dimensions, so the search continues for an easily accessible location that could accommodate a semi-permanent modular stadium that could also be used for other sports, including, perhaps, ultimate Frisbee.

“I know Maddie and Chloe quite well,” Hoffman-Johnson said. “We’ve been chatting with them.”

The pandemic may have put a temporary lid on professional sports in Portland, but all signs point to them eventually rising like a well-hucked disc.

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