Midstate sports businesses prepare for a better season in 2021

Ioannis Pashakis//November 3, 2020

Midstate sports businesses prepare for a better season in 2021

Ioannis Pashakis//November 3, 2020

The Harrisburg Senators held six movie nights at the team’s FND Field Stadium this summer to offset losses when the team’s season was canceled. PHOTO/PROVIDED

Two months into the year, Lancaster County-based Spooky Nook Sports was well ahead of budget to have its best year. It was booked with tournaments and corporate events for the entire year.

The Harrisburg Senators, the AA affiliate of the Washington Nationals, was set to have a 2020 season celebrating the Nationals’ 2019 World Series win.

And in Lebanon, Blue Cardinal Photography had grown the number of young athletes it photographed in 2019 and was ramping up its marketing initiatives to branch into online sales and marketing.

For many midstate businesses in the sports industry, 2019 was a standout year and leaders were looking to capitalize on that success as they prepared for the 2020 season. Those hopes, of course, were dashed by the pandemic, that forced teams to cancel their spring seasons. Sports such as basketball and football were able to resume play, but they did so with greatly lessened attendance.

As with most companies in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Senators, Spooky Nook Sports and Blue Cardinal Photography were shut down for months as they tried to navigate changing regulations, retaining staff and shifting schedules.

Spooky Nook is the largest indoor sports complex in the country. The company offers space for tournaments and corporate events at its 700,000-square-foot facility in East Hempfield Township, which also includes a hotel and restaurant.

The Spooky Nook Sports complex in Lancaster County. Cancellations caused by the pandemic cut deeply in the company’s revenue this year. PHOTO/PROVIDED

Jim Launer, president of Spooky Nook Sports, said that the company has seen sports tournaments return in 2020, but lost out entirely on corporate events.

“Back to those days of March, we had a very large event schedule and all of a sudden we had people calling in and saying that they heard our event was canceled,” he said. “That event canceled, and then two hours later, the next event canceled and then all of our corporate events canceled and we are just sitting there in a state of disbelief.”

The loss of corporate events alone is expected to have cost the complex 36% to 40% of the year’s expected revenue out of a total expected loss of 55%, Launer said. In March, Spooky Nook was forced to lay off or furlough a majority of its 135 full-time employees and has since gotten back to around 80.

The Harrisburg Senators also downsized, going from a staff of 23, to 10.

Every April, the Nationals send players to the Senators for the AA baseball season. At first the minor league team’s season was delayed, only to be cancelled in June.

“We shut down the office from March until the middle of June and right when we got back they made the announcement that the season was canceled,” said Kevin Kulp, president of the Harrisburg Senators. “When it was clear the season would be canceled, I had to make decisions to trim our staff so we could get over this hump. Even if we were going to have a season by some miracle we had to trim the staff to get through it.”

Kulp and his team looked for ways to stay relevant in the community, hosting around 35 to 40 events such as movie days and local traveling baseball tournaments. During this time, the most important thing he and his team had to do was maintain relationships with the Senators’ business partners.

The team already collected sponsorship money for the 2020 season and, where possible, it rolled the money into next season. The rest was refunded to the sponsors, he said.

“We leaned on those relationships to make sure we were communicating and being honest with what was happening,” he said. “That was how we got through 2020.”

Blue Cardinal Photography, a studio with in-house and freelance photographers, makes a majority of its money through school sports photography.  The company took an early hit from the pandemic when spring sports was cancelled for the schools it worked with. To make up for the loss, the company increased its in-studio photography with businesses related to the medical field.

Rick Sullivan, president and owner of Colortech Inc. Creative Solutions, Blue Cardinal’s parent company, said when school sports did return, the company had to cut some games because of short staffing. Decreases in the number of spectators permitted at games also affected Blue Cardinal. Photographers are counted as part of the capacity, he said.

“Our service line is not at 100% and we do not see that happening before all of the guidelines prohibiting spectators are lifted,” he said.

There’s always next year

Next year is expected to be a better, but it depends on when spectators can return to events in full.

Early in the pandemic, Spooky Nook’s Launer and his team were forced to change plans by the hour to remain in business. Today, he said, they have learned that there is no point in making a change until they know what the next federal or state guidance will be.

Kulp agreed that predicting what 2021 will look like is a dicey game, but said the Senators are optimistic they will play baseball in 2021.

“When we open the doors to the public, it’ll be a really good 2021 season,” he said. “It will be impacted by capacity restrictions and the dollars we carried over from 2020 that we won’t get in 2021. We know that and we are planning for that.”