It may not have been a "release the hounds" or a "release the Chattahooligans" moment, but it was a start.
Stadium Corp. board members voted Tuesday afternoon to reactivate Finley Stadium, the 20,412-seat facility that has been closed to fans since March because of the coronavirus outbreak. The opening of Chattanooga's largest athletic venue would potentially allow for socially distanced audiences to see the Chattanooga Football Club soccer team vie against New Amsterdam FC on Aug. 29 and the New York Cosmos on Sept. 12.
The vote was not unanimous, and it transpired after Kerry Hayes, the chief of staff for Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, left the decision to the board after providing some cautionary numbers.
"There is still quite a bit of spread in our community, and the rolling average of active cases is starting to tick back up again," Hayes said on a Zoom call. "We think that it's still a pretty precarious situation, but we will support whatever you decide to do as it relates to your operations for the rest of 2020.
"It's not at the point where we would feel comfortable allowing the public back in City Hall, but I recognize that every single person is working as hard as they can in very uncharted territory to make the best of this."
Michael Compton, the chief of staff for Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, also attended via Zoom and said that Mayor Coppinger continues to stress that people have to move on with the realization we may be living with this virus for a while.
"If it's your will that we need fans in the stands, then we support that," Compton said. "Our office is behind you."
Finley Stadium executive director Chris Thomas said in June that reopening guidelines would consist of 20% capacity in the stands and 50% in the skyboxes. Former board chairman Gordon Davenport quickly took issue with the skybox figure, and Thomas responded that skybox capacity could be reduced significantly and that skyboxes may not be used altogether.
The vote was welcome news to CFC managing director Jeremy Alumbaugh, who said, "As much as 65% of our revenue comes from game-day activity." CFC was just days away from its first home match as a professional team and a National Independent Soccer Association member when the COVID-19 pandemic brought sports to a screeching halt, and the team has played three matches at Finley without fans since July 11 under Mayor Berke's orders.
Alumbaugh said CFC's two recent matches in Michigan did not have fans present but that those took place in much smaller venues.
Reopening Finley Stadium may be too little, too late for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team, which had its Southern Conference schedule scratched last Thursday. UTC athletic director Mark Wharton said Tuesday that the school is still exploring nonconference games but admitted just how limited that would be.
The first half of Tuesday's meeting was a sharing of one troubling piece of financial news after another, with Thomas revealing Finley Stadium has lost an average of $33,845 a month during the coronavirus outbreak.
"It's an ugly situation, and we've done a pretty good job of putting off the inevitable," Thomas said. "We can't go on fumes for much longer."
A very likely option entails dipping into the Stadium Corp. general fund, which contains about $800,000, according to board member and former chairmain Ryan Crimmins.
UTC executive vice chancellor Richard Brown said his school will not be able to afford Finley's $12,000 monthly fee with no football games on tap. He offered a $26,000 payment for base operations, but that matter was not immediately resolved.
The reopening of Finley Stadium could also include several high school football games, with McCallie having already expressed an interest to host rival Baylor there given the larger capacity.