An Inconvenient Truth: Why The Elite League Needs The Nottingham Panthers

Recently, the whispers around the Nottingham Panthers’ lofty ambitions (also those of the Black family ownership) have resurfaced, with the Panthers’ securing of a place in a tournament amongst some of the cream of European hockey seen by some as an example of the black-and-gold team from the East Midlands once again looking to expand their vision beyond that of British domestic competition. The Panthers will play two of Koelner Haie, HC Geneva-Servette and Krefeld Pinguine in a preseason competition in Rotterdam as part of their warmup for the 2013/14 season in a tournament which, while it may somewhat lack the “Prestige” implied in its name, is nevertheless a step up for EIHL clubs from previous attempts to be involved in European tournaments (at least those outside the participation in the Continental Cup and very short-lived revival of the Ahearne Trophy).

Previous attempts have been made by the EIHL to forge closer links with leagues in Europe, but they haven’t been successful…the P&O Cup held between Coventry, Hull and the Dutch clubs Tilburg and Geleen, for example, didn’t create the buzz intended and saw overall disappointing attendances in Coventry in 2011. The inclusion of Panthers in a tournament along with some of the richest and most prestigious clubs in mainland Europe (Geneva attracted NHL stars like Logan Couture to play for them during the last lockout and has an extensive amount of former NHLers on its current roster, for example) is a major coup for them and should be applauded-particularly as it’s likely that most other EIHL teams would have had neither the budget nor the will to travel to such a tournament.

Neil Black and the Panthers ownership have long made no secret of their ambitions to move the Panthers to a higher stage. In this interview from 2011, Panthers owner Neil Black makes a veiled mention to moving the Panthers out of the EIHL into a European-wide league, or forging links with more prestigious European leagues like Italy or France, both of which are growing at a higher rate than the EIHL (although that’s a subject for another blog still). The announcement of this tournament has been greeted with joy by Panthers fans and the organisation, with quotes like “this is the level we want to see the Panthers playing at”.

The trouble is, while the Panthers get stick for being the Manchester City of the EIHL (all the money, teams full of stars, the kind of arrogance that comes with being one of the biggest fish in a smallish pond) there is an inconvenient truth that those who will react to these ambitions by either laughing or saying “fine, go, the EIHL will survive without you” are missing.

The EIHL needs the Panthers much more than the Panthers need the EIHL.

The facts are clear. For all the stick Neil Black and his team gets, they are today one of the most stable and well-run clubs in British hockey. Always up near the top of the table, with a loyal and sizeable fan-base, they are one of the pillars that hold up the EIHL. Remove it, either through the management taking their team to new horizons or the demise that a few misguided souls wish upon them in vitriolic rants every so often, and the entire top level of British hockey would struggle not to crumble. But why? Here’s the reasons:

The Power Behind The Throne: Firstly we have to bear in mind the influence of Neil Black himself. A shrewd businessman who’s successful even without the Panthers in his portfolio thanks to a successful sports management company, Black is without question one of the driving forces behind the EIHL and one of the principle architects of its stability, whether it be through committing money to help out struggling clubs such as the Hull Stingrays (rumouredly) or being the driving force behind the establishment of the Braehead Clan, arguably a template to follow for any new franchise. Tony Smith of Sheffield may be the Chairman, Todd Kelman of Belfast is influential, but it’s seemingly fact that almost anything introduced in the EIHL needs Black’s support to pass. He is the eminence grise behind every EIHL decision-the business-savvy head who knows how to run a successful sports business and has built up the most powerful franchise in the league. He is the man with influence in a wide sphere-the man others turn to when they need a favour. The man who, along with a few others, ensures that the squabbles at board level don’t derail the overall plan and that things actually get done.

Despite the many competing interests, views and (occasionally) egos on the EIHL board, Black has managed to keep the Panthers on an even keel for ten seasons and more, and by extension the league itself, navigating through conflicts of egos, business philosophies and bitter arguments amongst owners to make sure the EIHL ship doesn’t founder on the icebergs of jealousy, apathy or personal conflict. Lose him and someone else will have to take one that role-quickly.

The Box Office Draw: But why is a healthy Nottingham side so important to the EIHL? Simply, because they are one of the biggest and richest clubs. They are one of the “draws” of the EIHL-not only in the NIC but for every other team. People want to watch Nottingham play more than they do most other teams (including Sheffield). Teams want to play Nottingham because they know that the large number of travelling fans and reputation as a giant to slay mean that their fans will turn up too.

Take the Panthers out of the EIHL and you remove some of the most money-spinning games of the year for every other team like Coventry, Hull, Cardiff, and the Scottish teams. You also end the Nottingham-Sheffield rivalry, which even the Steelers will admit is one of the biggest contributors to their income during the season.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that, if the Panthers departed the EIHL, it wouldn’t be long before other teams followed-but while Nottingham would do it by choice, others wouldn’t. In a league where most teams are run on a knife-edge from game to game and rely on ticket sales as a huge part of their income, the loss of the team that ensures some of the biggest gates of the season could kill them.

Hate Is The Drug: Then, of course, there’s the “pantomime villain” factor. In every sporting league, there needs to be the all-powerful team who is a focus for the rest of the league’s hate. In the Premiership, it’s Manchester United. In rugby, it was Leicester Tigers. In international football (for English fans at least, it’s Germany. Everyone needs an enemy in their sports fandom.

In the EIHL, the Panthers are it, closely followed by Sheffield-two big-money squads who can often give the impression of seeing success as a right, not as a privilege. If the Panthers disappear, suddenly nobody in the EIHL has anyone to focus their discontent on, and the league’s passion suffers as a result.

Media Circus: Consistently, the Panthers have been among the best-covered teams by their local media in the EIHL, with Chris Ellis and Owen Bradley of BBC Nottingham being two of the key figures not just in the coverage of the Panthers but in the sport of ice-hockey in Britain as a whole. Ellis, in fact, is IHUK Media Officer. If the Panthers switch their aims elsewhere then the club themselves will doubtless remain amongst the best-covered in the UK game but the EIHL will suddenly lose two very talented media people to another league…and it can’t be denied that the publicising of the Panthers and also the EIHL playoff weekend held at the NIC is a key factor in spreading EIHL awareness both locally and nationally. If the Panthers go, then whatever league they’re in gets coverage and the EIHL gets less.

Damaged Credibility: Consider how the Premiership would look to outsiders if Manchester United decided to up and leave for a pan-European competition, or Manchester City. Remember the damage done to the FA Cup in 2000 when Man Utd elected not to compete? Any time a competition loses one of its biggest clubs, the competition suffers in the eyes of those watching as a result. The EIHL losing arguably its biggest team would be catastrophic for the chances of it being taken seriously by a wider media audience, as well as doing irreparable damage to the EIHL’s image as a “serious” hockey league.

Why? A team going bust can be explained away by any number of factors-a successful team moving elsewhere can only be explained by the place they’re currently in not being good enough. The “rats deserting a sinking ship” whispers would get very loud very quickly amongst those outside the sport.

There are probably many more reasons why the Panthers leaving the EIHL would be a great move for them but a disaster for the league itself, but these are the most obvious. For the sake of the EIHL someone needs to step up and ask the Panthers ownership what they want in order to consider staying in the EIHL more worthy of their time then going elsewhere, because even if the whispers now are mere hyperbole, they speak of a team looking to make a step up-a team showing ambition that seems to be sadly lacking amongst those in IHUK or others who prefer to cite the gap in budgets as the sole reason the Elite League isn’t keeping up with other leagues in Europe.

Otherwise, there may come a day when Nottingham make good their threat to seek greener pastures outside the top level of British hockey…and if that day happens, then unless things change radically the Panthers are likely to leave a devastated EIHL landscape behind as their parting present.

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