“…she stumbles down by a river
Screams calling “London”
None of us heard her coming
I guess the carpet weren’t rolled out”
Jamie T: “Sheila”
So, another off-season, another rumour about EIHL ice-hockey returning to London surfaces. According to British Ice Hockey, there is a plan to run a team out of Wembley Arena, starting in the 2014/15 season. BIH mentions Nottingham Panthers owner Neil Black as the major mover and shaker behind this, in the way that Neil Black tends to be mentioned whenever new teams are rumoured to be being set up, and also hints that the massive Anschutz Entertainment Group, owner of the NHL’s LA Kings amongst other interests, may be interested.
London is not, traditionally, a venue where pro top-level ice hockey has really taken root, at least not recently. Of the 15 non-recreational-level teams set up in London itself (as opposed to Romford, who have moved rinks after the loss of theirs this season), only four currently survive (all at English National League level), and two of those are at the same rink, in Streatham. The last top-level team to play in London before the late 90’s were the Richmond Flyers of the British Hockey League in 1987, before two short-lived attempts with the London Knights and London Racers in the late 90’s/2000s.
Of those 15 teams, another 5 played in the early part of the century when British ice hockey was in its infancy. Wembley Arena itself, the mooted home of the new team, hasn’t hosted its own team since 1963 and last hosted hockey at all in 1996. The last top-level team in London, the Racers, played at a converted bike-shed in Lee Valley and only lasted two seasons.
Even the financial muscle of one of the biggest sports-entertainment groups in the world, the Anschutz Group (owners of the NHLs LA Kings and several other European teams) couldn’t save the London Knights, who battled an arena out in the Docklands and general apathy from Londoners used to football that meant that, despite a brave fight and hundreds of thousands of pounds being pumped into the team, the fanbase was left without a team at the end of 2003.
London is, of course, a city which every ice hockey fan in the country would love to see a successful EIHL franchise in-the lower-league squads in Haringey, Lee Valley and Streatham rinks would suddenly have a pathway for their young players to aspire to climb, and the EIHL would undoubtedly benefit hugely from the media attention gained from being in the nation’s capital.
But history is against a London team, as shown above.
Granted, if there’s anyone in the Elite League owner’s cabal who is capable of overcoming such odds, it’s Neil Black-the man who’s made Nottingham the most stable club in the EIHL as well as one of the most successful, and carved out a niche for ice hockey in Glasgow faced a) by a city that didn’t have a history of the sport and b) had the two biggest sports clubs in Scotland (two of the biggest in Britain, in fact) along with a huge amount of other competing attractions to compete with.
However, the problem of Glasgow, while an impressive achievement, is almost a cakewalk compared to the hurdles Neil Black or any other ownership group will face if they do attempt to rejeuvenate a top-league hockey team in England’s capital.
Firstly, while Glasgow had two major competing top-flight football teams, London has, at last count, fifteen football teams in the top four divisions, six of which are currently in the Premiership, and amongst those six are some of the best football teams in the world.
It also has several top-flight rugby teams, cricket teams, other sporting squads, some of the most active nightlife and concert venues in the world and a population that has traditionally failed to embrace any “London” sports team, preferring to support their areas of the city.
Then there’s the problem of getting the fans in. Proponents of a London team claim that there’s a “massive” latent fanbase in London. However, is there enough to even half-fill a 12,500-seat arena on a consistent basis without a massive subsidy in ticket costs or prices so low an owner will lose money on every home game? Especially when there are already four other “local” teams in London itself and any number of EPL/ENL teams in the surrounding area? It seems the only way for Mr Black or any other owner to ensure such a crowd is either run at a loss due to subsidies, attempt to “steal” other teams fanbases or have a team that is simply unmissable/stupidly successful. Which will cost a lot of money. And that’s even before we start looking at housing costs in London, London weighting on the wages of the backroom staff (the employees will need to earn enough to eat) etc-all the “hidden” expenses of a top-flight ice hockey team.
Then, there’s Wembley Arena itself. It currently has no ice-plant (one will need to be installed-somehow I can’t see the arena doing that without a few quic), faces MASSIVE competition for dates due to it being one of the premier live music venues in Britain, and while it has decent transport links, is located in an area which may require some serious travelling even from those on the other side of London.
It also has, on average, two Saturdays of four booked for every month in the coming ice hockey season-which means teams may struggle for dates in a similar way to the likes of Sheffield, who already play some of their “less glamorous” games at the much smaller IceSheffield to avoid clashes. A Wembley team wouldn’t have that flexibility.
Ah-but what about sponsors, you say. Surely attracting top-flight sponsorship cash is easier in a big market like London?
Well, the Knights were sponsored by Associated Newspapers, one of the biggest media companies in Britain (in the guise of the London Evening Standard) and owner of two national daily UK newspapers including the 12th most profitable in the world-a tie-up that you’d assume gave them an “in” on media coverage and a pretty secure investor willing to throw a few quid in even if they weren’t owned by AEG. Did it help them? Did it heck.
So, what we have here is the task of starting up an EIHL team in an arena which is no longer set up for it (likely causing a ton of initial investment to be required just to get it fit for purpose), where it may well struggle to get icetime (by the way, there’s no realistic backup plan if it does), in a location which is one of the most crowded leisure environments on earth, one of the most expensive to live in AND also has a long history of failure to sustain top-level franchises in the chosen sport.
On top of that, this is a team that realistically HAS to win/be moderately successful right from the off in order to create any buzz around it and keep crowds up, and incidentally, it’s a minority sport whose competitors include some of the biggest teams on the planet in the country’s national sport.
Compared to that, even setting up the Braehead Clan sounds like an absolute cakewalk. Present that idea on Dragon’s Den with those facts and you’d be laughed out of court.
Now, I have no doubt in Neil Black’s and the Black family’s ability to run, fund and sustain any “normal” EIHL ice-hockey team-after all, they’re currently doing it with two of them, including the most financially successful club in the Elite League. And this is not meant in any way to disparage the work (and no doubt investment) that has been done with both the Nottingham Panthers AND the Braehead Clan.
But starting an EIHL team at Wembley and more to the point keeping it going will be, as shown above, on an entirely different planet of difficulty as a task. It’ll also be on an entirely different planet of cost.
And realistically (although I’d love to be proved wrong) I’m not sure that even Neil Black has any hope of pulling this one off, even if he’s considering it. I don’t think anyone can pull this off without being willing to lose not just thousands, not hundreds of thousands, but millions of pounds. At least not in the current UK hockey environment. And even if there are, it’d be touch and go.
Sorry, EIHL-it’s a nice dream, but dreams don’t come true that often. Especially not in UK hockey.