Mis-management in Hockey. Part 2 – London

The second and final part of Ian Braisby’s look at mis-managemnet in hockey. In this article, Ian takes a look at London

Following my earlier article on the “club mismanagement” theme, dealing with the Newcastle franchise, I now turn Southwards to look at an issue that has plagued British hockey for many years – how to get a successful professional club established in London.

The lack of a London club is an aspect of British hockey that has been discussed at great length for a long time, particularly since the advent of a professional league in the UK. People are always surprised that nobody has managed to establish a franchise in our capital and there is a strong belief that this lack undermines the credibility of the entire league structure, particularly when it comes to getting attention and coverage in national media, which has a well-known London bias.

As I am sure most people will be aware, there have been two clubs in London over the past 15 years. First came the Knights, launched in the early years of the ISL and seen by many as a flagship for the new league, which then had regular Sky coverage, including weekly live games at one point. Based at the Docklands arena, close to the modern business centre of Canary Wharf, the Knights seemed to be the perfect fit at exactly the right time. But it was not to be. Despite some great characters on and off the ice, the club struggled to build an effective fan base and, with the cost of London operations, and the gradual decline of the league itself, folded within a few years. Next on the scene came the London Racers, set up as an EIHL team, and playing first at Alexandra Palace and then at the Lee Valley rink, with a view to finding a more suitable permanent home at some unspecified future date. A short lived venture, the Racers struggled from day one with poor crowds and the inadequacy of their ice for pro hockey, lasting just two years before they too folded.

This record of London teams has been raised in the ongoing club mismanagement discussion, and I can totally understand why. However, I feel this is rather harsh on the people who have been in charge of those organisations. Anyone trying to run a hockey team in London is faced with a totally different set of problems from someone doing so in any other UK city, and it is those issues that ultimately saw the end of both London franchises, rather than any specific mismanagement.

Let’s start with money, as that is ultimately what it all comes down to. Pretty much everything costs substantially more in London than elsewhere, that is a simple fact. Venue rental, accommodation, food, travel, entertainments and the rest are simply more expensive. This puts the cost of operating a professional team at a higher level than your rivals straightaway. At the same time, every pound you pay to your players buys them less, so you either have to pay them more or bring in players with lower wage demands. The first of these is what the Knights seemed to attempt for several seasons, but with their failure to attract big crowds, it proved unsustainable in the long term, even with the financial backing of the multinational Anschutz sports management group. With their much lower budgets, and because they were operating in a wage-capped league, the Racers had little choice but to go for the second option, which obviously reduced their competitiveness on the ice, evidenced by their weak showing during their all too brief stay in the EIHL.

An accusation often levelled is that a team should not have to struggle to attract enough of a crowd to survive in a city of 9 million people. This is an over-simplification. Firstly, you cannot treat “London” as a single entity in the same way as other cities. It is a vast metropolis and does not follow the model of “city centre with suburbs around it” like other cities do. It is naïve to think that setting up a team in central London would have the entire population as its potential market, as would be the case in smaller towns and cities. To add to this, many people in London have a totally different mindset to people elsewhere. Have you ever tried to get someone from North London to travel South of the river for anything, or asked someone to travel from East to West? From the looks they give you, anyone would think you’d asked them to lead an expedition up the Orinoco, not travel across their own city for something they’ll probably enjoy.

In terms of competing entertainments, there is certainly a wider variety in London than anywhere else, and this makes it less likely that people will give hockey a go and maybe become hooked. There is no doubt that London is a great sporting city and existing sports fans tend to be a strong potential market for new hockey franchises. But look more closely at the London sporting scene and you will see a strong focus on particular areas, rather than the whole city. Take the football teams for example – their identity, traditional fan base and keenest rivalries are largely based on being from North, South, East or West London rather than just London. The same applies to major cricket and rugby teams and I am sure to other sports too. The idea of having a single London team is totally alien to most sports fans in the capital. As for the large population from major hockey nations who live in London, while a few of them might well be prepared to give hockey a go, ultimately I cannot help but think it is extremely optimistic to expect that a large number of them will be prepared to pay London prices for a level of the sport that is far below what they are used to, or can watch on TV or online from leagues they actually care about.

Aside from all this, despite the extensive public transport network, travel is an issue – getting from one side of London to the other can take a lot of time. If the venue you play in is not on a major transport link (a particular issue in the case of Lee Valley, although the Docklands was not ideal either at the time the Knights played there), your potential market is further reduced. I suspect that Nottingham fans can actually travel to away games in Sheffield or Coventry more quickly and easily than most of London’s population could get to Lee Valley for home matches.

While finance and the very nature of the city are huge barriers to success, perhaps the issue that is the most crucial for any potential London owner, and one that has plagued previous owners, is where to play. Critics will argue that London has a host of potential venues that could host hockey. That may be true, but for regular hockey you need a permanent ice plant, and what cost would that involve? Even if you have a semi-suitable venue, what kind of rental would you have to pay to play and train there? One of the London Racers’ owners told me that this was their biggest challenge – an arena like the Docklands was unsustainable, but Alexandra Palace and Lee Valley were just not suitable for a professional team, with poor facilities and minimal spectator capacity. He was convinced that the potential was in place to run a successful EIHL team out of somewhere like the Skydome or Dundee’s arena, but there was simply nowhere like that in London. They were looking into the possibility of building something, but astronomical costs would rule out it being anywhere central, raising even more of the kinds of problems I discussed above, and it was ultimately never pursued, at least not yet. As far as I can see, until there is a suitable venue available, nobody will be able to make a success of a London franchise in the current league setup, no matter how well or badly they manage it.

Personally, I am saddened that there is no professional hockey club in London. It would undoubtedly help raise the league’s profile, it’s always good to have a road trip down to the capital, combining hockey with a bit of sightseeing or shopping, and the people I have met who were involved with the two previous London franchises – especially the Racers – have, in the main, been great hockey people with a genuine desire to help build the sport. Who knows what the future holds, but I for one am not holding my breath for another team in the capital in the next few years.


5 Responses to “Mis-management in Hockey. Part 2 – London”

  1. 1 Alan Claringbold December 5, 2011 at 5:42 pm

    Just one thing i’d like to point out about the London Knights organisation, as I was a fan of that team before I moved to Sheffield, that team, whilst it wasn’t doing brilliantly fan base wise and everything else that has been pointed out, the club actually had no choice but to cease up, purely because the Arena itself was taken away from them. It’s no longer there as far as I know.

  2. 2 Dean December 5, 2011 at 10:17 pm

    Another great article Ian. Would love to see some more with your views on the UK hockey scene – have you considered making this a semi-regular thing, with more articles on your views of the league and UK hockey as a whole? You clearly have a lot of knowledge and I certainly have found the last couple extremely interesting and insightful.

  3. 3 ianbraisby December 8, 2011 at 8:39 pm

    Thanks for the positive response Dean. While I’m certainly keen to contribute more articles to TCW, I think it will be on an ad-hoc basis for now, when a particular issue interests or inspires me, and maybe sharing a few memories from “the good old days”.

  4. 4 patrick henry February 1, 2012 at 9:34 am

    Please get in touch as would like to discuss further.

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