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March, 2011:

Where Do We Go From Here?

Hockey as a sport is many things. Physical, fast, exciting, frustrating, elating and entertaining. It’s tough to see why it is sometimes so hard to market in this country.

Hockey, here in the UK, can be summed up by another word; minority. It’s an unfortunate truth that since the “heyday” of hockey in the UK the attendances around many rinks have fallen off significantly.

I blogged a few months ago about the difference between the arena and the rink teams being stark. This, unfortunately, came to a head only a few weeks ago when Newcastle Vipers Chairman, Paddy O’Connor, issued a statement on behalf of the Tyneside club highlighting not only the hardship undergone in recent times, but also issued a scathing attack on the League as a whole for the lack of support given to the struggling outfit.

As fans we only, to an extent, get hear-say and assumptions. Rumours passed through from team to team about the haves and the have-nots. Newcastle, by that definition, are most certainly a ‘have-not’. Their days at Whitley Bay are a far cry from the team that joined the Elite League.

The Newcastle Vipers that moved from the BNL were a team that pushed my own Belfast Giants to the brink as they chased the league title, this in a season the Giants boasted Theo Fleury in their ranks. They were a side playing out of a City Centre based arena, flying high and went on to take a Playoff Championship, beating Belfast on the way there. So what changed?

O’Connor’s statement sights assurances made by the league on their arrival and the much vaunted “Gate Levy” agreement makes a reappearance. We witnessed a similar statement from Scott Neill only days before the 2009 Playoffs Finals weekend as rumours spread like wildfire through the masses gathered at Nottingham. A series of teams were not best pleased with the on going situation and were preparing to leave the EIHL. A 6 team league and the various connotations that would entail was touted and protested against.

How true this situation was to coming to fruition is anyone’s guess. An interview I undertook with Dave Simms only weeks afterwards dispelled the possibility ever to have existed. But the league did lose two teams that summer. Manchester and Basingstoke both sighting their financial status for their move to the EPL. In this bloggers opinion the latter had a better case for this than the former, whose move I believe had as much to do with a trophy hunt as undoubted financial rectification.

However, back to Newcastle, despite being alongside Edinburgh one of the teams unhappy with the situation at the time, they remained within the EIHL hoping for reform. O’Connor’s statement seems to have indicated such reform has not taken place. The rich want to get richer while the poor want their piece also.

So I ask again, what has happened in Newcastle? Has their decline been a series of unfortunate business decisions? Have there been, as they state, too many broken promises at league level? Has the “financial climate” taken its told at the gate and subsequently in the P/L of the Vipers Organisation? There are many questions that few know the answer to.

In my time living in the North East I got to know a lot of the guys who worked, and continue to work, behind the scenes at the Vipers. Few work as hard as I have seen from them to market and push the sport on the limited funds they strive to work from.

The Vipers plight drew both support and quite a bit of undeserved derision, not least from the East Midlands where many fans scoffed and moaned about ‘begging plates’. Various bloggers and commentators mouthed off about their promotion not being sufficient and that they would learn a lesson from the Panthers organisation.

I find such comments so incredibly short sighted and naive it’s untrue. The Vipers PR machine is one that has worked non-stop over the last year and beyond. Few days have gone by this season without an update through the website, using one of their social media streams or a call to the local and national press.

However it is word of mouth, encouragement and experiences that retain a fan base, a point our friends on Lower Parliament Street would do well to recognise. The Vipers have suffered for the move to Whitley, enforced through an arena organisation that made their options very limited and ultimately untenable.

The comparison down the east coast goes a long way to show the vast differences in hockey in this country. The Nottingham Panthers draw in undoubtedly the highest attendance on a regular basis, yet this belies their PR system. They retain a severely outdated website, produce press releases rife with errors, they lack any form of official social media presence, they lack a web-cast either visual or audio and their printed media is usually at the often narrow-minded and vitriolic pen of Mick Holland in the Nottingham Evening Post.

I concede that in Chris Ellis they have a valuable commodity. To retain a fan who can contribute through mainstream media (in this case the BBC) is something few teams can boast. Seth Bennett in Sheffield and Ollie Williams in Bracknell are two others who fight in their newsrooms, not always successfully, to push further hockey exposure on the masses. The Belfast Giants, long considered one of the fabled “big 4”, by contrast, rarely feature on BBC Northern Irelands television sports coverage.

It has come down, in many cases, to the fans to promote the club, and this is something the Vipers realised long ago. In a similar way to the Manchester Phoenix, they rely on volunteers to produce the off ice experience. From programme writers to online content. They recently added the talents of Katy Parles to their media team, after her well written “Confessions of a Hockey Novice” blog gained plaudits across the social media lines.

Likewise in Manchester, Ben Knight’s podcast began life as an unofficial output before his hard work was recognised and he was asked to add player’s interviews and create an official media output for the Phoenix organisation.

In contrast the excellent Panthers blog “The Cats Whiskers”, back in its form as a printed fanzine, was banned from being sold at the NIC by Gary Moran due to his in-ability to control the output and opinions it provided, not agreeing with any negative connotations within despite on-ice performances. Rather than embrace the abilities and willingness to promote the club, it was expelled.

This is not aimed as a blog to vilify the Nottingham Panthers, far from it; their organisation has been most successful off the ice despite on-ice failings. However they have benefited from assets many, less affluent, organisations would dream of. Not least a home set smack-bang in the city centre, fed by buses, trams and even the cities mainline train station within easy walking distance allowing fans to flock to their state of the art venue. Substitute that for an aging out of town venue where Sunday buses don’t always run past the final buzzer of the hockey game and would such dedicated fans still attend on such a regular basis? Something we will never know.

I wish the Vipers well in their quest to sustain top flight hockey in the north-east. This league, despite some narrow minded views, would be lacking without a franchise somewhere where hockey has been so successful in years gone by. The Belfast Giants this week proved that sometimes the silliest things can promote your brand world-wide without that even being the intended audience, but the hard work of those whose aim is to help the sport and the team they love should not be underestimated, underappreciated and certainly not derided, without it the league as it stands would have vanished a long time ago