Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

The Covid 19 Melt Of The Elite League

Posted on 24 December 2020 by Jeremy Addley

The financial ramifications caused by the Coronavirus (COVID-19) has been felt worldwide. It has caused economic growth to slow down and, in some cases, stop. In order to keep society running in the United Kingdom, varying degrees of lockdown have been imposed since March 2020.

The effects caused by lockdown on UK ice hockey have been nothing short of disastrous. There is no season planned for 2020/21, unless a vaccine arrives in the spring/summer of 2021. Even if there is a potential season starting in September 2021, without the vaccine in wide circulation, we could potentially see teams drop out of the Elite League.

The ‘Big Four’ of the Elite League (Cardiff Devils, Belfast Giants, Sheffield Steelers and Nottingham Panthers) have operated with a budget larger than most. For the 2019/20 season, an inside report from Chasing the Puck revealed that the ‘Big Four’ were operating on estimated wages between £17,000-£20,000 per week.

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Compared to other national sports, the wages seem minute. These are however, all in relative terms. Teams would allocate funds elsewhere such as university education to entice overseas and home grown talent, to sign with them over their European counterparts and UK rivals.

The Elite League teams attract players via other means, not just wages. For many of these sides, the access to University is a big draw for both UK and foreign talent.

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In the case of former Team GB player Jonathan Boxill, this was a big reason for signing with the Belfast Giants: “That’s why I came to Belfast…I wanted to play in the Elite League purely to get my MBA. That actually took precedent over playing in the national team. That’s how important it was to me”.

For ice hockey players like Jonathan, life after hockey was always in the back of their minds, even before COVID arrived in the UK. Their ice hockey careers will not sustain them financially post retirement.

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It is not only the player incentives for university that will be affected. It will also be of incentives attached to their contracts that will likely be reduced.

Boxill revealed all the essential details teams must take into consideration when looking to sign players: “You have to have apartments, you have to have cars, visas, insurance. It makes it really tough now for these teams.”

It is something that isn’t widely considered within the general public. Players aren’t just incentivised by their wages. They are enticed by the protection and stability a team will offer them throughout their stay with the organisation.

With the certain reduction in budgets for the foreseeable future, maintaining these standards will now become an exceptionally hard tasks for most, if not all of the teams.

Many players in the Elite League do have a secondary job. In the times of uncertainty that COVID-19 has brought about, these secondary jobs have now become more important due to the uncertain future of UK ice hockey.

For current Team GB forward Craig Peacock, not playing ice hockey was a tough decision to make: “You have to contemplate everything…if I was younger. Yeah, maybe I probably would [played in Europe this season]. For the money that was out there it wasn’t great. Weighing everything up it makes more sense to stay here”.

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The sentiment shown by Craig is one felt by the majority of players. Although they may have a deep desire to play their beloved sport, the current circumstances mean that this dream unfortunately has to step aside.

There have been suggestions of following other national sports and beginning to play behind closed doors. The Elite League however, isn’t in the same boat. Other national sports such as football and rugby rely heavily on TV broadcast money. For the Elite League, it centres around sponsorship and revenue.

Although teams could broadcast their games online, the revenue generated would be substantially smaller than the teams would be used to. To give an example: A family may pay £5-10 to watch a game on a webcast, which would be potentially £30-40 less than what the teams would make for that family to come through the gate.

You then multiply up by your average attendance, and you begin to see the large issue with behind closed doors.

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Businesses who rely on advertising space within stadiums and sponsorship through prize raffles are now also feeling the financial impact with a potential 60% drop in viewers. These developments will affect teams looking to renew future business deals. The result could lead to sponsors reducing the amount offered to each team, until fans are placed back into the stands and the revenue stream increases substantially.

Although the UK government has pledged £4 million towards ice hockey as part of the Winter Survival Package, the Elite League is still calling upon the devolved governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to help in the financial support the league needs to survive.

The reality for the Elite League is simple. Until fans are allowed back within the arenas and the league functions as normal, teams will not recover to their full capacity. The negative impact on the Elite League will be a long-term issue that could set teams back years or even threaten their existence.