Ice Hockey is always going to have tough competition in the UK, being under the shadow of the more traditional and far more dominant sports such as Football and Rugby, but recently it has been able to edge its way onto the scene.
Since its inception in 2003, the Elite Ice Hockey league, EIHL, has made great strides to not only provide a spectacle for fans but also to prove itself as a financial model. Now in its second decade of operations it looks like the dream of a competitive professional league with financial stability has been achieved. The Sheffield/Nottingham derby on Boxing Day drew a record crowd of over 9000 fans, a figure which rivals those across leagues in Europe where Hockey is far more popular, a testament to how far the sport has come. That isn’t to say that there aren’t struggling teams, just this off season the Hull Stingrays went into liquidation after failing to secure financial backing and there are worrying signs starting to emerge for the struggling Edinburgh Capitals who are the only team to not draw an average of at least 1000 fans per game. However, most teams have a secure future and are expanding their sphere of influence gradually which is now providing the league with a solid foundation for future endeavours.
Currently with ten teams, the league has matured enough that many think that it should look to continue to grow the sport and attempt to reach new markets. Tony Smith, chairman of the league, reflected this sentiment when he announced that London would be allocated a franchise in the future, playing out of Wembley stadium, although further plans have yet to be unveiled. This would be a smart move for the league as it will start to fill the void of teams in the South East due to the imbalance caused by the far more numerous northern teams currently competing. But to really exploit this untapped market, a second team in the south in the near future is a viable possibility. The Telford Tigers, a team in the English Premiership Ice Hockey League, EPIHL, the tier below the EIHL, has expressed an interest in making the jump but with a rink capacity of just 750 and past financial difficulties this seems unlikely. Another candidate could be the Basingstoke Bison, who have competed in the EIHL in the past, and while they are currently topping the EPIHL standings, they have a winning product on the ice. However the Bison might feel uneasy about re-joining the top tier as they struggled with problems on and off the ice last time they competed in the EIHL back in 2010.
Even with these expansions the South Coast would still be left without a team in either of the top two tiers of UK Hockey, which definitely opens up an opportunity for a businessman willing to take the risk of getting a franchise off the ground. With a proof of concept in local teams such as Basingstoke and Guildford showing that there is a potential market, Southampton could have been an ideal location for such a venture if Sport England had backed plans for a £10million rink back in 2012. It still could if a new investor could be found to back the plans, which had a location and had gained planning permission from the council. With the recent success of the Saints in the English Football Premiership, now would be a great time to take advantage of the city’s interest in sport and reap the benefits.