Ice hockey in Great Britain is the most popular indoor spectator sport with an audience that has largely increased in the past few years. High-level clubs can draw as many as 9,000 spectators, although numbers do change when it comes to smaller clubs such as the National League Division One Raiders.
For many clubs, the arena in which games are played can play a crucial role in attracting spectators. The supporters of the home team can identify with the club’s arena as it embodies the club’s identity and gives not just the team, but also the supporters a place to call their home.
Two clubs, one rink
With the Raiders temporarily playing in East London following the closure of the Romford ice arena, both the Raiders and the National League Division Two Lee Valley Lions play at the same arena: the Lee Valley Ice Centre.
The decision to share the rink has sometimes been controversial as it could potentially threaten the identity of both of the clubs.
Despite that concern, Raider CEO John Scott is confident that sharing the arena has not had a negative impact on his club’s identity or the level of support, stating: “I don’t believe that the existence of the Lions has affected the attendances at the Raiders game in the slightest.”
Since they moved from Romford, the Raiders have been spending much time and effort promoting their matches and in particular the club itself. Their marketing push appears to have been quite successful for the club as they have estimated a significant increase in their attendances at home games.
Still, moving to another borough in London could not have been easy either for the club or the supporters. The muddled Lee Valley/Romford identity that resulted from the Havering Council’s decision became a source of frustration for Scott since, despite his desire to become part of a new community, he has to admit that many supporters still chant “Romford.”
But he added, “We regularly have over 150 people that have moved with the team from Romford, and they are all aware that we are working towards the goal of returning to the new Romford rink, so I guess it is natural for them to retain their allegiance to the team that many of them have supported for 30 years.”
But new fans from the area have also been pouring in, and support at home matches has largely increased since the Raiders first moved to the East London rink in 2013. Nowadays they are recording attendances in excess of 450 ice hockey fans, numbers that could only be achieved thanks to the new memberships of East London supporters.
But although the numbers have begun to climb, starting over was not as easy as the Raiders had hoped.
When they first moved to the Lee Valley Ice Centre, their attendances averaged 170 – an average that was well below the number of people that used to attend games at the rink in Romford. Scott and the management team were surprised to find how many people would not make the short trip despite truly supporting the club.
With the move, the Raiders were also forced to disband their youth system, and the Raiders CEO identified this as another problem that affected attendance.
“There was of course another issue and that relates to the parents of youngsters that played the game,” Scott explained. “Many of them moved to Chelmsford, Slough and Lee Valley. This meant that their support often moved to the senior team at the rink their children now played in.”
Excitement for everyone
But thanks to a heavy social media presence and an increased amount of coverage from local newspapers and radio broadcasts, the Raiders have built a whole new fan base.
Scott elaborated, “We have promoted on social media and local events sites and we are about to have a link with a sports business course where we hope to get students working with us on a promotion project.”
But Scott still isn’t satisfied. He has a bigger dream for the club as he tries to expand their audience among not only ice hockey fans, but all sports lovers. According to the CEO, ice hockey, often termed “the fastest team sport on earth,” has all the excitement, speed and adrenaline every sport fan would like to see in a game.
A place to call home
With an arena that feels more like home every match and a flourishing fan base, the Raiders have recently been able to address the loss of their youth system as well.
Setting up a program with youths from the East London area was a long-term strategy for Scott, which he said will improve support and instil an even stronger sense of belonging for East Londoners.
“Having a home arena has many advantages,” Scott said. “The most important is to be able to have a junior team set up. This means that the youngsters can identify with the senior team players and try to emulate their heroes. It also allows the senior players to interact with the youngsters and the community and to take training sessions with the youngsters. The juniors will normally be quite local and this provides a natural awareness of the existence of the sport.”
The Raiders’ CEO has identified in the youngsters a great marketing boost as they can persuade their parents to take them to the senior games and from there it would only be a step for the parents to invite their friends and colleagues, further extending the support base.
Return to Romford
Although they are making efforts to attract new fans from East London, Raiders will not always be at the Lee Valley Ice Centre. Scott has confirmed that they will be back in Romford for the 2018-19 season, as a new ice arena is in the process of being built.
The new Romford venue will feature a gym and a pool in addition to the ice pad, which will have advertising screens around the centre to ‘educate’ potential fans or players.
Scott is confident that, in addition to regaining their former supporters from Romford, new fans will pour in, as they have in East London: “The new arena already has the support of the local radio station and a very strong support from the centre management contractor who already runs a very successful Learn to Swim programme that they are aiming to split into a Learn to Swim/Skate programme.”
But that is for the future. Until then, the Raiders will continue to make themselves at home in East London.