Ice hockey Spring Cup crystalises hybrid future for matchdays
UK ice hockey fans starved of competitive action have praised live streaming after the success of the inaugural Spring Cup.
Sheffield Steeldogs won the trophy after winning all 12 of its fixtures in the tournament delivered as part of the National Ice Hockey League’s Return to Play plan.
But the Spring Cup was about much more than results as Stuart Robinson, Director of Bees Ice Hockey Club, testified. With many clubs looking to deliver games in a hybrid format for the 2021-22 season, the competition enabled supporters and organisers to understand pay-per-view streaming for the first time.
In fact, developing a digital audience is key to the survival of Bees IHC – and the club confirmed it will provide hybrid ticketing next season. To learn more, we spoke to Mr Robinson after the Spring Cup’s final buzzer was sounded.
Last summer, fans, players and management of Bracknell Bees were dealt a hammer blow when they learnt its home rink would close permanently due to financial pressures caused by COVID-19.
The club had two options. To sink and never return to the ice again, or swim and relocate at the nearby Slough Ice Arena – a half-hour drive from the club’s former base. To fans’ relief, Mr Robinson and his colleagues chose the latter. But there is a snag. Slough Ice Arena has an 800 capacity – some 500 fewer than the club’s average attendances.
“There is an obvious shortfall,” said Mr Robinson. “We’re in a position where we have more fans than seats available on any match night. This was going to be a significant challenge for us to overcome.”
To overcome its capacity obstacle, Bees IHC partnered with TicketCo Media Services to deliver matches digitally and allow fans to tune into games from remotely. Although the Spring Cup was played behind closed doors, Mr Robinson is confident the competition’s success will convince fans to watch games at home even when COVID-19 restrictions allow people to attend live sport.
He added: “Physical customers will always generate the most money, we understand that. But we are equally grateful to fans that have bought into our live streaming and digital ticketing model via TicketCo. The popularity of our streamed games means next season we will adopt a hybrid delivery structure so supporters can choose to attend games physically or tune in from home.
“We understand our relocation to Slough would’ve been hard news to hear for some fans. But by live streaming games, we are reaching a global audience and making our club accessible to everyone regardless of health, transport or financial barriers that may have previously prevented them from attending.”
Invest for success
As a mark of Bees’ commitment to streaming, the club invested into a new high-speed fibre broadband line at Slough Ice Rink and purchased new camera equipment. Four people operated the stream on match night – a commentator, a cameraman and two people working on the technical side.
“We’ve invested heavily into our live stream model,” said Stuart. “But those costs covered themselves throughout the Spring Cup and we can now plan for the 2021-22 season knowing we have a decent digital product for fans unable to physically attend games.
“The reaction we received to our live stream was very encouraging. There was a lot of pressure in making sure it went well as the Spring Cup provided us with the perfect platform to advertise our new model and I’d like to thank the supporters for making it a success. We’re also extremely grateful to our title sponsors TSI World who helped us develop graphics and advertising banners to make the stream appeal visually to supporters.”
Hosted over seven weekends, five National League teams competed in Spring Cup which was held under a round robin format. Several COVID-19 restrictions were imposed to make the series possible. Players were tested twice weekly, and all fixtures were held behind closed doors and streamed.
“It provided players, coaches and fans at home with a timely boost to their mental health after a long winter of COVID restrictions,” said Mr Robinson. “The tournament also facilitated the development of many star Great Britain players who were previously without any ice time ahead of the 2021 World Championships. It was professionally organised and delivered with few hiccups.”
The tournament was watched by tens of thousands of supporters in multiple countries. After the final game, fans took to social media to praise the Spring Cup’s professional presentation.
One fan said: “Thank you Swindon Wildcats and all the other teams and staff. It made the happiest to finally have some hockey back. Hopefully won’t be too long before we can be back in the rink.”
Another added: “The streaming presentation has been excellent quality, thanks so much for giving us a little bit of hockey goodness in these times. I’m going to miss the commentary and replays when we come back to watching live.”
And: “Really enjoyed the streaming and can’t wait to get back to the rink.”
Fans’ positive engagement after the Spring Cup has confirmed to Mr Robinson that there is a demand for sport fixtures to be delivered digitally in the future.
“If I’m an away fan and cannot afford to travel to an away fixture on a Sunday night, for example, then live streaming is there as an option,” he said. “It’s important to understand live streaming is an option and not there to take away from the atmosphere of attending a game live. Live streaming opens our club and league up to a global audience for people who wouldn’t ordinarily engage with our club due to restrictions including travel, health or financial reasons.”
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