‘We can’t exist behind closed doors,’ warns Cardiff Devils chief Kelman

, ‘We can’t exist behind closed doors,’ warns Cardiff Devils chief Kelman
Cardiff Devils are multiple British title winners and regularly compete in the Champions League

A leading UK ice hockey figure has issued a stark warning about the sport’s viability amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Todd Kelman is managing director of Elite League champions Cardiff Devils.

Gate receipts contribute most income to clubs and Kelman says playing at empty venues or to crowds limited by social distancing would be unsustainable.

He says if Devils “can’t have crowds of 3,000 then we can’t have a season”.

He added: “We can’t exist behind closed doors. If social distancing meant that we had three or five people in a row instead of 25 then you just can’t make that work.”

Devils were awarded the 2019-20 Elite League crown when the season came to an abrupt end in March.

The Elite League receives no broadcasting income and Kelman told BBC Sport Wales: “I think any team would put their losses between £100k to £200k, maybe £300k for some of the biggest clubs based on the home gates.

“All leagues, all sports teams – theatres, restaurants, pubs, anyone that relies on crowds – we’re all on our knees right now because of this.

“Teams live and die with crowds. We need to sell a lot of tickets to survive and be able to put the product on the ice and that’s our business.”

In Cardiff Devils’ case around 75% of their income comes from ticket sales with the remaining 25% from sponsorship, advertising and merchandise sales.

Kelman added: “We have a small arena, 3,200 people, we sell out nearly every game. For us less than 2,000 people I don’t think would work.”

Devils co-owner Steve King is grateful few of their fans demanded refunds when last season was cut short.

“Luckily for us, our fans have just been quite unbelievable in their support of the team,” said King.

“Almost everybody has just transferred the money that they had paid for the games that were not played into next year

“So we had very few refunds to pay out which really, really helped the club.”

Andrew Lord was the most successful coach in Devils’ history, leading them to two Elite League championships, two Challenge Cup victories, three conference titles and back-to-back Playoff Championships during his reign.

He now fears for what lies ahead for Devils and their rivals.

“These arenas are built to literally pack everyone in and create an atmosphere,” said Lord.

“So it really is not very conducive to social distancing at all.”

‘We have plans A, B, C, D and maybe E’

Last season the quality of ice hockey in the UK arguably reached the highest in its history.

After Belfast Giants confirmed on 12 March two players had Covid-19 symptoms and were self-isolating, every club in the league agreed to end the season.

On the same day there had been fewer than 600 coronavirus infections and two deaths recorded in the UK.

Kelman was at the centre of that decision and said: “You look back and you think ‘goodness’ now we’ve seen some really horrific figures.

“It would have been dumb [to continue] and I’m glad that we didn’t. It’s hurt our league and every team financially, but what’s the cost of one of your fan’s lives or anyone’s life?”

The top two tiers of English football have returned in empty stadia to complete their 2019-20 campaigns.

But the Elite League is not due to return until October and clubs operate under different governmental rules set down in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England.

Devils’ return rests with the Welsh Government and Kelman is among contemporaries discussing when a return might be feasible.

“We’re all waiting to hear more information on a weekly basis. We have a plan A, B, C, D and maybe a plan E, and plan E is maybe the one you don’t want to talk about,” said Kelman.

“We’re very hopeful that there will be a season and the good thing is that if we start late we can finish late, and if we have to play a shortened season we’ll play a shortened season. We’re very committed to having hockey of some sort.”

The sport is in hibernation in most countries across the world and Lord retains hopes for its future.

“I think perspective is at an all time high right now,” said Lord. “It’s been a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, hopefully anyway.

“I guess we’re all going to appreciate it that much more when we get back, but obviously there are much bigger things at play here that go far beyond hockey.”

BBC News