Elite League chairman Smith ‘aggrieved’ by government cash snub

Cardiff and Sheffield have done well with attendances, but who's attracting the crowds? (PHOTO: Helen Brabon)

Elite League chairman Tony Smith says he’s “aggrieved” at seeing the £4 million cash boost offered by the government be rejected.

The league received word on Monday that their application to secure the funding that would have helped them play something of the 2020/21 season had been unsuccessful.

But it’s left Smith fuming after a lengthy process has ended in disappointment, scuppering any hope of seeing any top flight action in any format.

“I’ve spoken to our local MPs to pursue this on our behalf as I feel we’ve been treated unfairly,” Smith told BBC Sheffield. “It’s not me to come out fighting.  I’d normally take a more placid route, but I’m feeling pretty aggrieved that the Elite League have been wronged on this occasion.

“When we got the news, we were very disappointed.  After several months of jumping through hoops and going through such a long process, it was disappointing to find there was nothing there for the Elite League to resume playing any type of hockey.

“There was a huge amount of paperwork to do in the process about cashflow, forecasts and the like.  That’s the nature of the game.  Back in July, we were asked to submit information about what we would need in terms of government money to get through the winter period as a pot of money was being made available.

“We worked out it was something in region of £13.4 million for all ten clubs in the league and the management company we needed if we were to go without fans.  This was quickly adjusted when we discovered the money was only being made available for English clubs.”

It was in November when DCMS – Department for Culture, Media and Sport – announced there would be a £300 million Winter Support Package for sport in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Elite League” was mentioned specifically as one of the beneficiaries, with the £4 million ringfenced, but Smith has accused the government of loosening the term “elite”, perhaps in confusion with the “elite sports” tag that has been bestowed upon clubs.

“DCMS and Sport England are one and the same and there’s a line on the release that went out on 19 November announcing the package that made it clear to me that £4 million of that money was for “Elite League” ice hockey,” he added.

“That was in black and white and to me, that money should have been destined for the Elite League.

“Now it’s become clear it wasn’t to be and I’m being told it’s been diluted from Elite League to Elite sport in ice hockey and now there’s a variation on what Elite ice hockey means.

“We asked the question about whether the money that was meant for us has now gone to the other leagues and we were told no, that there was another fund for other levels of ice hockey.

“All the way through this, that money was to be allocated to the Elite League.  In fairness, some of it would have been part grant and part loan and the clubs were prepared to go down that route with a repayment of over 10 years.  It would have been a safety net for some clubs.

“But then it became clear there would be almost no grant available as we’re all self sustaining businesses.  It’s fair to say in the 10 years I’ve been involved and the five or six years before that, we’ve never had to ask for any funding or grants so it was a first for us to go to Sport England to ask that question.”

Smith reckons there was little understanding of the sport’s popularity and income when the applications were made.

But he has urged the government to return to the table in the hope they can come to an agreement that will perhaps see some action.

“I’d like them to come back and say ‘there’s a pot of money for you here and we want to talk to you about how we can get that to the top tier of professional ice hockey,’ he said.

“This is the only pro league in this country and the largest attended indoor sport in the UK, something Sport England didn’t realise.

“They didn’t realise how big our business was and they bounced us from the 15th January announcement to the 29th because of netball, because they decided it had a more important requirement than us.

“We’re dormant and mothballed now until August unless we can get this mini series going.  I hope the government reconsider and come back to the table and work with us to find a resolution.

British Ice Hockey contacted Sport England and DCMS for comment over the situation and a DCMS spokesman said: “We are completely committed to helping the sport sector through these challenging times.

“The £300 million Winter Sport survival package is on top of the multi-billion pounds worth of business support made available by the Government including the furlough scheme, business rates relief and business interruption loan scheme that has helped many sports clubs.

“We were clear when we announced the bespoke fund in November that allocations to sports bodies were provisional and organisations would need to apply ahead of decisions being taken by an independent board.”

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