PRAGUE – A record-breaking performance was just the confirmation the KHL needed. Never before did so many people turn up for a regular season game as on October 9 in Prague when Lev Prague and Dynamo Moscow took each other on. The official spectator record was set at 16,317 and proved wrong critics that stated there was no room for another top hockey team in the Czech capital city.
What started as an initial announcement back in March 2012 became reality less than two months later. After an ownership change, HC Lev from the Eastern Slovak town of Poprad would move to Prague for the 2012-13 season. Although the team name remained the same, the organization was a brand new one for legal and financial purposes.
It was no surprise that the KHL was glad to have a team in one of Europe’s hockey hotbeds, while keeping a base in Slovakia with Slovan Bratislava joining the KHL. Nevertheless the introduction of a KHL team in Prague also meant having to deal with the two major teams in the city that have over a century of history behind them.
Slavia Prague, founded in 1900, is a two-time Czech champion which has worked its way to the top in the last two decades. Its eternal rival Sparta Prague is three years younger but has been far more successful with eight titles. In recent years Sparta has been struggling and saw Slavia overtake them. The upstart Prague team also moved into a brand new 17,360 seat O2 Arena, built in 2004.
These two teams, who were trying to keep their heads up in a tighter economic market and facing heavy competition from smaller city teams, now all of a sudden had to deal with another factor: A KHL team in town.
As soon as Lev Prague ensured its license, the O2 Arena was seen as their logic choice for home ice. The capacity and modern facilities would make a perfect fit for the most prestigious European league. But due to failed negotiations with the arena management and the problems that could occur regarding Slavia Prague´s schedule in the Czech Extraliga these plans were no longer pursued.
Instead HC Lev searched for another venue and found it in the 50-year-old Tipsport Arena. The home arena of Sparta Prague was modernized prior to the start of the 2012-13 season to meet KHL standards. HC Lev will also play some games in the O2 Arena, but only a few.
“I’m not disappointed that we do not play all our games at the O2 Arena,” said HC Lev communication manager Jan Rachota. “My wish is to play in the arena we practice in, and that is the Tipsport Arena. When we’d play at the O2 Arena we would lose our home ice advantage.”
As the arena-sharing discussions were going on, Sparta Prague management realized joining the KHL giant would be more beneficial than fighting it. Both teams decided to cooperate on many other areas including roster management. This first became visible when Sparta head coach Josef Jandac moved to HC Lev.
Although the announcement led to fierce fan protest, management stuck by its decision claiming the benefits clearly outweighed the disadvantages.
“One of the benefits is the fact that we receive rent from the games HC Lev is playing. This additional income really is essential for our organization to keep up our budget,” Sparta Prague’s PR-manager Tomas Zetek explained. “We can be independent when it comes to the Extraliga as much as HC Lev can be for its KHL games. Their General Manager Normunds Sejejs is coming to our games to see how Sparta is progressing but that’s a logic result of our cooperation.”
The Latvian GM Sejejs can be relatively satisfied with what he’s seeing. His own team has managed to hold its own in the KHL so far, currently ranking 9th in the Western Conference but very much in the hunt for a playoff spot. Sparta Prague are ranked 5th, and have all but already locked up a ticket for the postseason.
Slavia Prague too are doing fine at the moment. They team has quietly recovered from a disastrous 2011-12 season and found its way back to the top of the table sitting in fourth position at the moment.
So at first sight none of the traditional Prague teams seems to have suffered from HC Lev’s arrival from a competitive point of view, but critics also cited that spectator numbers would drop dramatically as people can only spent their Czech Crowns once, especially in today’s economy.
But taking a closer look at this area of the game these claims prove to be unfounded. Below is an overview of the average attendance records for the past four years for either team.
*Lev was playing in Poprad, Slovakia for the 2011-12 season.
Despite overall attendance figures having dropped for Sparta and Slavia compared to 2010, there has been no significant decrease in fans since the arrival of HC Lev.
Slavia Prague’s rise in attendance can probably be credited to its improved performance whereas Sparta’s loss is minimal to say the least. HC Lev’s increase is another sign that moving to the organization to Prague was a good thing to do.
The numbers do not seem to come to a surprise to any of the three teams. When asked about the impact of a third major team in the city, neither Slavia and Sparta nor Lev were afraid of suffering from a decrease of visitors.
“Fear is not the right word. When it was announced Lev would come to Prague the question was where their fans will be coming from,” said Zetek. “We’re not afraid to lose real Sparta fans, but Lev would typically attract fans who watch hockey for fun and don’t really care about the organization. They want to see the stars they know from television and the NHL. However when Sparta will perform well in the Extraliga we’re convinced the people will be coming to watch us also.”
HC Lev’s Jan Rachota is pleasantly surprised with the numbers his team is drawing each game.
“This is more than we had expected. We must keep on performing well in order to keep attracting the fans and increase our fan base,” he said.
The one-million Crowns question though is, where do the nearly 7,000+ HC Lev spectators come from?
“Games of HC Lev are visited by fans of both Slavia and Sparta. We are the only KHL team in the country and therefore have a wide variety of spectators,” Rachota knows.
Asking the same question to the Slavia and Sparta Prague representatives shows the pride they take in their existence of well over a century. HC Lev can have the KHL, but you can’t buy history.
“Because HC Lev is a completely new team without any history they don’t have a fan base yet. Thanks to a great start of the season people visited their games but this is something completely different than the case of being a fan of a club that you your father and grandfather when they were young,” says Tomas Zetek. “Many people are interested in the quality and the novelty of the KHL.”
A similar response can be heard from Jakub Mezlik, Slavia Prague’s PR-manager. “In my opinion HC Lev spectators aren’t real fans but only people who watch hockey occasionally. When the likes of Ovechkin, Kovalchuk etc. come to Prague the place is packed. The same applies to HC Kladno where Jaromir Jagr ensured sell-outs each game, whereas Kladno had about the lowest average attendance last season. I think it’s hard to compare because of the NHL lockout,” Mezlik feels.
Despite Slavia having returned to the top ranks of the Extraliga, Mezlik is still not too keen on the arrival of Lev Prague.
“The market in Prague was already full with lots of cultural options available. On top of that people are on a tightened budget which limits them to visit ice hockey games. Installing a new team in Prague makes things much more difficult for Prague teams and the Extraliga in general,” the Slavia Prague spokesperson warns. “It’s good for Czech hockey to have a team in the KHL but not good for us in Prague.”
Lacking the heritage of Slavia and Sparta, HC Lev has stated that it would like to create a nationwide identity rather than being seen as another Prague team in order to also attract fans of other Czech teams. Easily said on paper but how to realize that?
“I feel that fans take us as a Czech team at the moment,” Jan Rachota knows. “We are the first Czech team that played in the best league in the world while the lockout was ongoing. We have many Czech national team players on our roster as well as other international stars. I really think we’re successfully creating that nationwide identity we were aiming for.”
The 16,317 fans witnessing HC Lev play Dynamo Moscow in October at least showed that there is plenty of fan potential in the Czech Republic. The real test will be next season when there won’t be any NHL stars like Alexander Ovechkin to watch any longer. Will the Lions from Prague have built up enough credit to attract fans for the 2013-14 season or will the warning of both Slavia and Sparta hold truth now the NHL stars are gone and the KHL novelty wears off?