Slovan Bratislava in Crisis
Some unhappy news from the KHL this week: ominous rumblings began on Tuesday that Slovan Bratislava, who seemed to have locked up new investment and be on the road to recovery after some tough years, are in serious trouble once again. Wednesday brought further, but not better, developments, and it now seems likely that the KHL will enter the 2019-20 season without its lone Slovakian representative. Read on.
What has happened? Well, it was reported yesterday by Russian sports media outlet Sport-Express that Slovan’s new co-owner, whose announced arrival last month had seemingly saved the club’s KHL place, has backed out of the deal due to unhappiness with the amount of money required to save the team. Today, the KHL itself acknowledged the crisis in a terse statement that included an the information that the league is now preparing two 2019-20 schedules, one with Slovan as a participant and one without.
According to both Sport-Express and the KHL, the club’s existing sponsors were willing to fund Slovan’s ongoing operation but not clean up the mess of the past, and therein lay the problem. Slovan owe nearly a million Euros in rent to the city of Bratislava for use of the Ondrej Nepela Arena, as well as an unknown but considerable quantity in back wages to players (Slovan’s total debt was reported in March to be “several million Euros“). The city had given the team until June 30th to pay off the arena debt, which stretches back a couple of seasons at least, or risk being barred from using the rink.
The news of the last couple of days is the culmination of several seasons of financial and organizational problems at Slovan, with 2018-19 representing a particular nadir. This past campaign began with the resignation of popular General Manager Patrik Ziman, which resulted in a fan boycott of the team. The season was a miserable one on the ice; Slovan wound up with dead last in the league by nine points. And the financial problems, including wage arrears, mounted up; by the end, Slovan were in the undignified position of having to use their junior team goalie, 18-year-old Michal Vojvoda, in KHL games, with various forwards or defencemen dressed as his back-up. Things were dismal indeed.
However, amidst the gloom there were encouraging signs that the situation might be headed for improvement. Through the late winter and early this spring came persistent rumours that the club was close to obtaining a new sponsor/co-owner, and in April it was announced that a deal had been reached, and that the team’s KHL future was secure. The new funding (the source was never 100% identified, but widely reported to be Czech billionaire Petr Kellner) would, according the stories, be enough to pay back the players and the city, and would help get the team back to competitive status on the ice. While Slovan did not submit financial guarantees for the 2019-20 season to the KHL on time, it seemed to be only a matter of finalizing the deal with the new co-owner, and the league gave the club an extension to get things in order. Obviously, the developments of the past 48 hours or so have put to an end to the hopes that stability was on the horizon, and are particularly sad given that the earlier news had been so encouraging.
If there are reasons to be optimistic now about Slovan’s KHL future, they come from the fact that the club had looked to be on the way out in the 2015 off-season as well, only to be rescued by a last-minute sponsorship deal in June of that year. So a rescue, even so late, would not be unprecedented, and Slovan, a famous old team with very solid attendance numbers in a hockey country, remain important to the KHL’s overall project.
On the other hand, my impression is that the crisis this time is deeper than the one that hit the club in 2015. And the tone of the KHL’s statement today (see above, and the line about “ineffective management”) suggests very much that that the league’s patience is running out, particularly with Juraj Široký (President of Slovan since 2012). It has been under Široký’s leadership that the current difficulties have arisen, and the fact that the new co-ownership deal was publicly announced, only for the incoming investor to pull out apparently due to lack of correct information on the club’s situation, cannot sit well with KHL President Dmitry Chernyshenko. Of course, the KHL itself must bear some responsibility for the current state of affairs; things might be better today for all concerned had the league taken a firmer stance with Široký and Slovan during the club’s earlier financial crises.
This is a sad situation for everyone. For Slovan and their excellent fans, of course — the team a nationally- and internationally-famous hockey institution, with significant glory in its past (Slovan won the Czechoslovak First Ice Hockey League championship in 1979, becoming that league’s first-ever winner from present-day Slovakia). Now their future, in or out of the KHL, is in some jeopardy. It is also a great shame for Slovakian ice hockey generally, especially with these unwelcome developments arriving just as the country (and indeed, the city of Bratislava) is hosting the World Championship. And for the KHL this is something of disaster; yes, if Slovan depart it will relieve the league of the burden a major financial basket-case, but on the other hand it could easily complicate the KHL’s future expansion efforts in Europe. Ironically, the league’s strategic plan envisioned a 24-team circuit — no chance that they wanted to get there this way, or by losing this particular team.
For now, we wait for further bulletins (there has been no official statement about the situation from the club itself, that I have seen). May 29th would seem to be the key date; the KHL Board of Directors will meet then to finalize plans for 2019-20, and it is likely that Slovan’s fate, at least in the short term, will be determined then. Updates here on this situation will come as events warrant them, and in the meantime here’s hoping for some good news, and sending lots of good thoughts to the employees and fans of Slovan Bratislava.
Thank you for reading.