At the end of January 2003 the Belfast Giants encouraged their fans to turn up for games at the Odyssey in fancy dress. 70s dress for the Thursday, 80s for the Friday night game. It’s a novelty you won’t see at any other sporting event in Belfast – try to picture three Glentoran supporters clicking their fingers in unison and mouthing the words of ‘Tragedy’ while watching the Glens bore their way to a win over Institute at the Oval. Equally it’s a novelty for the Giants, because when their supporters were wearing 70s and 80s garb in the 70s and 80s there were no Giants to see. The Belfast Giants, the Odyssey, and ice hockey are recent imports. And maybe they’ll pass away like fads from the decades they recalled in January. Remember when we all had skateboards, or roller boots, or gathered round CB radios listening to one person say ‘10-4’ to another, endlessly? All North American imports, gone now, the way of yoyos and the Rubik’s cube. Maybe the Giants are here to stay for only as long these did – another attempt at cultural colonisation to repelled in Belfast’s own time.
But it may not be so quick. The Giants are a clever form of globalisation, adapting themselves to local conditions, smartly marketed, nicely packaged as a consumer product, and much more savvy about Belfast than any of those other global fads. You would have been welcomed at the Odyssey on those nights in January looking like Simon Le Bon, but turn up dressed in anything that reminded the crowd that any other sport happens in Belfast (or anywhere) and you’ll not be allowed in. Anything that is not an ice hockey shirt is not approved of at Giants games. At first glance this seems like an extension of the Giants’ seemingly scrupulously non-sectarian policies – though if you’re a Crystal Palace fan told that you can’t come in wearing that thing this argument might not wash. We’re used, in Ireland, to the concept of ‘foreign games’ – Croke Park, after all, is a monument to the legacy of such sporting allergy. The Giants get their own back by being a foreign game here which bans our own. Maybe it makes more sense if we think of the Giants as basing their business on the concession that ice hockey, at least in Belfast, is not a sport as we used to know it. It has no apparent reason to be here, other than as entertainment. The Giants’ management recently conceded that their audiences might not be able to sustain their interest in watching two teams of Canadians tear into each for ever. Ice hockey in Belfast has no deeply rooted base, and doesn’t look like having one for a while yet. At the moment it exits as a mere spectacle, an embarrassing reminder to Belfast that its own history has failed to provide the city with a team to rally round.
The Giants played on this from the beginning, and the political difficulty of accepting that sport in Belfast is sectarian meant that the City Council happily bandwagoned on the Giants’ publicity. On Tuesday, 21st November, 2000 the Giants sold their product to Belfast City Council, hoping for funding in return. The arguments in their favour were many. In return for funding the team ‘would endeavour to promote Belfast as a warm and welcoming City’. If the Council were to agree to provide funding for the team, a number of promotional elements would be built into the team’s programme. These could include a “Come to Belfast” flag being carried by a member of the Team onto the ice rink at away matches and a “Follow Us to Belfast” graphic logo, which could be displayed at all away matches and on the Team’s touring bus. And they argued that the Giants team included five local players – the numbers have since gone to zero. The Director of the Client Services Committee of the Council was already singing the Giants’ song (whatever an ice hockey song is – apparently no one sings at ice hockey games in North America, while football songs have been adapted by the Odyssey crowd). When the Giants’ management had left the committee the Director quoted a survey which had been undertaken on behalf of the Belfast Giants. It indicated that 93% of respondents agreed that ice hockey could be enjoyed by everyone in Northern Ireland. The non-sectarian argument was made and things could never look back.
No doubt this is a great thing. A sport we can all get behind, and a new Belfast team, plastered with Harp logos and carrying Belfast City Council flags proudly to Nottingham, Sheffield, London, Glasgow or Manchester. I’d gladly see the ice melt myself, and the money put into local sports actually played by people here, but then which of those can make the same economic arguments? The real reason why the City Council likes the Giants is that they equal 5000 ‘bednights’ per season in Belfast hotels, with visiting fans spending around £600,000 each year in the city. Can you see Linfield or Cliftonville, or even the Belfast Harlequins (who seem to have learnt a thing or two from the Giants’ marketing campaign), making the same claims? A few burgers half-eaten at Windsor Park doesn’t quite mount up to the same cash flow. And would Crusaders ever find themselves talked about in the City Council’s Development (Tourism and Promotion) Sub-Committee business, along with the Holiday World Exhibition, and consideration of grants for the Commonwealth Agricultural Conference, the Numismatic Society of Ireland and the Titanic: Made in Belfast event?
From ice hockey to icebergs, and so a few words of warning. Ice hockey is in trouble. The ‘Superleague’ has few enough clubs and some of them are in financial turmoil. A new league is in the process of being formed. And are the Giants different? They think so. One of their corporate logos is ‘In the Land of the Giants Everyone is Equal’. More inventive, but more cringe-making than ‘Kick Sectarianism out of Football’. And how non-sectarian are they? There are no figures I can find for the religious background of their supporters. They say, ‘the cross community appeal of the Giant’s is very important in reinforcing the new Belfast message that we all seek to promote, Belfast as a happening and vibrant city break destination’. They’re based on the eastside of the river. Does that make a difference? They’re interestingly coy on the subject. What they’ve told the City Council is that a third of their supporters are from the ‘Greater Belfast area’, and that most of the rest are predominantly from the south of Northern Ireland. Not as specific as we might like. But never mind, there’s always the bednights and the logos in Nottingham.
So the Giants are probably a good thing, but I refuse to ever go to see them, preferring to freeze on a Saturday at crumbling football ground, surrounded by my embarrassingly sectarian fellow supporters (mostly blokes older than me), knowing that those who despair that sport is a reminder of our city’s real (if unlikeable) history can sit in the warmth of the Odyssey, supping beer out of plastic glasses, feeling Belfast has a future as shiny and slick as the ice itself, and placing their local pride in Canadians spinning out their playing careers in anomalous Belfast. It must be a good feeling. I’d find it as anodyne and cavernously empty as the space under the Odyssey’s roof. So I’ll stick with my dying tradition and hope the heating malfunctions over there.
[Citywide, April 2003]