With slight reluctance, Thialf director Marc Winters leads the way to the Noordbocht, a ring above the skating rink and the stands on the north side of the famous ice stadium in Heerenveen. He stops at a wall with a small door. “We call this the cat flap,” says Winters, looking for the right key like a jailer. “The fire brigade is not yet allowed to enter a normal door.”
Behind the hatch an enormous space becomes visible, bare, without a socket or water pipe. More than 1,300 square meters of floor space have been vacant here since the completion of the ‘new’ Thialf, almost five years ago. Thialf could potentially earn money on the North Bend, says Winters. Rent out the space to companies, for example. But then he first needs 1.5 million euros for the outfitting. Excluded. There is no money for anything. Winters compares Thialf to an expensive car that was given to someone who lives on social assistance. “That’s nice, until you hit the road and have to refuel.”
Thialf is in serious financial distress. Again. Since the skating stadium was given a roof in 1986, it has enjoyed the status of ‘skating Mecca’ thanks to carnivalesque grandstand scenes and world records. But just like rushing crowds, the need for money is a common thread in the history of the ice rink. Twice, in 1987 and 2002, Thialf had to be rescued from bankruptcy. Even now, money is needed to save the stadium from closing. Despite significant cutbacks and promises from the province of Friesland, the municipality of Heerenveen, sports umbrella organization NOC-NSF and skating association KNSB to contribute 1.4 million euros annually, Thialf falls short of at least 1 million euros each year.
According to the regional authorities, that amount should come from the central government. They have done enough. That is how (former) top skaters such as Sven Kramer, Ireen Wüst, Rintje Ritsma and Mark Tuitert also think about it. After all, Thialf is of national importance as a top sports center and ice rinks are just like swimming pools: money needs to be added. Whether they get their way is questionable. Of the requested 20 million euros for the long term, the House of Representatives wants to pledge 1 million euros to get through the coming year well. State Secretary Paul Blokhuis (ChristenUnie, Sport) suspects that even this emergency subsidy is problematic, because it would violate European competition rules.
And so, less than two months before the Winter Games in Beijing, Thialf is once again fighting for his future. Despite the fact that the government of the Netherlands is convinced of the crucial function that Thialf fulfills for speed skating, and it has also been known for a long time that the exploitation of ice stadiums is difficult. How is that possible?
Skating heart of the world
Friday January 27, 2017. ‘Simply the best’ by Tina Turner blares through a darkened Thialf, laser light moves across the ice. It evokes memories of the nineties, when the pop diva gave two concerts here. Today King Willem Alexander is the most important present. He came to Heerenveen to officially open the new Thialf.
The renovation took two years. With luxurious lounges, three separate airflows for optimal climate control and a brand new ice floor, Thialf is once again the undisputed ‘skating heart of the world’. The stadium is also unparalleled in terms of sustainability. There are five thousand solar panels on the roof and thanks to a thermos construction the building is excellently insulated. Energy costs, previously more than a million euros per year, are being halved at least. Thialf will be “self-sufficient” within a few years, the promise is.
Rintje Ritsma has to miss the opening. The multiple all-round champion is refused entry at the entrance because he has not registered in advance. In the audience is former Frisian deputy Hans Konst. He is no longer responsible for Thialf – Konst is working as a doctor again since he left provincial politics more than a year earlier – but without him this party would not have been celebrated. Or much later. “If I hadn’t been attracted to it, the new Thialf would not have existed,” Konst formulated in the Leeuwarder Courant.
In 2011, Konst will be responsible for Thialf on behalf of the province. It’s a problem file. The hall is hopelessly outdated. The stadium is cold and dark, the ice is bad and energy is leaking from all sides. The roof is as porous “as a sponge”, in the words of the then director Jarko Nieweg. Competitive ice rinks abroad, such as those in Salt Lake City and Russia’s Kolomna, have outpaced Thialf. Something has to happen.
Administrative Friesland has been talking about new construction or renovation for years, but the plans are not concrete. Thialf owners Aegon and Essent, skating sponsors who became shareholders in a previous rescue, do not see large-scale investments in the stadium. Co-owner of the municipality of Heerenveen does not have the money for it and initially the line on the Provinsjehûs in Leeuwarden is that subsidizing sports accommodations is not a provincial responsibility, certainly not in times of crisis.
That changes in the year that Konst gets involved with Thialf. The stadium is “of great importance to Fryslân” and so the provincial government is prepared “to invest in new construction or renovation of Thialf”, according to the coalition agreement from that time. The province, which just before had received 1.3 billion euros from the sale of energy company Nuon, does set clear conditions. For example, it must be „demonstrated that the operation is conclusive and [dat] the business community is prepared to play an important role.” Moreover, a substantial contribution from the government is considered indispensable and governments “play no role in the exploitation of Thialf”.
None of those conditions are met. Operating forecasts are shaky. Hard promises from The Hague are not forthcoming. Also from a commercial angle not a cent is on the table for the time being. But where the provincial government of skating celebrities used to be accused of dawdling, the Frisian politicians suddenly excel in decisiveness. At the beginning of 2012, Friesland voted in favor of a thorough renovation of Thialf, ten months later the province released 50 million euros for the project and in June 2013 the Provincial Council gave their final approval. Not only for ‘renovation’, but also for the acquisition of the Thialf shares of Aegon and Essent. Cost: 4 million euros. The same province that for a long time thought that subsidizing sports facilities was not one of its tasks, has thus become the financier and owner of Thialf in one fell swoop – and is therefore responsible for future financial setbacks.
Even after that, the provincial government will not be slowed down. Three of the four commissioners who supervise Thialf on behalf of Friesland are quick to warn that the province is taking too much risk in tendering for the renovation project and are calling for a new procedure. They fear that the province will have to pay for cost cuts or have to make significant concessions to stay within budget, which endangers future operations.
But Friesland decides that the risk of delay is greater. “Postponement could lead to cancellation and we did not want that,” says Konst. “Thialf was technically at his end.” The commissioners take it so highly that they resign.
The Frisian vigor regarding ‘renovation’ cannot be seen separately from plans for new ice rinks in Almere and Zoetermeer, which will be announced in 2012. The KNSB is even organizing a ‘beauty contest’ to determine where major tournaments will take place in the future. The plans are based on financial quicksand, it turns out later, but the panic and disbelief in Friesland are great.
It has not done the decision-making any good, concluded the Northern Court of Auditors in October of this year in what Konst calls ‘a sour report’. Emotion and wishful thinking stood in the way of a proper risk assessment, according to the Court of Auditors, while in Provinsjehûs it was ‘well known’ that it would be difficult to make Thialf profitable. Earlier, an external investigation already made mincemeat of the exploitation prognosis on which the province based itself in 2013. A scenario for if the estimates turn out to be too optimistic? Never drafted. Depreciation costs were also excluded from the operating forecast, because there was no financial scope for this. In other words, there is no money for replacement investments.
Competitive Ice Rink
Already in 2019, two years after the official reopening, the provincial government must inform the States that the ice stadium is “reaching its financial limits”. Energy costs are too high, while income from catering and top sporting events is disappointing. The acoustics in Thialf are not suitable for concerts. The ice stadium also earns about 2.5 tons less annually from recreational skaters than budgeted. Main cause? The recent expansion of the Elfstedenhal in Leeuwarden, a competitive ice rink in which the province has also invested 10 million euros.
Thialf director Winters manages to cut costs somewhat with a major reorganization. Crucial employees, including Beert Boomsma, ice master for twenty years, are leaving. Frustrated with the perpetual shortages and the fact that the hall falls short on many points, has not in fact been phased out. Even after the reorganization, Thialf is unable to write black figures, despite the increase in rates. To make matters worse, Thialf has to switch off the solar panels in the summer of 2020 because the construction is not fire-safe, according to the insurer. An emergency loan of 3 million euros, provided by the municipality and province, has kept the hall upright ever since.
The question is how to proceed if there is no (structural) money coming from The Hague. Thialf should not expect much more from the provincial government. “There is no plan B,” said deputy Friso Doustra (CDA) in the Leeuwarder Courant last month. Marc Winters fears that in that case it will be ‘muddling through for a few years’, with the risk that ‘the lights will go out’ as soon as a machine needs to be replaced. Eternal shame, he thinks, because with Thialf you can do a lot more. Winters: „You can turn this into the Papendal for Olympic winter sports and develop commercial initiatives. But then the basics must be in order. I can barely pay the bills now.”