Before we really get stuck in, tell us about your involvement in hockey so we know where you are coming from. I never played hockey. The only hockey I’d ever seen before my children started playing was at Olympic Games [John has daughters who play at Leicester and Teddington]. I saw the hockey in Barcelona, I saw it Atlanta and Sydney. My oldest daughter started playing in 2002-2003, so up until then my knowledge of hockey was very minimal. Since then I probably watch more hockey than any other sport including rugby, including football, including everything else. So you form an awful lot of opinions about how the game is played, how it structured, how it’s run all those sort of things. And inevitably you stand on a million touchlines and everybody wants to have the same conservation with you, everybody says ‘Why does our sport not get covered more on television?’ Everybody says
‘Why does our sport not get more publicity?’ Everybody says ‘Isn’t this a fantastic game?’ to which the answer is, yes. Aren’t the skill levels amazing, yes. Isn’t a great community sport, yes. Why don’t more people know something about it – well that is the $64,000 question.
So that’s how the conversation starts, what happens next?
You end up being in a circle the whole time – the lack of publicity means the sport remains in a kind of a wilderness. It remains in the wilderness because of the lack of television. How do you break that seemingly unbreakable barrier? In the last eight years, I must have had that conversation hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times. And you know, I do have some opinions on what needs to be done to change that situation, but it is very difficult.
Do you think the game itself warrants more attention?
It is a fantastic sport. It really is. I am totally sold on hockey as a sport. I think it’s just fantastic. I love going to watch good quality games of hockey. I wish I was bit younger, my knees weren’t shot to pieces and all that sort of stuff. I’d love to have a go at it. I really would love to play it. But and this is the big but, it has no public profile. If you asked anyone to name a single international hockey player, ever, people say Sean Kerly and Jane Sixsmith – I’m sorry, you’d struggle to get anybody to remember them now (with all due respect to Sean and Jane). The sport has no profile, and it has no crowds because it’s been wonderfully amateur. If you want to stay wonderfully amateur, by all means do that, but then don’t complain about the lack of profile – the two are mutually exclusive I’m afraid. If the sport genuinely wants the profile it deserves and it wants the support level it merits then it has to consider the question ‘How are we going to change? ‘I really do feel the hockey is where rugby was 30 years ago. People forget, Harlequins had 14,000 at the weekend; Harlequins were playing in front of 400, 30 years ago.
So how has rugby made that change?
It has changed its ethos, to some extent, while hanging on to the main core of what the game believes in. It has, obviously, gone professional. But it also requires absolutely dynamic leadership and a fundamental understanding of where the problems lie. And hockey, to this day is still essentially run by volunteers who are doing it in their spare time.
So what are those fundamental areas hockey needs to change?
You have to look at certain key areas. If Leicester Ladies are the best ladies hockey team in the country, if, what on earth are they doing playing at a school in the middle of the Leicestershire countryside? If Surbiton is the best men’s hockey team in the country, if, what are they doing playing where the clubhouse is dilapidated and decrepit and the car park is full of potholes – and yet you have outstanding international athletes playing there week after week after week. You can’t do that. You have to go back to basics and say ‘What do we want?’ Do we want the sport to have a better profile? If the answer to that is incontrovertibly yes, then there are very simple steps you have to take. All the best players have to go and play at the clubs with the best facilities. You forget all the history and everything else – that is what they have done with rugby in Wales. There are big financial issues there, but the quality is now incontrovertible. What you have to do is say to the clubs with lots of tradition and everything else but who have no facilities I’m terribly sorry you are now not relevant to the future development of this sport. So to clubs like Southgate and Cannock and Reading – the clubs with the facilities and the potential to develop 3,000 seater stadiums – you say right, as of now they are the elite premier league and all the best players are going to go and play there.
You also have to change some of the clubs’ names, if they have good facilities. You know, clubs like Bowdon Hightown that’s a motorway service station isn’t it? How can that possibly be a name of a premier league hockey team. How can Olton and West Warwickshre be a premier league hockey team name – don’t be silly. You have to be more professional about it. So you call Olton and West Warwicks, Coventry, Solihull or whatever you want to call it. But you give it a name that has some kind of resonance so when people see a result in the paper the Monday – which is another point because when are results ever in the paper on Monday? If you look a result and it’s between two teams and you don’t even know what part of the country they are representing, then you are behind the 8-ball before you even start.
That’s the sort of change that looks very difficult when you look at it from inside of the sport though.
I know people will say ‘What’s he talking about? It’s easy for him to say that.’ It is always easy to throw in comments from the outside, but until sports really fundamentally look at themselves honestly and say ‘What are we and where do we want to go?’ they end up going nowhere. I just look at the commitment of players like Crista Cullen and Richard Mantell. I look at them and I think, my God these are two of the most outstanding athletes in the country, at anything, and nobody has ever heard of either of them. If the sport is happy with that, then that’s fine but I don’t think the sport is, because
not an afternoon has ever past, ever, when I have been on a touchline when I haven’t had a parent, a spectator or just some random bloke with a dog come up to me and say ‘Why is our sport featured more, why don’t people understand our sport?’ The answer to that is the sport isn’t really helping itself. I live in south- west London where you have Surbiton, Teddington, Wimbledon and Richmond. All those clubs should be amalgamated – they can still exist in their own right, but all the best players in those clubs should play at one club probably, I think, on the pitch by Chiswick Bridge where they have had internationals [the Quintin Hogg Memorial Ground]. You could have a 3,000 seater hockey stadium where the London Leopards or whatever they are called play. Then you start driving the attendances, you start off with the ambition of getting 500 but with the ambition of having 2,000 watching by 2016.
That’s a realistic ambition with a really, really well coordinated marketing campaign. You could have a team in London. You have a team in Bristol. You could probably have one in the M4 corridor, because I think Reading is a club that has huge potential for that part of the country – in terms of the schools around there and things like that. You have to have the absolute blueprint for what the game could look like, so that in three years’ time you’ve got grounds where a thousand people are going to watch. If you shoot that properly that can look just about okay on television. That is doable.
That does seem a long way from where we are now.
I’m not pretending for a second it’s easy, but it requires dynamic leadership to take the game by the scruff of the neck and not just be happy to say ‘Oh, well that’s the way it is.’ Because I don’t believe that most people who go to watch hockey, whose kids are getting involved in the sport are happy with the way it is. They would love for their club’s first 11, to be on the telly once a week, and they don’t understand why it isn’t. And as things stand at the moment it can’t happen.
To play devils advocate for a moment. Back in the 1980s we had hockey on the television and the structure was far more ‘amateur’ than it is now.
The world has just changed out of all recognition [since then]. When hockey was on the television, that’s when Harlequins were having gates of 400. The whole nature of sport has changed. It is business-like; it is professionalism with a capital P. All sports now are having to realise that. Look at sports like rowing and cycling. Where was cycling in the 80s, it barely existed in the British constituency. Look at cycling now, the boom sport. At the professional level it is run by Dave Brailsford – he runs it like a company, he is the Chief Executive. He says this is what happens, this is what we do, and this is how the team runs.
Cycling’s participation boom followed on from elite-level success. Are we pinning too much hope on the prospect of our hockey sides doing well in London 2012?
The success of the men’s and women’s teams in London this year is key for the future development of hockey. But the problem is, let’s just say that the men won the gold medal this year. It sounds now like I am having a go at Surbiton and I am not because I know a lot of people there and they all great people who work incredibly hard for the game. But let’s say Great Britain win the gold medal and somebody says, ‘And these guys live near me? Let’s go and watch Surbiton play.’ They are going to go to Surbiton Hockey Club and say ‘Sorry, but these are the guys who played in the Olympics?’ Because that’s not how people’s mentality is about sport these days. The game has to understand how people view sport and it’s all about glitz and glamour and there is no glamour in the wonderful integrity of the Old Corinthian ideals. That’s not what kids want now, they just don’t. And if hockey is going to progress it has to just bite several bullets very, very hard and say ‘Right as of whenever’, and I kind of feel the clock is ticking, ‘This is how we are going to change things. This is the way that we are going to drive the sport forward.’ The great thing is that hockey is a fantastic product. If you were trying to flog something that clearly is flawed, that would be very hard. But hockey is a fantastic product. It’s a great game to watch, with terrific people involved. It covers girls, boys, men, women, old men, old women. You have a fantastic product to sell, but it’s been allowed to just disappear bit by bit off the radar and I look in The Times this morning [a Monday] and there are no results. You have ice hockey scores from North America and no hockey results.
You say a ticking clock – is the situation that serious?
One line that is absolutely key in all this, for every sport, is that participation levels in sport – whatever anybody says – are falling and in some sports they are plummeting. So the actual cake of potential participants in sport is diminishing and if you aren’t proactive on a grand scale your slice of that cake is going to diminish. There are lots of other sports out there, netball is a prime example – really vibrant, really dynamic, how they are getting people with a lot of high profile games on TV and things like that. Hockey and netball are kind of going for the same market in one way, what is hockey doing to respond to that?