Hockey is a great sport. It has many parallels with the other, common team sports like football. Both consist of 11 players and the aim is to get a ball into the goal. However, one is the most popular sport on the planet, played by millions and watched by billions. Whereas the other is played on a far more modest scale. So out of these two sports, why is football so much more popular than hockey and could it be beneficial for the latter to emulate the former?
Why is football so popular?
Football and hockey as we know it in the modern games, have a scarily-similar history in terms of when they came to the forefront as established sports. Although the origins of most sports can be dated back to ancient times in some various form or another, both sports originated from English public schools, reportedly in the south. Both had various clubs founded before the existence of an authority, such as the Football Association.
In the mid-1850s, the first football and hockey clubs were established. Random games, what would today be called friendlies, were mostly played, with no organised leagues in place. Towards the latter part of the century, associations and regulatory bodies were created, giving the sports a lot more structure as regional and national cups and leagues were introduced. So with similar beginnings, why have the two sports taken such contrasting paths to the present day?
One main factor is the barriers to participation that exist in hockey compared to football. Football can be played anywhere with any object that resembles the circular shape of a ball – meaning even the poorest of people living in stark poverty can play a form of football. Hockey however, requires a stick at the very least. You’re never going to have an opportunity to join in an impromptu hockey game, but kickabouts are regular occurrences in many countries.
The success of football in the U.K is also partly down to the Premier League. It’s one of the most competitive and unpredictable leagues around. At present for instance, Brighton are 8/1 to be relegated, and yet at the start of the season a mere three months ago, they were an odds-on favourite to go down. Similarly, Bournemouth’s Callum Wilson has never scored over eight goals in the league, not even making the top 25 scorers last season. This season though, he already has six goals to his name and is hot on the heels of the likes of Mo Salah and Sergio Aguero for the golden boot. Even at the top of the league, Chelsea, a team that ended last season in complete disarray under Antonio Conte, are now firm favourites to challenge for the title after an impressive unbeaten start to the season.
This ever-changing state of football’s top division in the U.K makes it so exciting for fans. It is tough for hockey to emulate the success of the Premier League exactly, but it must take notes and try implement aspects into the Premier division of U.K hockey.
What does football do well at?
It’s got to be said that the marketing behind football is hugely successful. Leagues such as La Liga and the Premier League and also the Champions League is watched around the globe. But perhaps it isn’t the way these leagues are marketed, but simply how marketable these leagues naturally are.
The popularity of such leagues though, is what generates the huge amounts of money in the game – with the Premier League alone predicted to generate around €5.6 billion this season. This money is circulated throughout the sport, in that it’s invested to increase things like supporter interest and player talent, and subsequently a cycle is established where the more money the game generates, the more all different aspects of the game benefit. As the general level of the game raises as a whole, more interest is then generated and the cycle continues.
With hockey, there is clearly a lot less money in the sport and the game’s grass roots level has been brought into question. Perhaps if finances were better invested, hockey could similarly build upon an improvement of certain aspects of the sport.
What are the current problems in hockey?
If you ask a random person to name a famous footballer, most people, even a person with a strong hatred towards the sport, will be able to list off ten or so names without hesitation. Ask the same regarding boxing, MMA, golf, tennis, cricket, whatever sport, and most could list one mentionable name. But as for hockey, a lot of people would struggle to even name a club, let alone an individual player.
So that could be what hockey is missing; a role model? An icon. Somebody who has skill and charisma in equal measures of abundance to engage with a mainstream audience and be a role model for younger players. Someone who is going to line the back pages of the papers, and not always for the right reasons, but ultimately bring exposure to the sport.
Another opportunity hockey has to boost interest in the future by emulating football is commercially. Football has become incredibly commercialised. From video games to movies, it can be seen in many different areas of life. Hockey is far from saturated in terms of being marketed to the mainstream.
One additional aspect of football that is hugely popular is the Champions League. Hockey does have something similar in the Euro Hockey League, but it is way off reaching the relative success of its football counterpart.
What can hockey do to emulate football’s success?
So, what can be done? In terms of exposure, hockey in the U.K is practically kept a secret. Its recent addition to BT Sport, broadcasting the Euro Hockey League, is a step in the right direction. But free-to-air channels is where maximum exposure to the mainstream will be gained. If more money was also put into the game at grass roots levels, that would definitely make a difference. Football is criticised for its professional leagues being so distant to the amateur game, but with pro hockey being very modest, the sport could do with a gap of wealth to somewhat propel the pro game.
Furthermore, football’s popularity from the fans is down to ideology of supporting an area or place and being part of one identity with others. In foreign countries such as Turkey, Greece and even Spain, basketball teams use the same identity as the country’s football sides. For instance, FC Barcelona is one of the biggest football teams in the world and the basketball side in the city goes under the same name (sometimes changed for sponsorship reasons), same badge and same kit. If hockey clubs in the U.K directly associated themselves with football clubs, that would surely spark more interest, as people feel a connection and responsibility to follow a team representative of their ideology and identity.
Hockey is a great sport, and we should use football as a guideline to follow. The two are very different in many other ways, and hockey will never realistically reach the heights of its counterpart, but emulating some of the successes of football could be a good start.