LONDON - Hockey World League Semi-Final. 32 Malaysia - England (3rd/4th) Foto: David Ames, Samuel Ward and Harry Martin. COPYRRIGHT FRANK UIJLENBROEK WORLDSPORTPICS
Photo: FRANK UIJLENBROEK/WORLDSPORTPICS

In schools across the United Kingdom, hockey is a staple of any physical education program. In the winter, the sport is open for both girls and boys to try their hand at, although it’s primarily aimed towards the latter. Given that a large percentage of people in the UK will have played the game at some point in their lives, you would expect the game to have a greater following in the country.

However, it has not been the case. There is a loyal core following the sport, as proven as there are 30,000 registered players across England alone. There are over 1,000 registered clubs, playing in competitive leagues that cater for all ages.

The Great Britain women’s team enjoyed a watershed moment in winning the gold medal at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Hockey enjoyed a brief spell as a hot point in the media, while Samantha Quek has ridden the crest of the wave of the attention to become a pundit on the BBC, although she is rarely able to promote the game on the radio or television.

There is definitely not the same level of brand recognition that other mainstream sports enjoy. Hockey is not alone in that facet of being seen as only an Olympic sport, with rowing and gymnastics also being pushed into the same category – although the former brandishes the yearly boat race between Oxford and Cambridge, which is broadcast prime-time on the BBC.

So, how has this become the case, and what could be done in the future to increase its popularity outside the loyal core of followers?

Competition

Unfortunately for hockey, there is a great deal of competition for elite athletes in the UK. The men’s game will suffer from losing out to football and cricket, with the riches they can provide their players compared favourably to that of hockey. For example, Ollie Pope was a fine hockey player during his days at Cranleigh School, but he, like so many players before him, opted to turn their attention to cricket.

There’s not an event other than the Olympics that can match the prestige of playing in the Ashes, where Pope will look to defeat Australia next year, with England currently backed in cricket betting odds at 5/2 to win back the urn. Furthermore, Jos Buttler and Tom Banton have also given up on decent careers in the world of hockey to pursue cricket. It’s not hard to blame either of them when earnings in the Indian Premier League can reach substantially past the £1m mark, for just two months of playing.

Depending on the type of athlete, the women’s game can also lose out to athletics among other sports such as tennis. Unless you’re at the top of the sport, playing for Great Britain in the FIH Hockey Pro League – it’s hard to retain a solid core of players.

Improving Participation and Branding

There was an opportunity after the Great Britain women’s team won the gold medal to push the envelope and capitalise on a major moment for the sport. The success did bring with it a slight surge, with participation numbers increasing to around 156,700 in 2016. However, that number has taken a sharp decline over the past two years, and is now down to 107,500, according to figures provided by Statista.

In 2018, England hosted the Women’s Hockey World Cup at the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre. Over 120,000 people attended the competition through the two weeks of the event, which is more than encouraging for the future of the game as a spectator sport.

BT Sport has also played a significant role in ensuring that the game is represented on television by broadcasting both the Great Britain men and women’s teams’ matches in the FIH Hockey Pro League, as well as the World Cup. Given that it is a subscription service, it still remains outside the reach of the majority of the population. Perhaps more of an effort should be made for the sport’s hierarchy to ensure that it is broadcast on free-to-air television, or a reliable free streaming service.

Social media also is a huge platform for attracting young people to the sport. Hockey enjoyed a massive lift in 2018 when Harry Potter star Emma Watson visited an east London school, along with Rio 2016 Olympic gold medal winner Helen Richardson-Walsh MBE, and Emily Defroand for the charity Hockey Future.

The popularity of Watson brought attention to the movement, as it was displayed on the front page of the BBC website and gained over 1.4m impressions on Instagram. Stunts of that nature can be crucial, and it certainly would have made a significant impact on the school kids there and ones further afield. Succeeding in that environment is a tough task, but keeping the sport relevant for all ages is imperative for the future of the game.

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