Taking hockey to existing stadia like Twickenham Stoop can change the sport’s visibility, says project lead

It started with a hurricane and ended with torrential rain, and then flooding, but the woman behind delivering not one but two big stadium hockey experiences is reflecting on a year which could be a game changer for the sport.

In November 2018, Sue Catton, England Hockey’s lead on the Big Stadium Hockey project, started work on The Stoop initiative before a swift turnaround to set up the recent pop-up pitch in Dublin. She’s experienced a hurricane in Stoop pitch testing, horrendous rain in Dublin and then her house nearly flooded on her return to Sheffield. But Catton has sailed through the near dramas and now hopes that the format will become the norm at major tournaments (Note: this piece was originally published in print before the pandemic).

“I genuine believe it has to be the way forward for some of the bigger games and competitions,” she said. “It can grow your fan base, excites sponsors and politicians. From a commercial perspective it’s huge.

“I genuine believe we can solve things for World Cups, going in and out of football stadia. And for an Olympics, it offers the chance to go into a bigger stadium. It’s not quick and it’s not cheap but I’m completely sold as an event operator that this is the way forward.”

More than most, Catton can see the bigger the picture. After all, she has been the point of contact for both projects. In Dublin, for the Ireland v Canada Olympic qualification matches, she oversaw pitch and logistical issues, spoke to volunteers on safety, the fire brigade on irrigation and “joined the dots” as Hockey Ireland focused on trying to fill over 12,000 seats across two matches. That they did and the 375,000 who watched on RTE made for a very successful venture.

Dublin had, in Catton’s words, come “hot on the heels” of the Twickenham Stoop venture. The day after GB’s matches against New Zealand in June, England Hockey held a conference to promote Big Stadium Hockey and its benefits. Representatives from Ireland, European Hockey and the Commonwealth Games were in attendance.

Ireland were an interested party. Risk was involved with the costs, but once the commercial strategy had been pulled together, Catton wore the ‘green jacket’ as the eight-week turnaround began.

“It wasn’t an easy sell but definitely the right opportunity for Hockey Ireland,” said Catton. “To get over 12,250 over two matches was huge from a standing start and I’m hugely in awe of the ambition and passion they showed in taking it over the line.”

It’s staggering to think that two projects of this size have taken place in six months. Even more so when you consider the first meeting, in the guise which is now Big Stadium Hockey, only came last November. There, England Hockey were given the task of delivering hockey at a rugby ground on June 23.

Testing was not straight forward. At Bisham, where the first seeds of what is now known as a Temporary Overlay Pitch (there is now a TOP 1 and 2 standard) were born, pitch solution testing came amidst a hurricane. As she speaks from her Sheffield home, Catton says “it’s been quite a journey”.

Of course, both projects have been different. The Stoop was the biggest hurdle in that the pitch was laid over an existing grass rugby pitch, while Dublin’s pop up was put on a 3G surface.

GB in action at The Stoop PIC: WILL PALMER / WORLD SPORT PICS

With The Stoop, the initial work done last summer has now ensured that England Hockey can return not only with minimal commercial risk but with an investment to build on the success over the next five years, in line with Harlequin’s new stadium.

The double header against Argentina for the 2020 Pro League, which was due to go ahead this month, was set to be more cost effective for England Hockey.

For their second venture at The Stoop, there was set to be a nine-day turnaround, giving the Stoop’s grass nine days to recover in time for Harlequins’s next game. The Ireland games have proved that the turnaround can be done in time and during the season.

The next step following the England and Ireland ventures – whenever hockey and international events can return – is to take it beyond British and Irish shores. “Big Stadium Hockey has driven the new pitch agenda,” added Catton. “We’re on a journey over the next five years to show that this can be done – and not just for the bigger nations.”

Subscribe to our print or digital edition! Discounts with our partners and major savings on our digital product for global readers. Find out which subscription suits you bestSign up now!