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‘GB hockey shirt still has huge sponsorship appeal in women’s sport’

Selling point: Investec deal was landmark for women’s sport

By Rod Gilmour

The GB women’s shirt remains one of the most attractive available properties in women’s sport, according to the former commercial director at England Hockey.

Jonathan Cockroft left Bisham Abbey this summer to join Bowls England as its chief executive after almost a decade in hockey – a period in which saw the international arm grow exponentially following a breakthrough sponsorship deal with Investec and, of course, Rio gold.

Cockroft may have left to join a slower-paced sport, but there’s no denying that in the last 10 years, hockey’s stock has grown rapidly – even if the English domestic game remains unappealing at a commercial and marketing level. Not that it deterred Investec, the global investment outfit which clearly saw potential before on pitch international successes.

The relationship was forged when England Hockey visited the finance giant in early 2011 to pitch the whole sport to Raymond van Niekerk, then head of marketing. The women’s team element, says Cockroft, grabbed the firm’s imagination and an initial five-year, six figure deal was inked. “Raymond is a forward-thinking guy and saw an opportunity and vision and his belief has been well repaid over the years,” said Cockroft in his last interview before he joined bowls.

“It was trailblazing at the time, the Women’s Sport Trust heralded it as one of the biggest women’s sport sponsorships at the time and the view has changed over time of women’s sport.”

Investec continued the long game by ironing out a contract extension prior to Rio 2016 before the coronavirus pandemic hit and a natural four-year cycle provided an end to its association. “It’s a great opportunity for hockey to engage with a new brand and bring the men’s and women’s properties together, one of the sport’s selling points,” said a bullish Cockroft.

However, with the 2020/21 season having started and GB Hockey entering Olympic year, the national governing body was left without a top-tier sponsor. Cockroft envisages that it won’t be long – despite the pandemic crippling many potential suitor’s purses – and says that “exploratory chats” took place during lockdown. Current chief exec Nick Pink recently told THP that advanced talks were being held with interested suitors.

Cockroft said: “Over the course of the decade, rarely a month went by when there wasn’t someone knocking at the door wondering what was going on with the women’s shirt. It’s definitely one of the most attractive available properties in women’s sport.”

While the women’s shirt made hay, the men’s sponsorship proved a harder sell. A 2013 deal with Now:Pensions was cut short while the most recent partnership with Toshiba was short-lived.

“It’s more of a minority sport v major sport challenge,” says Cockroft. “All Olympic sports are scrambling around for a slice of the sponsorship pie. It’s evidence of the value of the sport. There is more competition with the men’s side. It has been frustrating but there is an opportunity to bring the two together.”

Despite the downturn, Cockroft remained optimistic of the future of hockey. “Sponsorship is only five per cent of hockey’s income so it’s not as cataclysmic as some of the reports suggest when sports like hockey lose a sponsor.”

Cockroft took the commercial role on the back of his experiences watching the 2010 Champions Trophy in Nottingham. Watching the Monday night matches, the Yorkshireman witnessed an “incredible product”.

“I had a strong belief it could be a major spectator sport and the platform for the players being remunerated fitting of their talents as well as inspiring more people to take up the game.”

So began the vision to bring the international game to the thousands of hockey players, which has since culminated with a home World Cup, the launch of the FIH Pro League and over 12,000 at Twickenham Stoop.

Cockroft says: “If we as a sport sell as many tickets for the Pro League on an annual basis as we did for the World Cup, the financial picture would be incredibly positive on what international matches can deliver for the business, which can then be reinvested into domestic game which is obviously of great interest [to The Hockey Paper].

“The challenge is convincing hockey people that it’s great to watch as well as play it. We know that they do have a great experience when they do and so it’s about continuing to bang the drum.

England captain Kate Walsh looks ahead to the Investec World League in London this June.jpg

“There is no supply challenge in the sport. It’s about a critical mass of fans coming. If that grows that will be incredibly exciting.”

The potential ‘reinvestment’ into the domestic game remains to be seen. At this point, I remind Cockroft of a conversation which took place during the Hague World Cup in 2014, together with now former chief executive Sally Munday. One remark has always stood out, that it was all about the international game. “You obviously have a better memory than me!” he says.

“Over the years, we have tried in many ways to elevate domestic hockey commercially, Super 6s, the early 2010s investing in broadcast and there was some commitment to air the play-offs at EH’s cost,” he adds. “As it stands, it would be an incredible leap in investment for the domestic product to become commercially viable, with the size of the audience and the facilities. However much we want domestic hockey to be successful and playing a part of a commercial landscape as in rugby and football, we can’t do everything commercially.

“There is a disconnect [with clubs] and there is a place for some form of T20 hockey. It has been floating around with Hockey 5s and there is potential, but that comes with significant challenges.”

Cockroft hints to a franchise league where a team might have London in their name, which would “more affinity to it than something that has a parochial title to it,” adding that “there is no perfect template, but you need to create a model that is relevant to a mass of people.

He added: “I believe that the EH philosophy and generating profits from international hockey is the most sensible business approach to making things different in the domestic product.”

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