For many of us hockey refers to the best sport in the world, played in a field or on astroturf with wooden sticks. For those who don’t grace the fields though, the sport of hockey almost always means ice!
But why is it that ice hockey has overtaken a sport played since the 19th century in popularity?
We take a closer look.
Ice hockey is clearly more visible to the masses with huge television coverage across the globe. The NHL makes it easy for spectators to tune in and for betting companies to increase the sport’s popularity. Bookmakers give enticing account offers and the frequency of NHL games makes them a prime target for speculative bets.
The NHL received its first TV deal to show live games in Canada and the USA in 1992, and the media coverage has grown exponentially since then. With bespoke deals to broadcast across Europe, Africa, South America, the Middle East and Australia, the NHL has never been more visible or accessible.
With live broadcasts available all over the globe, the NHL also offers two subscription services meaning fans can literally watch their favourite sport wherever and whenever they want, and it’s this accessibility which will continue to evolve the popularity of the sport.
With TV deals comes revenue for the league, which means the best players in the game all flock to the USA and Canada rather than top leagues in countries who pay smaller wages. The average salary for a field hockey player in the UK is less than £2000 per month, whereas the average NHL contract is worth a reported $3 million per year.
Field hockey has not had the same appeal to TV sponsors and as a result, the money has not been ploughed into the sport to increase its popularity or talent pool. In a bid to increase the global appeal of the sport, the FIH Pro League was developed in 2017 to give professional field hockey players a platform to showcase their talents on a worldwide level. Whilst the league has had some success, with a 2019 match gathering a record attendance in the UK, the 11,500 spectators is still barely half of the average gate for a regular NHL fixture.
Field hockey’s greatest appeal comes once every four years at the Olympic games. The spectatorship is high and it’s when local clubs receive their biggest influx of new members, but there is no financial reward for Olympic wins and the funding provided by the country is usually dependant on the national side’s performance. If England doesn’t perform well, it’s unlikely the governing body will receive adequate funding to promote play at a grassroots level for the next generation of athletes.
Whilst the sports share the same name, there are clearly differences besides the playing surface.
The pace of the game is a key differential with ice hockey played at a frenetic pace. Teams will zip up and down the ice and keepers will face plenty of shots. Players will also experience a brute physicality (that’s why they wear so much protective padding) which isn’t experienced by their field-based equivalents. Field hockey relies on teamwork and stick skills to intricately build a solid chance of scoring and it’s possible that this slightly slower pace is one of the detractors for TV.
Whilst it’s fairly simple to get into field hockey (all you need is a stick), youngsters with elite hand eye co-ordination may be guided to the ice rather than field by their parents due to the potential career earnings if they make it professionally. Let’s hope popularity increases in field hockey and we see a similar trajectory as our ice-based counterpart.