ALASTAIR WHATLEY, a late and passionate convert but now fully invested in hockey, on the sport’s need to get on the front foot and let people know that we expect more
“I can’t understand why hockey isn’t more of a thing. It’s such a brilliant game #Olympics”
This was a tweet from the broadcaster Rev. Richard Coles following the GB men’s win over South Africa on Saturday.
His tweet followed a game that featured the sight of Sam Ward throwing his arms open in celebration as he hammered in a drag flick to send GB 1-0 up and opening the team’s account at these Tokyo Olympics.
It also marked one of the great sporting comebacks. Ward’s journey over these past few years is nothing short of an inspiration and a great example of what a positive can-do, never-give-up attitude can lead to.
And stories, as a theatre director and producer, are my day job. Much as I wish I could claim I’d played a high level of hockey, I came to it late after a brief, failed flirtation at school in 2018, aged 35. I moved to North London and having given up acting on the stage (much to the relief of many), found my weekends free and missing the camaraderie of an acting company.
I found Southgate Hockey Club, in the beautiful environs of Trent Park, just down the road and began to fall quickly in love with this fast paced, hugely challenging game.
After a few months of largely just running about in circles on the pitch and falling over, I came down to watch our men’s 1s. The game was electric, the pace, the skill, the physicality and the precision made great theatre, a great spectacle. I didn’t know who any of the players were or the ins and outs of what was going on.
But I marvelled at the fact that it was free to watch and furthermore that I was given some port and cheese at half-time. Above all I wondered why more people weren’t there. I’ve endured plenty of long evenings of some pretty dreadful plays all over the country to much bigger crowds. I wondered where everyone was.
So I became a one man travelling support club and ventured off with my newly acquired Southgate beanie hat and scarf and visited other clubs all over the south east and found similar stories. A hardcore rump of home spectators stoically cheering on their teams, a few parents and girlfriends… and me.
Yet it seemed that these teams, just one division shy of the top league in the country, were playing these games to an audience to smaller crowds than a non league football game, in some cases much smaller.
Until I found The Hockey Paper I also struggled to find any coverage of the sport. Even our top club sides seemed to be playing their games in a vacuum, the story of that 2019/2020 season seemed impenetrable at first to a newcomer at least.
Only recently having forked out the subscription to BT Sport to watch the EuroHockey Championships I sought out a batch of national papers to read the match reports, previews and analysis from the games. England were playing in the semi-finals, in a major hockey tournament just across the channel. Yet frankly, aside again from this publication, there wasn’t much going on over social media and certainly nothing I’d heard on the radio or TV. Surely it would be reported somewhere … or perhaps even anywhere.
I searched across the national papers and found not even the result listed let alone a report. It seems hockey has simply been left out or worse, forgotten against the bigger stories of other high profile sports that battle for column inches.
We are now in the throes of an Olympic Games and our GB women and men are battling it out against the world’s top sides for Olympic glory – a chance to become legends to a whole new generation.
The Olympics are probably the single best opportunity the sport has to reach a wider audience, yet as things stand the coverage is patchy at best, the BBC battling a distribution deal with Discovery + meaning they have limited space and with it hockey largely being shunted off to being played behind a paywall on Eurosport, often it seems without even commentary.
Games played in an empty stadium seemingly heading out into a void. Not much we can do about the Tokyo time difference, but combine the lack of air time and the time difference and it’s not making it easy to follow unless you really want to seek it out and make a night or early morning of it. Hopefully as the tournament gathers momentum things will pick up.
I suspect hockey’s lack of coverage in the mainstream media is an old story, but the dearth of good Olympic coverage on the BBC seems emblematic of a wider issue facing the sport. But what can we do about it?
Perhaps we could start by doing more to tell our stories better, both individually and collectively. Maybe there’s a modesty, reserve or even embarrassment in thinking in those terms.
Regardless, it requires a concerted effort to promote hockey in the UK, to sell the game and to tell the myriad of stories that swirl around every game of hockey that is played. Without people telling those stories we simply end up playing these great games of hockey to an increasingly insular and potentially dwindling audience.
Of course there are numerous reasons why our sport struggles to regularly find itself on the front pages, or indeed any pages. Many people for many years have spent time, money and energy getting more attention onto the sport.
Here at Southgate we are investing in new ways to find a wider audience. We are fortunate to have a large diaspora across the world unable to regularly make it back to the club.
We are keen to find ways of streaming games online to reach more people and introduce our club to a wider audience. On paper, at least it’s an achievable task, especially with some of our top sides leading the way with streams posted on England Hockey seeing tens of thousands of hits. Yet there remains resistance. Rights to games held by England Hockey, coaches understandably cautious or unwilling to reveal tactics and share games publicly, especially when not all clubs are following suit, and of course the expense of the whole enterprise.
Let alone trying to do it well enough to entice people to watch more than 10 minutes of fuzzy interference from a single camera feed.
Just last week I went down to The Oval and watched the first Hundred game. The ECB had thrown the cat and the kitchen sink at the event which featured more fireworks and more branding than they knew what to do with. I’m not sure they have reinvented the wheel, but they have at least given that wheel a good seeing to. And in so doing secured major TV coverage and the biggest crowd for a domestic women’s cricket game this country has ever seen.
“If you build it they will come” – so said Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams. And there is nothing wrong with a bit of dreaming – maybe we can all look to Ward’s example as he continues to find the Olympic backboard in Tokyo, because sport is some of the best theatre we have.
It is a place where dreams come true, hearts are broken and heroes are made. Hockey is full of these stories at every club up and down the country, in games big and small and in the potential of our young players who can be inspired by the likes of our own GB heroes in Tokyo.
In the short term let’s try and beat the drum a bit louder for these Games. And each time they wake people like the Rev Coles to the joy of our game. Above all else we have to champion our own sport, read and support the one paper we do have (this one) and get on the front foot and let people know that we expect more.
If we don’t speak together nothing will change, great games of hockey played with nobody to hear or see them.
Alastair Whatley is secretary at Southgate Hockey Club