No other federation covers hockey like the Netherlands. Walk into the media centre at any Dutch-hosted major tournament and there will be an editorial staff of 10 or so beavering away across written, video and social. Talk about treating hockey as a major sport.
Hockey.nl is a publication of the Dutch hockey board (KNHB) which in turn hires an independent digital agency, iO, to cover the sport throughout the year. For the last seven years, the agency has been responsible for covering all major tournaments – Rio, Tokyo, EuroHockeys, World Cups – while also travelling to Australia, New Zealand to report on matches.
It has been a standalone success given the quality of output the publication consistently produces. The set up should also be a marker to other countries for what is possible in terms of profile and coverage – especially at a time when traditional media companies across the globe have seen diminishing sports staff, or focus on sports which garner more web traffic.
During Women’s World Cup matches here at the Wagener Stadium, there is a live blog, with one or two editors, alongside a variety of news, features, video interviews and social media stories during the game, which looks after the Oranje Hockey label.
“We are a bit like a fly on the wall,” says editor in chief Eelko Wester, who is also a director at iO.
“We’ve been on the bus with the Dutch team for our followers on Instagram, so you can see the team’s preparations from hotel room to stadium. We can fill the places where fans can’t go.”
Of course, federations are also employing the same content, but the Dutch is a step or two above (with Hockey Belgium also showing initiative with a partnership with newspaper Le Soir).
Whereas in 2014 for the dual World Cup in the Hague, hockey.nl had only one person on social media, now there could be 70 per cent of Wester’s team making content for socials.
Coverage saw an uptick for EuroHockey 2017 at the Wagener Stadium, where the federation had 10,000 followers and Oranje Hockey with 5,000. Now it’s around 100,000 on both. “You can see the enormous growth on both,” adds Wester, 48.
Five years on, Dutch hockey is reaching around 250,000 accounts per day during this World Cup on socials, while web traffic will generate between 1 and 1.5 million views.
As Hockey.nl is owned by KNHB, so commercial revenue is not the number one priority. With big players on board as sponsors – Volvo, Deloitte and Rabobank – they only use the World Cup and the platforms to show their connections with hockey. “Our main goal is to promote hockey,” adds Wester.
Around seven years ago, KNHB’s managing director Erik Gerritsen and Clarinda Sinnige, the media manager and double Olympian goalkeeper, outlined a strategy which has forged significant results in terms of their editorial output.
“It was their strategy to give us a lot of freedom editorially,” says Wester. “People have to believe that what we write is true. That’s very important for us.
“For the federation, it’s also important. Sometimes it’s a bit difficult, like any relationship. But there is a great deal of respect because we know what we do. They trust us and we trust them.”
One story comes to mind in recent years to underline this. It came at the 2018 Women’s World Cup in London in a hockey.nl interview with Carlien Dirkse van den Heuvel, the captain suggesting that England played “chicken without the head” hockey.
With a deadline looming for the Evening Standard, I came across the story, with the comments buried within, and seized upon it (but only after confirming with colleague and hockey.nl writer Marco van Nugteren that they weren’t lost in translation). It made the back page ahead of the match that day.
“Everybody likes to see or read when something goes wrong,” smiles Wester. “For us, that’s where we have to watch very carefully. We want to create a better fan base but we have to be sure what we write isn’t sensational.
“We are fully allowed to write it down. And that’s the big difference between us and other media which writes for national federations. I think that most directors would say ‘take it down’!”
While hockey’s profile and its branding remains a cut above any other hockey federation, Wester says the sport is only scratching the surface in comparison to cycling and speed skating.
“Hockey is a difficult sport to follow,” he admits. “In the stadium you can see it pretty well, but it’s important that on TV that you have great images of the game. And for online, it’s important to have good images to make the clips.
“My daughters don’t watch TV, they only view social media. All the info she gets is from Instagram and Tik Tok. We are seeing huge growth and that’s why those channels are more important for the federation.”