After the recent failings of British teams at World Championships in our three so-called ‘main sports’ (Football, Cricket, and Rugby), you would be forgiven for thinking that English sport is dramatically worse than it has ever been in recent memory. However, hiding just out of sight of the general public, our hockey teams, both male and female have been around the top of world hockey since the heroic efforts of the gold medal winning Great British team at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Yet these successes have been greeted with only a small amount of publicity, in turn causing a lack of participation in comparison to many other sports. So is hockey destined to always be a minority sport?
There are approximately 1,050 hockey clubs throughout the UK, and although the number playing at these clubs has increased by 30,000 following the London Olympics, it still doesn’t scratch the surface of the amount playing football, in which there are hundreds of thousands of professional and amateur teams. When you consider that many of the Olympics mottos involved ‘getting inspired’ and trying out new, and different sports, I would have hoped that hockey would have been one of the main sports to reap the benefits of the sudden popularity of taking part in active pastimes.
Admittedly, hockey is not the most practical and easily accessible of sports, as in order to play you need a stick, gumshield, shinpads, and an astroturf or sports hall, whereas in football and rugby, all you need is a field and a ball. This proves problematic for many budding hockey players, as if they lack the resources and funds in which to join or train with a team, then they will struggle to become involved with the sport at all, as unfortunately it is equally as difficult to have a ‘hitabout’ in your garden.
Another setback for hockey is that, due to the lack of publicity and funding, many professional hockey players cannot dedicate their entire lives to the sport for lack of pay. In the EHL (the hockey equivalent of the Premier League in football), most players rely on sponsorships and other methods of income as they are not payed for their efforts, it is only foreign players that tend to receive a wage for travelling to Britain and playing for their respective clubs. This is partly the reason why a great number of talented players have moved to the Netherlands, as there is much more funding and interest in the sport resulting in the players receiving a wage which is far closer to what a professional athlete would expect. Furthermore, Premiership women still have to pay match fees to be allowed to play, which is similar to a top Premier League footballer having to pay a £5 fee just to reimburse the referee for giving up part of his Saturday afternoon.
You would assume that most sports where your home nations’ ranking places them as one of the best teams in the world would be avidly followed, gaining press for every immense performance or even the smallest of slip-ups, and this is true of Football, Rugby, Cricket, and Athletics, as managers and competitors must be at the peak of their performance each week or they face ridicule and in some circumstances the loss of their jobs. However hockey, places England as the 5th strongest country in the world, as both men and women challenge for World and European titles every competition which is to the contrary of Football and Rugby, where in the recent World Cups both teams have been knocked out in the group stages of the competition, failing to live up to the substantial expectation from both media and public.
What I find further strange is that, although football is a skillful game by nature, hockey often offers a faster-paced and more enthralling spectacle, as close control, powerful strikes, and passes through the eye of a needle are what has come to be expected from every high-class encounter. Players such as Ashley Jackson (Holcombe, and the first English player to win the FIH young player of the year award) and the England women’s captain Kate Richardson-Walsh (Reading) are on show weekly, exhibiting their talents in front of small crowds, who are not paying an entrance fee to watch some of the countries finest players. However, as only very few hockey matches are televised each year, many would class it as an elitist sport and cannot gain easy access to matches both international and club unless they live near to the grounds. This brings the sport further away from the average person, providing no incentive for them to become involved in the sport, as it does not have enough coverage to increase the following of EHL teams and gain funding to increase the participation from a grass-roots level upwards.