Adapt to survive

Adapt to survive

What is at stake when a minority sport aims for the marketing big leagues?

Hockey is not on everyone's radar in the same way as global sports like soccer, tennis or golf. But the sport is undergoing a transformation, led from the front by its governing body, the International Hockey Federation (FIH).

It has become clear in the past decade that hockey – like other minority sports such as basketball and volleyball – has reached a point where it needs to adapt to survive in a world where sport is intrinsically linked to commercial activity.

Hockey accepted the challenge and the FIH put together a ten-year strategy, The Hockey Revolution. The aim was to: increase its global fan base; bring in new sponsors; develop business partnerships that would allow hockey to grow; work with broadcasters to increase visibility; and, most importantly, become a sustainable and marketable sport.

Laura Hoyle is marketing director at FIH and the lead in The Hockey Revolution. She says: “We knew that for hockey to survive, we had to change. While we will always have the sport at the core of everything we do, we need to engage with a much wider audience. We need to find ways to attract people to our sport who are not hockey players. That is what The Hockey Revolution aims to do. We want to make our sport big, bold and action-packed, with the players as central heroes in the story.”

Last year, FIH picked up the Sports Business Award for Branding and was nominated in a further five categories, including the award for marketing; a just reward for a multi-channel marketing campaign focused on the 2014 Hockey World Cup. This campaign represented a fundamental shift in the way the sport is being marketed.

"Fan-centric" is the new mantra. An eight-year deal with huge Indian broadcaster, Star Sports, has injected €63m into the sport and the result can be witnessed at events worldwide. New technology, such as camera drones filming the action; slow-motion; on-screen graphics; instant replays; expert analysis; and a host of other technologies, signal that hockey has entered a new marketing-focused era.

While the investment into broadcasting major hockey events has increased, FIH has recognised that hockey will never be able to compete with the major sports on conventional channels. So the marketing department at FIH has grabbed the opportunity presented by social media to engage with its fans. The result is 700,000 weekly Facebook visits, 52,000 Twitter followers, a dedicated YouTube channel with 14.6 million views and a FIH website that attracts thousands of visitors.

But how has the campaign impacted the sport itself? Many of the players have joined the Hockey Revolution with enthusiasm, particularly when it comes to social media engagement.

“Hockey doesn't get the media profile of other sports, so using social media to promote us and the sport is really important,” says Great Britain goalkeeper George Pinner. “As professional athletes, we see social media as a way of developing our own profiles. We only have a short life span as a top performing athlete, so it is important that we take every opportunity to build a profile when we can.”

As a measure of the power of social media, Ellen Hoog, recently voted World Player of the Year, has 31,000 followers on Twitter and 92,000 followers on Instagram – 30,000 more than the Olympic and World Heptathlon champion Jessica Ennis-Hill.

But not everyone is happy. Markus Weise, the highly successful coach of the German men’s hockey team, says: “In the interests of marketing, I understand that we have to have a lot of high-profile tournaments. So in the next year we have Hockey World League Finals, the European Championships, Champions Trophy and then, of course, the Olympics.

“Each of these tournaments involves a huge cost – both to the players in terms of getting them ready for each event, and to the national federation considering travel, accommodation and all the costs involved in playing competitions.”

Weise’s point, one that is shared by many international coaches, is that most players across the globe are not full-time professional athletes. They may get help towards living costs and some money from endorsements, but on the whole, players have to take time off work. Wherever the tournament is being held, there will be lengthy travel involved for most teams and the drain on limited resources is huge.

It is a dilemma. FIH contest that increased commercial activity will make the sport more professional and, therefore, benefit everybody involved.

But some of those working at the coalface of international hockey believe increased commercialism is to the detriment of the people at the very heart of the sport – the players and teams themselves.

Sarah Juggins Freelance Journalist CPL
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