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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 August 2018

World hockey struggles to score with sponsors

Despite being a truly global sport, the women's World Cup in London shows it has a way to go to convince big name backers to sign up

A women's hockey match between Germany and the Netherlands. Despite its popularity, sponsors are hard to find. AP
A women's hockey match between Germany and the Netherlands. Despite its popularity, sponsors are hard to find. AP

Field hockey is a "pot of gold at the end of the rainbow" for blue chip sponsors, who have largely ignored the sport so far, says an industry expert.

The women’s World Cup is about to start in London, on July 21, and the Federation of International Hockey (FIH) is expecting a total of more than 1 billion people to watch the competition involving 16 teams including hosts England, Australia, US, China and India on TV and at the games. According to WorldAtlas.com, field hockey is the third most popular sport globally, attracting some 2.2 billion fans.

The global field hockey equipment market, meanwhile, is likely to rise from a valuation of around $1.6 billion to close to $1.8bn over 2017-2022 , according to Transparency Market Research. Geographically, Europe is the leading contributor to the equipment market and is likely to be worth of $675.4 million by 2022. The Asia Pacific except Japan region is another key player, with 2.2 per cent CAGR expected to carry the market to a valuation of $520.7m by 2022.

Despite this, the sport is still finding it hard to pull in the big name backers.

Although BT Sport was signed early last summer to broadcast the women’s World Cup among other major hockey events, a title sponsor for the London tournament was only agreed in November after healthcare insurance company Vitality UK signed up as part of a deal with national governing body England Hockey to be its wellness partner.

Vitality already had a number of sports sponsorships: in football with English Premier League clubs Arsenal and AFC Bournemouth; English, Scottish and Welsh rugby; and netball. The November agreement was the firm's first move into hockey but no value was disclosed to the deal.

The cost of such sponsorships is typically low compared with men's football, for instance. A Sport England commissioned report on the future of women’s sport in 2011 claimed Investec’s sponsorship of the England and Great Britain hockey team was worth £2.2m over five years. In contrast, Arsenal football club in February signed a new shirt sponsorship deal with Emirates that will be worth more than £200m until 2024, according to the UK's Telegraph newspaper.

The low entry costs for sponsors into hockey represent a big opportunity for blue chip brands, says Kelvin Watt, managing director of Africa and the Middle East at sports research consultancy Nielsen.

“The FIH have done fantastic work and taken hockey into a new era, but struggled to take it into a commercialised space,” says Mr Watt.

“Hockey is struggling to find global companies. The first global company to look at it will realise they will get a better return on what they would have to pay in other sports.

“There are only certain companies that can do that. Hockey is struggling in identifying those people and getting them over the line. When they do, they [sponsors] will find a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow at a cheap price.”

Adidas is a sponsor at this year’s women's World Cup. “We look forward to activating our brand around the upcoming World Cup,” says Katja Schreiber from the corporate communications department at adidas.

However, adidas said it would not disclose specific plans ahead of the event.

Research on hockey sponsorships is limited but the success of these agreements comes not just through activation, raising brand awareness and so forth, at an international level but at the grassroots, too. This is behind Vitality’s involvement.

“These sponsorships are part of an innovative health partnership with both the men’s and women’s teams, which support the ongoing growth of the game and grassroots programme in England," says Neville Koopowitz, the chief operating officer at Vitality UK.

“The breadth of our hockey partnerships … supports our commitment to raising awareness of and participation in women’s sport, as well as amongst those looking to start or get back into sports at a grassroots level.”

Vitality’s approach is borne out by research in the Netherlands by consultants Blauw, which analysed sponsorship of Dutch domestic hockey by Swedish car manufacturer Volvo.

“Hockey is in fact a major sport in The Netherlands," says Eva Gerritse, a senior project manager at Blauw. "The number of people playing hockey in our country, as well as the exposure professional players and teams are getting, make it easier to commercialise hockey compared to other markets."

The Volvo sponsorship involved an initiative called the Clubbonus, which saw the company donate €1,000 (Dh4,294) to a local hockey club for every member that bought one of the Swedish company’s cars. This helped make the sponsorship a success, according to Blauw’s research.

“In the Netherlands, Volvo is the only car brand that consumers link to hockey,” adds Ms Gerritse. “It is seen as 'the' hockey car.

“This obviously has a positive impact on the sponsoring. There is very little confusion with other car brands in the category. Two other main hockey sponsors in The Netherlands, ABN AMRO and Rabobank, are both financials. Even though their investment in hockey is higher than Volvo, they have more difficulty to stand out as a sponsor,” says Ms Gerritse.

The Netherlands is one of the few countries where hockey is considered a national sport but the game is played globally and the FIH has 137 members.

At the last women’s World Cup in the Hague four years ago, more than 250,000 people watched the games in the stadiums and the worldwide viewing audience was in excess of 200 million, according to FIH data.

Despite the global nature of the game, lack of sponsorship has been an issue that has dogged hockey for some time.

When Jason McCracken took over as chief executive of the FIH in spring 2017, he promised to generate $150m over four years from a new international Pro League that is due to start in 2019.

Seven months later, the New Zealander quit after being unable to find a title sponsor for the Pro League.

“There is a strong interest in the market for sponsoring hockey and we will be making key announcements in the second half of the year closer to the start of the league,” says Danny Parker, marketing and communications manager at the FIH.

Increasing sponsorship was one of four initiatives in the "Hockey Revolution" concept launched by the FIH back in 2014.

At the launch, the FIH promised more fan-focused entertainment portfolio, world-class TV production and distribution, joined up global marketing, a high performing sport and "commercial partners who share our vision".

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Mr Watt has worked with a number of international hockey federations and has seen first-hand the work that has been done over the past four years to meet the Hockey Revolution concept.

“A lot of the federations I’ve worked with have done an incredible job at a number of levels and worked with broadcasters to improve the product,” he says.

“Supersport in South Africa have done some amazing work and the relationship with BT [Sport] is good.

“Secondly, they understand the importance of the flow of the game. It’s now a more three dimensional game with the rule changes and probably the game that’s done the best to make itself a game for millennials.”

This year’s event has been picked up by major broadcasters such as Eurosport and Sky but only in specific markets, such as Spain and New Zealand respectively. In the Middle East, the tournament will be screened on the FIH’s own YouTube channel.

This reflects the sport’s continued commercial reliance on a number of key countries, notably India, which pulled out of the Pro League. Indian motorcycle and scooter manufacturer Hero MotoCorp is a big sponsor of international hockey alongside other sports including golf and football.

Hero sponsored the 2010 men’s World Cup, the 2017 Asia Cup and is a sponsor of the London World Cup this year. The company has also been involved at grassroots level by organising pan-India inter-school tournaments.

“Through its association with apex hockey federations and marquee tournaments, Hero has played the role of an enabler in taking the sport to newer audiences across geographies,” says a Hero MotoCorp spokesman.

Hero sells in 37 countries but the FIH has another 100 international members, which reflects the sport’s concentration in key markets despite a global playing base.

This is why the game needs a more globally orientated sponsor.

“The FIH are dependent on national federations," points out Mr Watts. "Apart from a few pockets that have done exceptional work, most struggle to see the importance of the game outside of the players.

“The game of hockey is big globally and often misunderstood. The type of sponsor you need has to understand the global significance of the game, not a local one.

“They haven’t sold that it’s one of the few games that is equal for men and women. The geography is very complicated but it’s also one of its strengths. It’s the only sport to have had a gold medallist from every continent in the world They need a sponsor that takes a global view.”

Vitality is based in England but part of global insurer Discovery Holdings, which boasts more than 4.4 million customers.

With football’s World Cup and tennis' Wimbledon over, Vitality will be hoping that the hockey World Cup generates sufficient media coverage to boost both its own global ambitions and also those of hockey to make the deal it signed look a snip.

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