Gold in Rio. What Does this Mean for Women’s Hockey?

Ever since I picked up my first hockey stick at the age of 12, I was hooked and the aspiration of playing for my country was born. To watch the Team GB women win gold in Rio and stand on the podium was one that I’ll remember forever. Not only has this made me immensely proud to play my sport, but the implications of this victory for hockey – and women’s sport in general – are unimaginable. This medal has paved the way for my sport and, arguably, secured its future success for many years to come.

To understand what winning gold in Rio means for the hockey community, let’s look at its impact on clubs, the media and what this means for the future.

1. Developing #Back2Hockey

Each year England Hockey run #Back2Hockey, an initiative which encourages clubs to engage with their local community to help with each club’s annual recruitment drive. Following the success at Rio, it’s expected that clubs will see a huge increase in participants from local schools and from ‘lapsed’ players (those who haven’t played hockey since leaving school or university).

Building on the first year of #Back2Hockey in 2014 (see my previous blog here), England Hockey have created #HockeyFest – a festival which encourages clubs to not only recruit new players, but celebrate hockey in the community over the course of the summer. Clubs have also been encouraged to hold inter-club tournaments, watch hockey matches live from Rio, as well as promote their activity across social media and through local press. Clubs with an affiliation with a medal winner have hosted coaching sessions with the GB players to inspire new members.

2. Riding the Rio media wave

Over the course of the summer, media interest in hockey has grown significantly. The Olympic Semi-Final and Final were shown live on BBC1 and BBC2 – the first time in the sport’s history. 9 million tuned into the Final, the huge demand pushing back BBC News at Ten to a later time.

Since their return to the UK, the gold medallists have been kept busy with a wide variety of appearances, from BBC Breakfast to A Question of Sport. None more so than Kate Richardson-Walsh, my personal hockey hero, who has arguably cemented herself as a national treasure. Over the years, Kate has been a figurehead for GB Women’s Hockey and was rightly appointed as flag-bearer at the Olympic Closing Ceremony. She first made the headlines at London 2012, where she fractured her jaw in Team GB’s opening match against Japan, but after receiving medical attention, she continued to play in the rest of tournament. The victory at Rio 2016 was the crowning glory of her career and will no doubt inspire a new generation of players.

3. The future – what does this mean now?

So, they’ve inspired a nation over the summer and are now seen across multiple channels promoting their success, but what does the future now hold for hockey in Britain? Well, it’s looking bright. Over the next few years, England Hockey have secured the right to host multiple international, as well as domestic competitions, to be held at London’s Lee Valley Hockey Centre and at Wembley Arena.

From the Men’s Hockey World League in June 2017 to the Women’s World Cup 2018, watching live hockey will be more accessible than ever. Sky Sports broadcasted the Women’s European Championships in 2015 and more coverage is planned. Sky Sports are a champion of GB Hockey and the team regularly feature in the Sky Sports Sportswomen TV programmes.

To ensure that they continue with the momentum created from Rio, England Hockey have given clubs and previous event attendees early access to tickets. The attendance at the first international tournament will be a big test to see if the governing body can utilise this increased interest. My belief, given the reaction post-Rio, is that they can.

A relevant question for the future is how brands can capitalise on the team’s success this summer. Investec, the women’s Principal Sponsor, have quickly started their activity with the team following their return from Rio. They’ve helped to raise the players’ individual profile by having a stylised team photo shoot taking place at a country estate with interviews highlighting interesting facts about them. Ahead of the Olympics, Investec also released a series of emotive and inspiring films which highlighted both key players and the head coach, on their journey to becoming GB Hockey team members. This included one of the team’s superstars, Maddie Hinch, who, with her incredible performance in the Final, helped to grab many ‘armchair’ fans’ attention.

The GB team’s win at Rio has clearly put international hockey and women in sport back on the news agenda. England and GB Hockey are on the right road to maintaining the sport’s momentum; however, more can be done to build excitement and participation ahead of Tokyo 2020.

To do so they must utilise hockey’s stars in innovative and engaging ways to help promote the sport and women’s sport in general. With the upcoming events planned, this is a very exciting time for hockey.

Back to Hockey: a winning approach to grassroots

Trying to fit playing sport around work and having a social life is difficult especially when you haven’t played since leaving school or university. What can be done to help rectify this? In 2010 England Netball created Back to Netball, an initiative which has helped encourage women who thought their playing days were over to get back into the sport. The campaign has been hugely successful with over 60,000 women getting back into netball which has naturally benefited the sport from grassroots to the elite game.

England Hockey took a leaf out of the same book a few years back to create their own Back to Hockey campaign – using eye-catching creative to get lapsed players back into the sport, more recently evolving the initiative to make it as relevant and powerful to audiences as possible.

Reinventing Back to Hockey

2014 was a hugely successful year for the initiative, with 53% of players stating they wanted to take part in more Back to Hockey sessions within the club environment. This subsequently saw over 2,500 players regularly attend Back to Hockey sessions across England. To innovate for this year’s campaign, England Hockey connected with Sport England campaign ‘This Girl Can’, which has helped to improve and build upon the marketing of the initiative.

By using the same principle as Back to Netball, England Hockey have been encouraging hockey clubs to reach out into their local communities and encourage former players – women in particular – to put on their trainers and head towards their local club. Attracting female players back into sport has traditionally been a difficult task as there are numerous barriers to participation for them, therefore, the investment that governing bodies make towards similar campaigns is vital towards their success. Not only are England Hockey making the scheme more appealing to clubs by emphasising the potential of attracting new members, they are also encouraging clubs to use their own social media channels to help spread the word of the initiative further afield.

My own hockey club, Winchmore Hill and Enfield HC, has taken part in Back to Hockey this year, which has seen a massive positive impact within the club, as well as a growing interest in hockey from media within our local community. With the sports pages traditionally dominated by football and cricket, our local paper has helped us advertise the weekly sessions, which has widened our search for new ‘lapsed’ recruits. With the help of new creative content from the ‘This Girl Can’ campaign, there has been a focus on combining simple skill-based drills with games, which has helped to slowly introduce lapsed players back into the sport.

Not only have we gained new members who have already started playing in our summer league teams, attendees have loved the laid back, enjoyable style of each session, which has seen us retain 70% of attendees from the first sessions we ran. From my own experience of the campaign, I’ve noticed a huge positive effect it has had, not only on our club members volunteering to coach and umpire each session, but also on how much the lapsed players have grown in confidence since we launched our weekly Back to Hockey sessions a few weeks ago. This has been particularly evident in our female players.

New Marketing Approach

In marketing terms, England Hockey’s tie-up with ‘This Girl Can’ has allowed them to produce a variety of content with a similar creative look and feel. The content has been shared via the governing body’s social media channels, which the participating Back to Hockey clubs across the nation have reciprocated through their own channels. Aligning with the high-profile ‘This Girl Can’ campaign has given Back to Hockey a shot in the arm, and allowed them to reach a wider target audience than it would have done previously. Using copy and imagery which is both inviting and current, especially for a more predominant female audience, has allowed the campaign to become much more relatable for the lapsed players.

This new content has also seen England Hockey completely readdress their current marketing of the women’s team, which previously would have had the same approach as the men’s. England Hockey have not only identified that when they are promoting the women’s team to a female audience they shouldn’t be focusing on the physical nature of the sport, but also that they should be showcasing the sport in a different environment. Profiling the women’s team in articles like The Daily Telegraph’s recent piece has highlighted the current shift in perception of the sport, which has seen an increased appetite for televised coverage of matches and internationals to be played within the UK.

England Hockey and England Netball have created impressive and engaging initiatives that challenge the significant drop-off in sports participation between school and adult life, with England Hockey’s connection to ‘This Girl Can’ hugely aiding their cause.

Is this simple concept something that other sports can learn from and adapt to their own sports? I definitely think so.