Popularity of Field Hockey
If you’re new to the sport of field hockey, you’ll be surprised to know that it has a massive following around the world. From the Euro Hockey League to the fields of India and Sri Lanka and the floodlight turfs down under, hockey has a passionate following in many areas. But where is it most popular?
Field hockey is most popular in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australasia. India has been a powerhouse in the sport for the longest, and it has a massive following. However, Belgium, which is currently the highest-ranked team globally, and other European areas could rival them for the widest support base.
There have been key events that have driven the popularity of field hockey in particular territories, which will help us understand its popularity in these areas.
The 1996 Summer Olympics opening ceremony, where Muhammad Ali lit the torch, was watched by an estimated 3.5 billion viewers, equating to a little under 40 percent of the world population at the time (source).
This goes to show just how popular the Summer Olympics are around the world. It is no wonder, then, that the Olympic committee is continuously evaluating the sports played.
Field hockey has been a permanent fixture of the Summer Olympics since the 1920 Games in Antwerp, Belgium. Prior to that, it also appeared in London’s 1908 Games, but the Olympics later dropped the sport due to a lack of international infrastructure.
To read more about the exciting history of how the game has evolved, take a look at the related article “Where Did Field Hockey Originate?“
India burst onto the men’s field hockey Olympic stage in 1928, with the men’s team winning a gold medal in their first-ever Olympic appearance. They followed this up with a further five consecutive gold medal performances.
To further assert their dominance in these performances, they did not even lose a match in any of the tournaments. Their first loss in the Olympics came at the hands of nearby country Pakistan, where they lost in the final game, earning them a silver medal.
This period of dominance, along with a bitter rivalry with their neighbours, did wonders for the sports popularity in Asia.
Even as their period of dominance began to dwindle, the sport did not decrease in popularity.
The decision to move the playing fields away from grass turfs to synthetic astroturf was made in the 1970s — the impact of which was noticeable straight away as the Indian national team’s results dropped from podium finishes to seventh place.
This decision appeared to favour developed countries that could afford to widely implement astroturf, as opposed to the less-developed nations that had more difficulty affording such accommodations.
This gulf was immediately noticeable, as the cost of installing astroturf would remain high for some time until advancements in the manufacturing process were made to make it more affordable for everyone.
Once playing fields were widely accessible, hockey began to regain momentum and increase its popularity based on viewership in areas like India again.
Perhaps a significant factor in field hockey’s popularity is how it appeals to both genders. While it is a physical game, it is still indirectly so, with players using more skill as opposed to brute strength to beat their opponents. This has helped more women to engage in the sport as well as men.
This has even led to the development of a whole new code of field hockey called mixed hockey. The 11-person team comprises five men and five women as the outfield players, with the goalkeeper allowed to be either gender.
While the sport was beginning to gain momentum in Great Britain before its worldwide spread, field hockey somehow transcended the Victorian restrictions of how women needed to conduct themselves, making it an incredibly popular pastime for women in the later 18th century.
The Irish Ladies Hockey Union was among the first national associations to be formed, with its creation in 1894 proving to be a catalyst for both the spread of the sport across the world and its popularity amongst both players and supporters.
Unlike other sports where there is a distinct gulf in popularity between the two genders, such as American football, field hockey has essentially been matched in popularity throughout its history.
However, women’s field hockey was only included in the Summer Olympics in 1980, some 50-odd years after men’s field hockey became a permanent Olympic fixture.
Incredibly, the Zimbabwean national team won the inaugural Olympic gold medal for women’s field hockey — their solo Olympic appearance in the sport.
Similar to India’s dominance in the men’s division, the Netherlands has the most prominent team in women’s Olympic field hockey history (source). They have accumulated three gold medals, two silvers, and three bronzes, finishing on the podium in all but one of their Olympic appearances.
While this kind of dominance can be disheartening for opposing countries, it does a tremendous amount for the sport’s popularity within that country.
One could argue that their continued dominance today is a result of young women observing and being inspired by those who did so well before them.
It is rare for a sport to be so accessible to both genders, which has played an enormous part in building the extensive popularity that field hockey enjoys worldwide.
In “Why Is Field Hockey so Popular in other Countries?“ we covered key changes that have made field hockey even more viewer-friendly and exciting to watch. These changes have undoubtedly had a positive effect on its popularity across the globe, too.
An essential addition to these changes has been exciting hockey leagues that have sprouted up across the world. One could argue that the most popular and well-supported of these leagues is the Euro Hockey League.
Unlike the Olympics, where national pride is at stake, the Euro Hockey League and others like it are an invitational competition at a club level (source). Much like other leagues that allow international player rosters, this decision has attracted top talent and the sponsorship that goes along with it.
The Euro Hockey League has been a significant influence in the development of field hockey in Europe.
While Great Britain is considered the birthplace of modern field hockey, it has always struggled to gain widespread support in other territories, among other popular sporting codes.
By creating a platform to showcase the sport, along with the sponsorship to attract some of the world’s best players, the Euro Hockey League has directly impacted the overall prominence of field hockey in most European countries.
This can be seen in the current International Federation of Hockey national rankings, where Belgium leads in the men’s rankings. In contrast, the Netherlands leads in the women’s (source).
Much like India’s struggle to adapt to the shift to astroturf, field hockey still struggles for mainstream attention. This contrasts sharply with the surprising reality that field hockey is considered the third most popular sport in the world (source).
A critical factor in this is sponsorship. Sports like association football, American football, and basketball do not struggle with popularity anywhere in the world and, therefore, are able to sell the airing rights for considerable fees.
Sadly, the same cannot be said about field hockey. It is rare for field hockey to be broadcast in the United States, and it is noticeably absent from many lists of US broadcasting rights.
The only exception to this is during the Olympic Games, which almost evangelizes the sport to networks in an attempt to garner support and viewership.
It is a conundrum — without support, networks cannot warrant airing less popular sports. However, less popular sports struggle to grow if broadcasters do not give them the necessary attention, so they need popular networks to achieve recognition.
Many voices call for the wider broadcasting of field hockey, particularly in nations with strong teams, as it can be used to inspire future generations of players. Australia, for example, has been very vocal about this topic (source).
Despite these obstacles, field hockey has still come a long way and continues to grow in support, albeit from a mainly grassroots level, even in places where the odds seem to be stacked against it like North America.
In Europe, field hockey has a significant following in Great Britain, Belgium, and the Netherlands. In contrast, further east, it has a strong following in India and Australia.
Field hockey continues to grow in popularity, cementing itself as a fast-paced, skill-driven sport that is as much fun to watch as it is to play. It has a rich history, as seen by its following in countries like India, but continues to reach new areas and grow its popularity.