Why Is Field Hockey Not Popular?

Why Is Field Hockey Not Popular?

Field Hockey Popularity

Field hockey may be ranked among the world’s most popular sports, but it falls into insignificance in North America. It’s more popular in India and the Netherlands, with countries such as Australia, Spain, Germany, and England also fielding competitive teams. Still, somehow it doesn’t manage to achieve the profile of other sports.

The main reason why field hockey appears unpopular is that it is not a strictly professional sport and doesn’t have the necessary financial backing to build a high profile. Additionally, it can be seen as elitist and a predominantly women’s sport in some parts of the world, which further dilutes its support.

In this article, we’ll examine how field hockey spread from its origins to other parts of the world and how this affected its popularity. We’ll also consider other factors about the game that make it less popular, specifically, in North America.

Origins and Growth of Field Hockey

There is evidence of ancient forms of field hockey thousands of years ago in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Iran. However, the modern game developed in England in the middle of the 18th century, and the sport initially grew among England’s private boys’ schools, referred to as “public” schools in England (source).

By the end of the 19th century, the game was played by women in English universities and schools.

Hockey was first played in the Olympics in 1908 and, for the following four Olympics, was alternately dropped and reinstated before becoming a permanent fixture on the Olympic program in 1928. Women’s field hockey only made it to the Olympic program in 1980.

The International Hockey Federation (FIH) was founded in 1924, with Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Hungary, Spain, and Switzerland as founding members. Today, there are 137 national hockey associations affiliated with the FIH.

Given the game’s European roots, it is understandable why it has prospered in Europe. British colonialists brought the game to India in the 1800s, and hockey quickly became popular there. India was the first non-European nation to join the FIH, and they went on to win six consecutive Olympic medals between 1928 and 1956.

The game also became popular in other former British colonies such as Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, South Africa, and Egypt as it was introduced to those regions by the British forces.

A glance at the last five Olympic gold winners will give a good insight into where the game is most popular.

Year Men’s Field Hockey Winners Women’s Field Hockey Winners
2016 Argentina Great Britain
2012 Germany Netherlands
2008 Germany Netherlands
2004 Australia Germany
2000 Netherlands Australia

Introduction of Field Hockey to North America

As with other colonial outposts, field hockey was brought by the British Army to Canada. The first recorded game was played in Vancouver in 1896.

An English woman named Constance Applebee is credited with introducing field hockey to the US in 1901. As a founding director of the American Field Hockey Association and Director of Physical Education at Bryn Mawr College, Applebee ensured that field hockey gained traction, particularly in Pennsylvania (source).

Field hockey in the US is still played predominantly on the east coast today.

The US men’s field hockey team last competed in the Olympics in 1996, finishing last. The US women’s field hockey team has competed six times at the Olympic games, with their best result being a bronze medal in 1984.

Professional Sport and Money

By definition, professional sports are those where players receive money for playing. The money generated by media and supporters allows players to be paid and then make the sport their primary career and commit to the training and dedication required to excel.

Field hockey is mostly an amateur sport. Some of the clubs in India, the Netherlands, Spain, Germany, and the UK have professional leagues, and some of the most high-profile players earn further endorsements from sponsors.

However, with a few exceptions at the top of this list, the pay in field hockey is generally not sufficient to support oneself and certainly not a way to accumulate wealth. There just isn’t enough money in the game.

This is shown through television coverage, where field hockey is mostly ignored. Even in countries where the game is widely played, other sports get significantly more broadcast time and money. Top field hockey players receive a fraction of the earnings compared to their peers in sports like basketball and soccer.

Is It a Girls’ Game?

Field hockey is not an exclusively girls’ sport at all, but, unfortunately, this misconception has influenced public perception. It is equally popular in Europe among both women and men when one looks at club membership statistics.

However, it is often perceived as a sport played in English girls’ schools, which is perhaps the stereotype’s source.

This may be because more sports are competing for boys’ attention, such as cricket, soccer, and rugby. Nonetheless, it is played on six continents by both men and women, and it’s ranked as the third most popular sport globally by participation (source).

In North America, it is primarily perceived as a sport for women. In Canada, field hockey is played mainly by girls at school, but it is played by both men and women in adult leagues.

There are more than 300 college scholarships offered in women’s field hockey in the US, and none offered to men. These field hockey scholarships cover a portion of the fees and provide opportunities to play field hockey at a very high level.

There are no male high school teams in the US and no NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) teams either.

A Girls' Game?

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Title IX

It would be natural to wonder why athletic scholarships are not offered to men in the US. This is because of Title IX, a federal law that seeks to balance gender participation in sport. Title IX requires that men and women have an equal opportunity to participate in sports. This doesn’t mean identical sports, but rather a comparable opportunity (source).

As a result, to balance the enormous amounts spent on men’s sports such as football and baseball, field hockey has become a sport that is restricted to women only in US colleges. Consequently, owing to the lack of opportunity, field hockey for men has not developed as a sport in the US.

Is Field Hockey Elitist?

Field hockey is seen as an expensive sport, and this, coupled with its private school roots, makes it seem elitist. Many state schools can’t offer the sport because of the high costs involved in installing and maintaining a hockey pitch.

This has even led to declining popularity in hockey-playing countries such as India. As field hockey has moved away from grass fields to astroturf pitches, so it has become less accessible to the general public. However, the growth of multi-use pitches that can accommodate many sports makes this less of an issue.

Nonetheless, there is almost no field hockey played within cities and urban areas in the US (source). USA Field Hockey has put various programs in place by to try and address this and bring field hockey into areas where it has not been represented before.

The sport itself is not particularly expensive, requiring only a stick and protective gear. It’s more about the stigma than the practicalities, and players and supporters will have to work hard to overturn this.

Is Field Hockey Elitist?

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Competition from Other Sports

When young players are introduced to sports, it is often by chance that they end up selecting one over another. With the tremendous amounts of attention given to other sports in the media, it is only natural that young athletes are drawn to these sports.

In North America, field hockey is a fall sport, which means that it competes with football, soccer, cross country, ice hockey, and lacrosse, among others. This makes it very challenging for the sport to attract the best athletes, especially in an environment that values other sports more highly.

Why Should Field Hockey Get More Attention?

Most supporters of the game believe that field hockey should get more attention. This is because it’s a challenging game that is spectator-friendly and accessible to watch and play. Field hockey is exciting to watch because it’s fast-paced and requires incredible fitness and skill to perform at the game’s top levels.

An accomplished hockey player can execute stickwork that is incredible to observe, maneuvering a small ball with a stick in unbelievable ways. It’s also an Olympic sport, which gives it an edge over some other sports. The US last won an Olympic field hockey medal in 1984, when it came third at the Los Angeles Olympics.

Field hockey can be played by anyone, at almost any age, and at multiple levels. This makes it very inclusive, and a player can enjoy the sport for many years. Field hockey clubs are also renowned for being very sociable and fun, and the sport teaches the valuable skills of teamwork and communication.

Final Thoughts

Field hockey is a highly skilled game that can be enjoyed by any age, gender, or ability level. It seems to have suffered an unfair lack of popularity, mainly owing to its history and the fact that it hasn’t had sufficient financial backing to catapult it into the limelight.

However, as a sport, it deserves some consideration, and its top players deserve admiration for the dedication they show in learning a sport that isn’t supported by adoring fans and lucrative contracts.