Numbers dwindle on hockey fields

You wouldn’t know it, watching the dozens of kids running across the synthetic turf of the Footscray Hockey Club on a midweek evening in Melbourne’s west, but hockey is a sport slowly shrinking before our eyes.

At the end of last year, there were 191,175 registered players in Australia. The figure is marginally down this year and if the trend continues, will be down again next year. Every year, despite Australia’s fast-growing population, the game shrinks by about 1 per cent.

There is not a single reason why. In part, hockey merely reflects a broader trend, where people are increasingly choosing less structured forms of exercise over traditional, organised sport. Those in charge of hockey know a lack of government funding is also limiting opportunities for growth.

There is no secret to attracting new kids to the sport. Brendan Sheehan has been involved with the Footscray Hockey Club for more than 40 years and over that time, has ensured the club has an active presence at the local primary schools, so boys and girls as young as six can feel the satisfying thwack of stick meeting ball.

“It is not rocket science,” Sheehan says. “It is the most substantial way of getting your recruits.”

The bigger challenge hockey faces is keeping those recruits beyond a few years and developing the most talented ones into premier league, state and potentially, Australian players. Hockey Australia chief Matt Favier says this is where the government funding freeze confronting hockey is putting the sport’s future on ice.

“When your revenue isn’t changing and costs are going up, what suffers is the investment in the pathway,” he explains.

Prior to running hockey, Favier was the director of the Australian Institute of Sport.

When he talks of the pathway, he is referring to talented junior players that might be 10 years away from being considered for the national team. These are players Hockey Australia would like to support but can’t as nearly every scarce dollar of high-performance funding goes towards our men’s and women’s Australian teams.

This means it is left to parents and club fundraisers to meet the rising costs of interstate travel and accommodation for junior players picked in representative teams.

A member of the No.1 world ranked Kookaburras team receives about $40,000 a year in combined funding from Hockey Australia, the AIS, Commonwealth Games Australia and the Australian Olympic Committee. Members of the Hockeyroos, ranked fourth in the world, receive about $30,000.

Hockey Australia president Melanie Woosman says once inflation is take into account, today’s national squad players are paid less than 20 years ago.

“They are amateur athletes in terms of what they get paid but they are certainly professional in the amount of time they dedicate to the sport,” she says.

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