Last week, changes to the games rules were implemented at the annual 'Champions Trophy' event held in Melbourne. This event brings together the six best teams in the world to battle it out amongst each other for the ultimate title. But unfortunately, unlike at AFL & cricket matches, the grand stands were not bustling with supporters.
Australia's national team, The Kookaburras have consistently remained in the top six world rankings, taking home medals at both Olympic and World Cup levels.
Over the years several rule changes have affected the game, bringing it to where it is today. During the 1980s, the 'long corner' was converted to a sideline free hit, the offside rule was cut out and the obstruction rule diminished to a 'third man' rule. However, although these changes improved the quality of the game, the umpire's whistle still continued to blow and interrupt the flow of the proceedings.
India and Pakistan, once the giants of field hockey, have been taken over by European teams. In the 70's the Europeans developed their own soccer-like defensive style of play and 'set' penalty corner mechanisms helped them score goals. This created controversy over the way these new rules were operating.
At the same time as all these rule changes were coming into play, artificial pitches were introduced ensuring anyone could stop the ball by placing a hockey stick on the pitch. The skills that had made the sub-continent players so famous before were pretty much nullified overnight.
In the decades since then we have seen rule change after rule change in an attempt to keep the playing field 'level' worldwide and now, new rules have come into play focusing mainly on engaging more spectators to improve the global attractiveness of the sport.
One of the rule changes affected the 'free hit'. Amendments mean that when free hits are awarded, the player can 'play on' as long as the ball is stationary in the first millisecond, and opponents are five metres away. This has sharpened up the speed of the game.
On innumerable occasions during the Champions Trophy the striker took the ball from the free hit spot and rather than passing, he ran the ball past three or four opponents and in many instances scored. Defenders are now at a disadvantage and the rule change has given the attackers the edge.
More good news for players is the end of the 'professional foul' where a defender would deliberately 'stick check' or obstruct to hold up play. Now the attackers can simply run on with the ball and strive to score or receive a penalty.
Another major rule change is the penalty corner 'set play' itself. If a defender breaks from the goal line before the whistle to initiate the set play, that player is sent to the half way line. This has put a quick stop to defender ploys of holding up play and disturbing attacking set pieces, making the game faster and more exciting.
So what is answer; how can the culture of field hockey be changed so that it becomes more of a spectator sport? Some people believe the answer lies in good marketing and that administrators hold the key to unlock that door that will draw in more supporters. By following AFL, Rugby League, Cricket and Soccer campaign initiatives, Hockey's profile could be lifted considerably.
Marketing is the key to the success of many things in life. We see its value when looking at popular 'hit' songs and advertising, where a racy messages are put in 30 seconds time slots & repeated over and over again. It's circular. If people KNOW about it due to promotion, then the crowds come in force. Sponsorship will follow the crowds, and the crowds will follow the sponsorship.