When Des Cahill called on potential benefactors to “#coughup”, circling the Green Army’s “actively seeking sponsorship” biography line, it gave the sport one of its rare moments in the spotlight.
Most of those moments of extended interest, though, seem to revolve around financial issues rather than the sustained period of achievement.
That the tweet was shared more widely than the Irish women’s qualification for the 2018 World Cup in London is instructive.
The Irish women have not had a sponsor since 2014. For the men, the last main sponsor goes back far further despite their historic qualification for the 2016 Olympic Games after 108 years of waiting.
For Rio, they went on a fundraising mission, raising over €225,000 to support their preparations to allow the players a semblance of a full-time training schedule to take on their full-time professional opponents.
For Irish defender Hannah Matthews, it was a massive eye-opener as the reaching of the promised land did not bring the promised riches.
“What happened with the men was a shock and brought people down to earth,” she told the Irish Examiner.
“We kind of thought once we qualified for a major tournament, there would be a sponsor ready and waiting. That was really disappointing for them but also for us.”
It means that she and her teammates “remain hopeful” that a top-line supporter can be found in the months ahead but they are “realistic that we might have to fundraise”.
In the recent past, the women’s side has run a successful golf classic and a less successful series of coaching camps to offset personal contributions of €550 each player must raise to be part of the programme.
The sense is that, for the women, particularly, there will never be a better time to provide a return on an investment with the tournament in London, the home of the Olympic champions and a move away from the pay to play model.
So what is in it for sponsors? Well, the World Cup actually seems a far easier sell than the 2016 Games for potential benefactors. Rule 40 excluded non- approved “Olympic-related items” from marketing themselves around the Games with a black-out period from nine days before and three days after the event in Rio.
With no branding opportunities on the Olympic Council of Ireland-issued clothing and RTÉ only confirming their broadcast schedule three weeks before the Games, sponsors were reticent to come forward given such limited visibility. Indeed, a sports nutrition company associated with captain David Harte had to pull a planned campaign when the restrictive protocols were laid out to them.
London in 2018 is a better sell with the International Hockey Federation allowing several shirt sponsor slots.
All matches will be broadcast live on BT Sport – likely to be picked up by eir Sport as a result in Ireland. Crowds are also likely to dwarf the empty stands of Rio. Over 100,000 people entered the ticket ballot for London 2018, guaranteeing a soldout stadium for every session.
Significant support, as coach Graham Shaw outlined this week, would make a crucial difference in “levelling the playing field”.
“Getting a sponsor would make a huge difference and level the playing field for us internationally. At the moment, 11 of the world’s top 16 teams are nearly full-time, training together three to four-times-a-week, which we can’t do.
“A sponsor would help get people out of work to do a full-time programme, particularly nearer the World Cup, and would also put a few more tours in place and invest in important services like a full-time nutritionist and psychologist.”
For Matthews – daughter of former Irish rugby international Philip – she works as a substitute teacher, foregoing full-time hours to pursue the sport. In 2017 to date, she has been involved in over 70 days worth of tournaments and training trips across four continents and several countries since January.
In between, the 26-year-old has “worked every day I was home, whenever I could” to support her hopes of reaching the top level.
“I look at it as a once in a lifetime opportunity. To play at this level is such a great challenge and definitely something I would like to do as long as I can.”
The viability of it long-term, though, remains a constant juggling act. Teammates Nikki Evans, Chloe Watkins, and Anna O’Flanagan have all taken career breaks to focus solely on hockey. But, as the Irish men saw in 2017, employers can only support such situations for so long before reigning in the leave taken.
Despite the challenges, both national sides have been consistently on the rise in recent years. The women, ranked 16, beat three world top 10 sides and qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 2002 and they want to keep that trajectory. The men also qualified – ending a 28-year wait – doing so on a combined Sport Ireland package of €530,000 along with core funding of €260,000.
By contrast, Great Britain’s programme equates to £4 million (around €4,479,000) per year with all players contracted on a full-time basis. Other countries like the Netherlands and Belgium train together from Sunday to Wednesday before dispersing to their clubs. Irish sessions often start before work in the morning and on a regional basis where possible.
“If we look at who we played this summer, the likes of England, Japan – teams we came so close to beating – taking the lead and pushing them all the way with our small budget,” Matthews adds. “It is frustrating that they have every means possible at their disposal and we are able to compete with them. It’s not a talent thing. We need more matches, more time to work on the physical aspects.
“No one is expecting this extra money to go into our pocket. We just want to fund a programme so that we can be at our best. That’s all we want and make the playing field that bit more level.”
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