The Ireland women's team have qualified for next summer's World Cup in London. FIH/Twitter/Getty
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'We have to pay €550 to play for our country and in a World Cup year still don't have a sponsor'

Hockey Ireland has been unable to put solid preparation plans in place for next year’s tournament as they search for commercial partners.

NINE MONTHS OUT from a first World Cup appearance in 16 years, Hockey Ireland is still searching for a main sponsor to help fund its high performance programme for the women’s national team.

The governing body, which operates on a shoe-string budget primarily made up of government funding, currently requests members of the international squad to pay an annual levy of €550 to underwrite the programme.

The lack of funding and uncertainty over a training schedule in the build-up to next July’s tournament has led to significant frustration among the playing group, with coach Graham Shaw unable to put any solid plans in place until he knows what resources are available.

“Over the last two or three years we’ve had to fundraise as a team to cover the levy as it was getting too difficult to come up with that money ourselves,” Chloe Watkins, the Ireland vice-captain, tells The42.

“It’s an extra thing hanging over your head and it’s difficult to compete with teams who have huge resources when we’re actually paying to play for our country.”

Hockey Ireland has made renewed attempts to secure a commercial partner in recent months, but two deals fell through after they failed to provide reliable participation numbers as talks reached an advanced stage.

The introduction of a new members registration system, which would provide the governing body with tangible and accurate data, was rejected by the Hockey Ireland board at its Annual General Meeting (AGM) last May.

In its four-year strategic plan, the governing body recognised the need to find a more sustainable and commercially viable funding model but has no commercial or sponsorship manager on its staff.

Chloe Watkins and Rocio Ybarra Ireland vice-captain Chloe Watkins. Presseye / Rowland White/INPHO Presseye / Rowland White/INPHO / Rowland White/INPHO

Furthermore, Sport Ireland’s ‘Rio Review’ report published in the aftermath of last year’s Olympics suggested the organisation could be more proactive in its pursuit of revenue opportunities.

Hockey Ireland’s fragile financial situation is no secret and the bulk of its income is from government funding.

This year, its high performance funding from Sport Ireland was increased to €530,000 on the back of the men’s qualification for the Olympics, while it was also allocated core funding of €260,000 for the year.

Additionally, Hockey Ireland received €35,000 as part of the Women in Sport programme and a one-off grant of €60,000 for what was defined as a ‘special project’ by Sport Ireland.

“We do understand it’s costly to run a governing body,” Watkins continues.

“But at the same time equally frustrating that we are required to essentially fund our own programme and everything we want to do has to be scaled back because of finances.”

Yet, earlier this month, Ireland’s qualification for a first World Cup since 2002 was confirmed by virtue of their seventh place finish at the World League in Johannesburg. It was the culmination of years of sacrifice, hard work and perseverance.

By becoming the 14th team to book their place at the prestigious tournament in London next summer, Shaw’s side erased the memory of previous near misses and, like their male counterparts who also qualified for next year’s World Cup, defied the obvious obstacles to compete on the world stage.

“It’s a huge achievement,” Watkins, who is playing her club hockey with Dutch side Bloemendaal this season, says. “We came so close to the Olympics and frustrations do creep in because you know you should be competing at big events.

“The potential and talent has always been there but it’s hard without a sponsor or any sort of backing because our coach [Shaw] is always telling us his plans but it’s all based on funding. He’d like to include more things but simply can’t because there’s no money available to him.”

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Preparations began in earnest this week. A three-game series against Scotland in Belfast served as a valuable exercise as Shaw looked to explore the depth of his squad with senior players like Watkins unavailable — but it also served to highlight the difficulties Hockey Ireland face.

As well as failing to have access to relevant data, the governing body has also struggled to convince potential sponsors of the appeal of being associated with the team, and sport in Ireland. Essentially, companies don’t see it as a worthwhile investment and that’s despite BT Sport’s live coverage of a World Cup event which is well on course to be a complete sell-out.

Hockey, like so many minority sports, is proving to be a tough sell, and that extends to the men’s team, who last year had to fundraise themselves in the build-up to their historic Olympic campaign. It isn’t exclusively a problem for the women’s side of the programme.

To that extent, Hockey Ireland has always faced difficulties in bringing commercial partners on board and has never been able to rely on any fixed revenue stream in its accounts. Electric Ireland, and formerly ESB, ended its long-standing partnership with the women’s squad back in 2014, while Ernst and Young are only interested in paying for the naming rights of the All-Ireland league.

The governing body, it says, has been ‘quite creative’ in its approach and opportunities such as individual match sponsorship and series naming rights have been explored. The problem, however, is exposure.

Ireland’s home schedule is bare — largely because the National Stadium is currently unfit for international hockey — and series like the one just finished against Scotland, which sees three games played on consecutive days at one venue, draws in a small crowd and little or no media coverage.

The hope, therefore, is that a company will recognise the value of investing ‘in the journey’ of this team, who will compete against the best nations in the world in front of thousands of spectators and a TV audience of millions.

Maurice Elliot celebrates with Shane O'Donoghue The men's national team also doesn't have a sponsor. Presseye / Mervyn McClelland/INPHO Presseye / Mervyn McClelland/INPHO / Mervyn McClelland/INPHO

Allianz’s continued investment in Paralympic sport and Aon’s sponsorship of the women’s national rugby team are two examples.

“We need a programme in place ASAP as girls are working full time,” Watkins stresses.

“We need to tell our employers to give them enough notice so we can work training around other commitments. At the moment, Graham can’t fully plan if he doesn’t know if he’ll have any money.

“A sponsor would completely change things because having that support is crucial when you’re playing on the world stage. Something really needs to be done if we want to compete because we know we have the ability to be successful and in qualifying as one of the 16 best teams in the world we have showed and proved that.

“We just need someone to believe in us.”

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