In America, field hockey still toils in obscurity

Harold Raveche scans the crowd before refocusing his attention on the game below. His daughter Beth, sidelined with a leg injury, cheers on her teammates, as does the sparse audience behind her, but the encouragement from the fans is barely audible. Raveche has experienced this scene before — it is the same at Princeton, MIT and Penn, where he also had daughters who played. Simply put, few people are coming out to support field hockey.

Fewer than 10 Yale students came out to watch a recent game between the Elis and the Holy Cross Crusaders. The scant student section cheered on friends, entertained their field hockey recruits or simply grabbed a glimpse of the action as they crossed near the field.

“Most of the people here are very close friends with someone on the team,” spectator Brett Andrews ’08 said. “So they’re coming here to watch individuals, not necessarily the team.”

The average attendance through the first four home games was a paltry 108, and even this number may be inflated by rudimentary counting methods. The audience is largely made up of athletes’ parents, faculty, opposing fans and local high school players who are present at the game. Yale students almost never represent the majority of supporters.

The first issue for Yale students is that attending a home game requires both planning and effort. Students must catch a bus in front of Payne Whitney Gym, take the ten minute ride and walk an additional ten minutes to the farthest corner of the athletic fields.

“A one-and-a-half hour game can really be two-and-a-half or three hours in the end,” said Matt Lawlor ’08, one of the handful of fans at the Holy Cross game. “The games are not within easy reach.”

The second issue is that people simply don’t know when the games are being played.

“[Game times] are not well-publicized, the only way I found out about this game is through my friend on the team,” Jocelyn Keechner ’08 said.

Cara Watts ’07, who keeps statistics for the team, said that a larger number of fans will come out for a 7:00 game on Friday night. She suggested that the low attendance rate may be as much a product of competing events and time commitments as it is of communication.

The real problem, however, is arguably more cultural than it is logistical. Ask nearly anyone in the United States to name the world’s three most popular sports, and it is doubtful field hockey will ever be included among them. Yet field hockey ranks with soccer and cricket as the most universally popular games, buoyed by intense competition in countries like India and Pakistan where it serves as the national sport.

But field hockey, or simply hockey, as it is referred to in many regions of the world, has not caught on in the United States.

“We haven’t changed here,” Yale field hockey captain Heather Orrico ’07 said. “We never adopted an international philosophy.”

The American game is regionally centered. The most intense support and popularity extends from Massachusetts down the Eastern seaboard to Virginia and pretty much stops there. The best programs tend to be in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, though states like Maryland and Delaware are slowing growing field hockey prowess.

“In Colorado, where I’m from, nobody has any idea about field hockey, it’s such an East Coast thing,” said Nathan Gault, who also attended the Holy Cross game.

Field hockey is not a top-tier sport on the West Coast. In fact, it’s really not a second- or third-tier sport. California is a state generally singled out for its bevy of talented athletes and teams, yet it has only three Division 1-A field hockey programs: Stanford, Cal and Pacific. Traditional powerhouses USC and UCLA do not have field hockey teams.

“On the West Coast, there are so many people who tell me they’ve never heard of field hockey” said Rachel Mozenter, a freshman forward at Stanford University. “In most parts of California there are no high school teams and that affects the colleges here, too.”

Field hockey is not usually billed as a “traditional sport” and is not nearly as ubiquitous as football, baseball or basketball. As a result, its rules and game play are not as well understood, giving people less of an incentive to come out to games.

Gault, watching his first-ever field hockey contest, acknowledged the differences between more basic field sports such as soccer and ultimate frisbee and an intricate game like field hockey. For example, every time the ball touches someone’s foot, play is stopped by the referee. And once the ball becomes airborne, the whistle blows again to prevent a “potentially dangerous” situation.

This can be especially true for men who have virtually no opportunities to play competitively in the United States. Although men’s field hockey is wildly popular in countries like Australia, it is virtually non-existent here, even on the East Coast.

“Guys don’t play it in the U.S., so they don’t understand it,” Holy Cross midfielder Nora Happny said.

Midfielder Orrico has played the game for much of her life, including her four years at Yale, and she recognizes the detriment of not having American male participation. She views the field hockey community as almost cult-like in its limited circle of supporters. The idiosyncrasies of the game coupled with the lack of prospects for both male and female players have a clear effect on attendance and support.

“I truly believe field hockey is probably the hardest game to follow as a spectator,” Raveche said. “The rules are difficult and it can be very frustrating if the calls are not consistent.”

Andrews, who has come out to almost every game this season, knows how confusing the game can be if you do not know the rules or the strategy, but he feels a couple trips to the field and many questions later, field hockey does become less daunting.

“At certain levels of the game, the whistle never stops blowing,” University of Iowa forward Kelly Hondros said. “It can be a slow game and people may not see it as entertaining.”

Even at a Big Ten school like Iowa, with a field hockey program usually ranked in the top 20, the team still does not draw big crowds. It is a trend that extends across the country and does not go unnoticed by the athletes themselves.

“It’s kind of sad to look up in the stands and not see many people,” Orrico said. “But we just have to keep playing like we normally would.”

The sport’s popularity in the United States is on the rise, but still faces many challenges. The game will probably never achieve the same support that football, basketball, baseball and others enjoy, but that won’t stop its players from participating.

By the way, the Bulldogs are back at home Saturday, October 21, for a contest against the Quakers of the University of Pennsylvania.

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