By Simon Orchard
To many Australians, high-level hockey has always been a bit like an eclipse of the sun.
It’s worth watching when it takes place – it’s just not something you expect to see all that often.
Every few years the country’s attention turns to the sky to watch one of the planet’s more wondrous astronomical events.
That’s about the same amount of time it takes casual hockey fans to catch Olympic or Commonwealth Games fever and reacquaint themselves with the sport they seem to enjoy but probably tucked in the bottom drawer some time ago.
According to the West Australian newspaper, the Kookaburras’ heartbreaking loss to Belgium in the gold medal match of the Tokyo Olympics was the only non-athletics broadcast to crack the top 10 most watched events by Aussies.
2.97 million people tuned in to see the boys win silver in Tokyo, the sixth most viewed event of the Games.
That number is no real surprise though as it’s usually around an Olympics – on the back of a groundswell of national pride – that hockey surges in popularity.
Couple those numbers with the fact the Hockeyroos are still arguably one of Australia’s most iconic sporting teams and you’ve got yourself a clear appetite for hockey in Australia.
But where do all the eyeballs go once the Olympic flame is ceremoniously doused?
It’s not necessarily that people have been switching off the hockey, more they could never find the right channel to continue enjoying the sport.
That’s about to change.
Three years ago Hockey Australia and seven Member Associations set about building a national league product that would engage and entertain the masses – the Sultana Bran Hockey One League was born.
New teams, new colours, a new window for competition and ultimately new hope it would launch hockey from support act to centre stage.
Just like the Big Bash and Super Netball have done in their sports, hockey’s premier first-class competition got the makeover it very much needed.
The first season was run and won in 2019 – but thanks to COVID it was somewhat of a false beginning.
It was a bit like laying the concrete slab of your brand-new home, then watching the rain pour down for months, halting any potential work on the rest of the place.
The foundation was laid for hockey’s first real chomp at a piece of the ever-crowded Australian sporting pie – but sadly no one got to have a big old bite.
Which is why the sophomore season of the Sultana Bran Hockey One League is so important. It promises to deliver more access, more airtime, more amazing moments and hopefully more eyeballs than ever before.
Plenty has changed in the three years since the league first shot onto our screens, but you only need to look at a couple of rival codes to maintain a sense of optimism.
The NRLW and AFLW competitions were still in their infancy when the NSW Pride men and Brisbane Blaze women took out the inaugural season of the Sultana Bran Hockey One League. Now both ladies codes are beginning to flourish.
In the same time, the Hockeyroos have re-emerged as bonafide medal hopes under the guidance of Katrina Powell and now have World Cup bronze and Commonwealth Games silver medals sitting on the mantle.
Young HC Melbourne midfielder Amy Lawton has thrust herself onto the global stage and is now arguably Australia’s best player, while Blaze defender Claire Colwill and Perth Thunderstick Karri Somerville have all the attributes to be defensive stalwarts for years to come.
The Kookaburras came agonisingly close to Olympic glory but flexed their muscle in Birmingham to bring home a seventh straight Commonwealth Games gold medal.
The likes of Aran Zalewski (Thundersticks) and Jake Whetton (Blaze) remain classy and committed to the green and gold, with the midfield duo of Josh Beltz (Tassie Tigers) and Flynn Ogilvie (Pride) providing a youthful punch in the engine room of arguably Australia’s greatest sporting team.
The coaching ranks for the upcoming season of the league are also full of talented tacticians and elite former players.
The likes of David Guest (Thundersticks men), Nikki Taylor (Blaze women), Luke Doerner (Tigers women), Brent Livermore (Pride men) and Phil Burrows (HC Melbourne women) will hold the clipboards for their respective sides this season, ensuring the rising stars of the game are in good hands.
Sultana Bran Hockey One League matches will predominately be held in primetime slots every Thursday (6:30pm), Friday (6:30pm) and Saturday (7:30pm) for the next seven weeks with both men’s and women’s sides playing in back-to-back double headers.
The action begins this Thursday, September 29 with HC Melbourne taking on the NSW Pride, with the league reaching a crescendo at the ‘Main Event’ finals weekend in Bendigo on November 19-20.
Every game is live on Kayo and for the first four rounds, Thursday night action will be on Fox Sports and simulcast on Kayo. All games will also go live into New Zealand on Sky Sport.
So from the comfort of your own living room or by punching your ticket at a local ground around Australia, current and future fans of Australian hockey are about to be treated to a super Spring of on-field action.
There will be naysayers out there, those that say it will never work or we’ve tried this before. I point them to some of the greatest success stories of one of our favourite mediums for renewed hope – as recent television history is littered with examples of delayed but inevitable success.
Cult hit Stranger Things was turned down by numerous networks before it finally was green lit and it has proven to be a ratings juggernaut. Perhaps one of the most critically acclaimed series of all time, Breaking Bad, had at least four knock backs before a network took a flyer on it and the rest is history. While the pilot of Game of Thrones was reportedly so bad it nearly didn’t make it to episode one.
Heck even Seinfeld had the word “weak” attached it to its initial offering. Now it holds a place as one of the most iconic TV shows of all time.
I’m not saying the Sultana Bran Hockey One League is going to be as successful as Seinfeld, but even Jerry and the gang took a few seasons to find their groove.