Sporting Declaration: A stick and a promise

THE thought struck me about five minutes into the Kookaburras’ opening match at the London Olympics – hockey is a sport just waiting for someone to take a punt, invest some money, and promote it.

I saw literally dozens of events in London. More than 50, at a rough guess.

I ticked nearly every box.

Opening ceremony. Tick.

Usain Bolt. Tick.

Michael Phelps. Tick.

Sally Pearson. Tick.

The Dream Team. Tick.

Velodrome cycling, athletics, swimming, diving, BMX, triathlon, water polo, handball ... tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.

Since the greatest sporting extravaganza in history finished two weeks ago, I have been asked a number of times what was the event I enjoyed the most.

My reply each time has been the men’s individual 10-metre platform diving final.

Those guys are unbelievable. What they do is insane.

And whereas most of the diving finals were done and dusted halfway through because the leader (usually Chinese) was so far in front, the 10m decider went right down to the 72nd and last dive of the night.

The home crowd was going berserk, cheering for Team GB heart-throb Tom Daley, and while he finished with bronze, after his final dive he was in the gold-medal position.

For pure theatre, American David Boudia’s boilover win against China’s apparently invincible Qiu Bo was my personal highlight. Something I’ll remember forever.

But in terms of a consistently entertaining spectacle, I can’t go past the hockey.

Before London, hockey was a sport in which I had minimal interest.

I played a few games as a kid but cricket and the football codes, in particular rugby league and soccer, were my passion.

Watching the Kookaburras was a delightful surprise.

I attended five of their seven games and loved every minute of it.

Hockey at that level is a fast, spectacular game. The skill level of the players is breathtaking and there are no lulls or flat periods, just up-tempo, end-to-end attack.

I think the least number of goals I saw in any 70-minute game was four.

Sadly, I didn’t get to see any of the women’s competition, but I’m sure it was no less of a spectacle. As a comparison, the week after the Olympics ended I attended Arsenal’s opening game of the Premier League season, against Sunderland, and it seemed almost in slow motion.

Yet the amazing thing about the Kookaburras, who finished with a bronze medal that most expected would be gold, is that most of their players scarcely make a dollar out of the sport.

Aussie skipper Jamie Dwyer (pictured) – the Darren Lockyer of his sport – has been regarded as the world’s best player of the past decade, perhaps even of all time.

I was told that through endorsements and a professional contract playing in Holland, he might earn up around $150,000 or $200,000 a year.

That wouldn’t even buy you an Origin player in the NRL.

Many of Dwyer’s teammates play for peanuts. They get small AIS grants and juggle their hockey commitments with uni degrees or part-time work.

Eventually, as in many Olympic sports, the athletes reach a point where their priorities change. They need to earn a proper income.

There is, admittedly, an Indian Premier League competition in the pipeline, in which players might be able to pocket $30,000 or $40,000 for a few months’ work.

But compared to other sports it is chicken feed.

And that is why I reckon a canny promoter could revolutionise hockey.

It is a great product and Australia’s elite players are as good as any in the world.

It wouldn’t cost a fortune to set up a Big Bash-style league, based on state franchises bolstered by international guest players, and Foxtel is surely always looking for content to fill their three sports channels.

A pipedream? Perhaps.

But let’s face it, Foxtel is happy to televise A-League soccer. And there are no athletes of Jamie Dwyer’s calibre running around in the A-League -- and there never will be.

As Kookaburras coach Ric Charlesworth said after his team beat Great Britain 3-1 in the bronze-medal play-off: ‘‘Our game is pretty progressive ... I’m optimistic about where it’s going.

‘‘It’s never going to compete with football, perhaps, but it can have an important niche.

‘‘And it’s a game which is about skill and speed, not necessarily physical brawn.

‘‘So that’s attractive to lots of people, and both girls and boys play it.

‘‘So there are a lot of things that are good about it.’’

Hear hear, Ric. Count this columnist down as a convert.

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