“Local sports club sponsorship is a hugely competitive space”
For the latest installment of our “Pitch-side” interview series, we speak to James Relph, a member of Guildford Hockey’s board, on the club, his role and how they go about working with sponsors.
caytoo: What’s your role at the club?
James: My role covers a few areas, I’m on the board and predominantly focus on fundraising and sponsorship. I also help a lot with the junior coaching and overseeing adult coaching. I also still play for them.
caytoo: How old is Guildford Hockey Club?
James: It was founded in 1912, so is over a hundred years old now. In that time it’s moved location a few times, it was once at Woodbridge Road in the middle of town but moved out to Broadwater School when we developed our own astro pitches.
caytoo: What do you offer sponsors in broad terms?
James: What we try to do is reflect the fact that we’re a local club. We have many local partners who’ve signed up to our partnership sponsorship offering. As a community partner, someone can sponsor one of the adult or junior teams. Let’s say it’s the mighty U10 Girls, the partner/sponsor can buy some shirts for the age group and get access to a whole load of parents and local exposure. We regularly have about 500 juniors playing and sponsors can promote their services/products at training or game day and push their content on our website and weekly newsletter. We have a lot of social media activity and we’ve also got pitchside banners and we produce an annual club brochure in which they can advertise. There are also good photo opportunities with the local press.
caytoo: What’s the audience of the club?
James: Hockey is very much on the rise. There has been a huge growth in player numbers – from 150 juniors to 600+ in five years, and we now have around 1,200 parents linked to the club. Of the 600 juniors, it’s probably a 50/50 split between state and private school. We are working with local state schools to promote hockey at primary and secondary level. We also have excellent links with the many private schools and have a wide range of supporters locally.
In terms of adults we have seven men’s teams and five ladies teams. Adult players range anywhere from 14-15 year old juniors playing adult hockey, all the way up to Vets at 70 years old!
We’ve have a very wide spread of ages playing and a whole load of different types of people. One age range we are looking to increase and attract are 20 to 25 year olds. When colts (junior players) head to university it’s often hard to bring them back. We have some players from Surrey University and would like to develop this relationship further. The massive junior section and the large amount of vets means we’re relatively light on 20-30 year olds. However, we’re addressing this now and are recruiting new adults for pre-season. We also have a number of players from overseas who also coach in the adult and junor sections (South Africa/Argentina links this year).
caytoo: What league do you sit in?
James: The Guildford Mens 1st XI were a Premier League club in 2007. We’ve gone down a couple of leagues since and are now in South Premier B. We narrowly missed out on promotion last year and are focused on attaining this in 2019. The men have stabilised and are on the way back up having had two quite hard seasons. The Ladies 1st XI are very much on the up. They’ve been promoted a couple of times in the last few years and have aspirations of getting promoted again this coming year.
In some ways our fortunes mirror the national sides. GB women winning in Rio in 2016 was a massive achievement whilst the men struggled but they have the talent to be a top five team.
As you mentioned, women’s sport is experiencing a boom. Hockey playing numbers are increasing on the back of the Rio 2016 success. The number of females playing football are on the up, while rugby and cricket are seeing massive rises. It’s a hugely positive story.
caytoo: So the club is in good health?
James: Yes. I think the juniors, particularly, are doing super well. For example, the Under 16 Boys came second in the national finals (indoor and outdoor). The U18 boys won the national indoor title and the Mercian Premier League. In the last few years we’ve won several national titles with boys and girls and regularly make regional and Surrey cup finals.
We have a lot of kids starting hockey and I think we could soon be over 700 juniors. With adults, the ladies are definitely on the rise again with Shay O’Connell. The men’s team, coached by Gary Boucher, nearly got promoted last season and will push again this year. It’s quite an important season because with the World League, which has been pushed by the International Hockey League, they’re now trying to get GB players playing together more often. This will mean a re-organisation of the domestic leagues and provide us with even more of an incentive to get promoted. It will be interesting to see what happens while the extra TV coverage and exposure the sport gets will be great.
Hockey has always been a true Olympic sport in that it’s basically amateur and it has a four-year cycle. We need to get more exposure to top-level clubs. As we see in the European Hockey league (EHL) the standard is excellent and a lot of people who watch other sports like rugby and football would be amazed by the standard in hockey now. The key is attracting those viewers. BT has done a good job of getting some of the international and European cup games on the TV but the numbers aren’t huge.
I think hockey has a great opportunity. Whilst the football World Cup has been stunning, numbers are down in football from a playing perspective whereas hockey is on the rise and I think there is room for another sport. The Vitality Hockey World Cup also shows the appeal of the game in the UK and globally.
caytoo: What sponsors are involved with the club?
James: I’ll give you a bit of context first. We very much promote ourselves as a community club.
We have performance level, i.e. the people that want to play for their regional, county junior teams and/or advance to the Mens/Ladies first teams. We’re obviously aiming to try and get back up to the Premier League in the long term. We’ve also got a lot of people who just want to play hockey. That’s great to see and the club very much has a social vibe as well.
We’ve got a quite an array of sponsors. We have a lot of links and partnerships with local schools including RGS Guildford, Charterhouse, Guildford High School and Cranleigh School. We also have a range of national firms that sponsor us at a local level. Wagamamas came on board last year through a company called SNAP sponsorship. Wagamama has been a great joint venture. We’ve had a lot of meet ups at Wagamama’s in Guildford so it’s got a nice local angle and they’ve obviously had some good PR and advertising on the back of it.
One of the best arrangements we’ve had to date is with a company called Silent Pool who are known for their breakthrough gin. They’re an emerging business in Guildford but have now won national and international awards. It’s quite a nice story given one of the three founders used to play hockey at the club and it’s great to see that business grow and flourish.
We also have sponsorship from smaller local firms like Wattle & Daub, an interiors firm in Godalming, plus Top-Guards who provide bespoke gumshields. It’s great to have both local and national sponsors who help fund the club.
Attracting sponsors/partners in a voluntary club is hard work but rewarding. None of the board are paid, they all do it in their own time which, when you have a day job as well, can be hard.
caytoo: What do the sponsors get by being involved?
James: We’ve got quite a few channels open to them. We get excellent hits on our website and all our social media. In addition they get brand recognition from their name being on the shirts or training kit or by the side of the pitch. Really, what they are showing is support for a local club with a large membership. As way of context, we probably have the fifth or sixth biggest junior hockey club in the country and have over 200 adults. We have also given sponsors the chance to show their products on match day and, previously, have had local car dealers display their latest models at the club.
caytoo: Who would be your dream sponsor to bring on board?
James: That’s quite a hard question. Obviously, the schools are good but they’re local and have limited budgets to promote themselves.
We have had local car dealerships in the past. Kit manufacturers would also be great as partners. We’ve got a great relationship with Hawkins Sport and now Adidas are really pushing their ranges across the hockey scene. I think estate agents, from a national perspective, would also be a great source of potential sponsors. We’ve also had enquiries from property developers who want to promote a local venture.
I’m agnostic of any specific sponsor or segment. What we would like is somebody who is genuinely interested in developing junior and senior hockey. Hockey has a great chance to continue to grow in terms of playing numbers and elite level international and club teams.
caytoo: What are the main barriers you’ve faced over the years in attracting sponsorship?
James: There are several barriers.
Firstly, the big lesson learned when I first started doing this is people start their planning cycles early. Also, sponsors often have historical ties so they often just roll contracts on an annual basis and stay with the same person. I also coach at the cricket club and they stayed with the same sponsor for years and years and had a great relationship. So, as soon as you go and ask them for a winter sponsorship arrangement they’re less keen because their budgets are all allocated.
Overall, budgets are harder to secure from national firms. We had a good arrangement with a national car dealership in Guildford in the past but all their budgets were reduced nationally.
Local sponsorship is a hugely competitive space and you’re competing against other sports that, in some cases, got more exposure. You are probably dealing a little bit with bias from people on certain sports. For instance, the whole “jolly hockey sticks” thing in that it’s only played by people in the middle class for private schools is one assumption some folks make. Hockey’s challenge is to get back into the state schools as it was a well-established sport there 20-30 years ago.
The whole question of state school sport is a wider question. At Guildford, we are trying to promote and set up a development league into the state schools in partnership with Dan Fox our Head of Junior Coaching. The aim here is to provide hockey coaching in local state schools and to raise the profile of the sport locally.
caytoo: What are your views on how hockey players can build a brand/career once their playing days finish?
James: It’s an interesting issue. Sam Quek (GB defender) obviously did really well with the TV opportunity she had on ‘I’m a celebrity, get me out of here’. Kieran Bracken, the ex-England and Saracens rugby player, had a similar experience via ‘Dancing on Ice’. He’s actually now better recognised from this programme than his rugby career and that shows the power of TV exposure.
The challenge for the hockey players is to get that type of exposure. But as you’re now seeing a lot of big brands are seeing the benefit of pushing, largely, an amateur sport. A lot of these GB squads have got amazing stories to tell, coming from a wide range of backgrounds. They are not only amazing athletes but also amazing people.
Many have gone on to university or have had to develop a career. They don’t all come from one type of background. There is more diversity in hockey than people realize. The challenge is getting their ‘foot in the door‘ with a sponsor or the media and the main opportunity to get exposure for them is still the Olympics and the World Cup.
Then you’ve got people like Simon Mason, who was on the British Olympic Council and played hundreds and hundreds times for GB and runs Mercian, a well-known UK hockey brand.
Unless you have won the Olympics and had the exposure that brings, it’s hard to become a known ambassador in the mass market. Quek was fortunate she got a break on TV and she’s making the most of it.
caytoo: And one final prediction for Guildford Hockey Club?
James: I think we will continue to grow from a junior perspective. We will keep on challenging the top clubs like Surbiton and Beeston.
I think our men’s team will aim to get promoted this year and then, in the longer term, keep on improving so one day we get back to the National League. I think our women will continue to be on the rise and get promoted again this year, so onwards and upwards really.
However, our club is about all the teams. The key is to get more people of all abilities and backgrounds playing the sport. Strategically and in the longer term we could be at a new home or add another pitch at Broadwater and have closer ties with Surrey University.
If you’re interested in partnership opportunities with Guildford Hockey Club, contact James via at email@example.com.