Thank you, Chairman, for introducing our delegation. That saves me reading the first paragraph of our presentation. We thank the joint committee for inviting us to present on the challenges facing minority sports and to talk about women in sport in Ireland. I will talk about the road we have travelled recently and highlight some of the opportunities and challenges facing us as a minority sport.
Hockey Ireland is the national governing body for the sport of hockey in Ireland, doing its work in all 32 counties of Ireland in leading and developing the sport. Hockey Ireland in its current form was established in 2000 as a result of the merger of the two pre-existing unions which governed men's and women's hockey separately. We are now joined as one organisation. Both pre-existing unions originated in the 19th century, in 1893 for the men and 1894 for the women. The men's Irish Senior Cup was first played for in the season of 1893–94, making it the oldest field hockey cup competition in the world and one of the oldest cups in sport in Ireland and perhaps in the world. The sport's 150 clubs and 280 schools are affiliated to Hockey Ireland through its branch network. The Irish Universities Hockey Association, which governs the sport in Ireland's university system, is also affiliated to Hockey Ireland.
We have a total of 26,351 registered players, 17,339 women and 9,012 men. Masters hockey is growing fast and makes it a sport for life. Hockey Ireland is funded through the following mechanisms: membership fees; grants from Sport Ireland, Sport Northern Ireland and the Olympic Federation of Ireland; and partnerships with sponsors. As is very particular to the minority sports we are not funded through TV revenues and receive only limited gate receipts. From the point of view of women in sport, we currently boast a 65% female participation share. However, there is much work to be done in other areas improving the female numbers. We are focusing at present on the leaders in our sport; with programmes developing female coaches and umpires supported by the women in sport funding initiative.
In 2016, for the first time in over 100 years for Irish Hockey, the Irish men's team competed in an Olympic Games and finished tenth out of the 12 teams competing. The year before, in 2015, the men stood on the podium with a bronze medal at the European Championships. The Rio result was not what we had hoped for and we were disappointed, but the experience of the games was important, and it inspired hockey in Ireland. In the evaluation after the games the lack of a proper high-performance structure in Hockey Ireland and uncertainty around funding were mentioned as factors affecting the result. The men had to work or study and fundraise at the same time as preparing for the games. Sport Ireland and Sport Northern Ireland funding improved significantly and has enabled Hockey Ireland to engage a full-time performance director, provide better support to the players and increase the number of times the national teams can train. The new national sports policy is extremely encouraging for the athletes and will have a significant impact on sport in Ireland. Sponsorship is growing but, compared with the funding we get from Government, still limited.
In August 2018, in London's Queen Elizabeth Park, the venue of the London games, the Irish women's hockey team won the silver medal at the International Hockey Federation, FIH, world cup. It was the most successful result ever for a senior team sport in Ireland. No doubt the team had risen to this level with far fewer resources and finances than most of the opposition, but it was proved that we can reach the highest level. Although we are a minority sport, the sport became instantly mainstream in the media and the team was met with a hero's welcome in Dublin, where 10,000 fans came to see their heroes. The viewing figures from RTÉ showed an average of 381,500 people watching that game with a share of 41% of all TV viewers at that moment, which is a pretty good figure.
The success had an immediate result - clubs had an influx of new members, or now have waiting lists for new members, or people became interested in the sport but there was no club in their area or no room in the club. To sustain the growth of the sport, Hockey Ireland has had to enhance its strategy to develop the sport at grassroots level with development officers, and more coaches and umpires. Clubs need facilities to play the sport and investment in hockey pitches spread over Ireland is crucial. The number of under-18s entering the sport has been growing steadily over the past eight years. However, year on year, the number of adults playing the sport remains level or is declining slightly. In our last session on future strategy we recognised changes in the way people spend their time and the influence lifestyle changes and new technology have. Our competition structure may need to move with the times, to shorten the engagement with the sport, or find other ways to reduce the time commitment of playing hockey regularly.
To promote the game, our grassroots introduction to hockey programmes, the hockey skills challenge and tricks for sticks attracted more than 16,000 players this year, but, as has been said, the growth at club level is hampered by capacity problems, as well as instances of insufficient numbers of skilled volunteers and club leaders. We are also proud of the development of para-hockey in Ireland, a format for hockey players with intellectual disabilities providing national and international competition in hockey. The silver medal for the women's team was not the end goal, this was on the road to something bigger, namely the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Last month, the Olympic qualification reached its climax in a two-game challenge, on goal aggregate, against Canada. The men travelled to Vancouver and missed out due to a controversial video umpire decision in the last seconds of the second game, reducing their 6-5 lead to 6-6 on aggregate with Canada winning 5-4 in the penalty shoot-out. The women played at home in Dublin. Hockey Ireland knew the interest in the games would be big and we installed a hockey pitch over the existing rugby pitch in the Energia Stadium in Donnybrook. It was only the second time ever that this technology was used, and it worked even in the torrential rain during the first game. After full time in the second match the score was 0-0 and it went to a penalty shoot-out. Ireland made a poor start to the shoot-out and found itself trailing 3-1, with Canada just one goal away from snatching the Olympic dream. Then the green army came back to win 4-3 when the shoot-out went to sudden death. The match also saw a record number in attendance with 6,137 spectators going through the gates on Sunday and on Saturday there was a similar number, the biggest crowd ever for a women's international team event in Ireland.
Nicci Daly, one of the players, who is also with us today, told RTÉ on the night: "It's everything. The whole process, it's always for the Olympics. We've come close in the past. This is the dream. This is everything to us. . . . and what a way to do it!" Meanwhile, captain Katie Mullen said: "I'm just so incredibly proud of this bunch of players. We have worked so hard, some of us have put in 10, 12 years, and it's also for all the players that have gone before us. All those who committed so much of their lives to international hockey and never made it to an Olympics. We are representing them. I am so delighted!"
The challenge now, and one of the points we want to make here today is that we must do whatever we can to support our athletes to maintain the level that this group has now achieved. We need to provide the athletes with world-class support and facilities and the ability for them to focus completely on their performance. The inspiration that the hockey players are giving as role models for young girls to take up hockey, or any other sport, is significant. It is a promotion for Ireland, it makes people feel national pride and it gets people moving and being healthier. The Government's investment in the new hockey pitch at the Sport Ireland campus will help our preparations for the games significantly. It is important to get fully conditioned to the surface the team will find in Tokyo. As one of the few top teams we can now practise on a pitch built to the exact same Poligras Tokyo GT standards as the Olympic arena. The facilities at the Sport Ireland Institute are world class and the envy of many nations. The joint approach between the Olympic Federation of Ireland and Sport Ireland in preparing for the games is significant and professional.
For minority sports, the Olympic Games are hugely important and even more so for team sports. We are guaranteed at least five games in the opening phase for the country to get behind the green army and based on the viewing figures of the Olympic qualification and 2018 FIH World Cup, the Irish public will be following the team on television in large numbers. The particular challenge of minority sports is that the interest in the sport will be at its highest at the Olympic Games, but commercial opportunities are limited as no team advertising is allowed at the games. However, the attention will be a huge driver for participation.
These are exciting times for Hockey Ireland but they are also challenging. While we have the opportunity to speak, there are a few other points that we and probably all Irish sports NGBs want to bring to your attention. First, NGBs are facing significantly increased costs in insurance, which unfortunately is money that we have to pay and cannot use for the development of the sport. Second, there may be ways of supporting the governing bodies by looking at the VAT regime for sport. Some of our expenses - and this, for instance, was highly relevant when hosting the Olympic qualifiers - are subject to VAT that we cannot recover. Finally, we get increased support from the commercial sector in the form of sponsorship but there is also significant interest in supporting the game at all levels through charitable donations and it would be great if tax benefits around such schemes could support the charitable activities of the federations.
I would like to hand over to Ms Lisa Jacob, a member of the board, who will finish our presentation with the board's perspective.