Pels and Hockey Ireland grasping unique chance to promote the sport with ambitious qualifiers project

Hockey Ireland CEO Jerome Pels says the sport is grasping a “unique set of circumstances” at the launch of the ambitious project to host November’s Olympic qualifiers at Energia Park in Donnybrook.

The plan sees capacity rise to over 6,000, up from the 1,500 that could fit into Belfield and the 1,200 tally from Banbridge’s temporary stadium put in place for the FIH Series earlier this summer.

If it sells out, it would be the biggest hockey crowd in Ireland in quite some time, outdoing the 5,000 that enjoyed the 1995 World Cup final in Belfield.

The project involves laying a costly drop-in Polytan pitch on a temporary basis which will take up to four days to lay and another two days to lift.

Emily Beatty, Leinster Rugby CEO Michael Dawson, Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Shane Ross T.D., Hockey Ireland CEO Jerome Pels, and Megan Frazer, right, at Energia Park. Pic: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

For Pels, he says it is a pivotal moment for the sport as they look to build a meaningful legacy following last summer’s World Cup.

“Everyone tells us there is interest; the phone hasn’t stopped ringing since the qualifiers [against Canada] were announced, asking where they can buy tickets,” Pels said.

“It’s a unique set of circumstances which justifies the plan. We know how many came to welcome the side home [on Dame Street], something we never expected – 10,000 to see the team who were not even playing. It’s a unique moment when the side are at this high level and have that home Olympic qualifier in this [simple] format.

“After the World Cup, the public wondered when this was happening. They told us the players are always abroad – ‘when can we actually see them?’”

The cost is pitched at below €250,000 with savings made by leasing the exact surface pioneered by England Hockey at the Twickenham Stoop earlier this summer.

Construction costs in Banbridge were estimated at being between €80,000 to €100,000. With the big difference in potential revenues from ticket sales and hospitality options, Pels believes it has the potential to break even but did rule out the project as likely to be a big money-spinner.

“We are in a partnership with Big Stadium Hockey, England Hockey and Polypipe who do the underlay and Polytan for the carpet,” Pels told The Hook. “It is a repeat of what they did in the Stoop. They have been able to refine their plans so it can be done quicker and keep the price down.

“Because England Hockey is repeating this next year, we don’t have to buy the carpet. It’s a lease agreement to make it doable. From a financial point of view, the plan is to break even – it won’t make us a huge profit and a lot of the revenue we get from tickets will be invested in the installation. Wherever we went in Ireland, if we wanted to bring in the public, we would need to invest in infrastructure.”

Should it work, Pels says it could be used again but there are too many variables, not least that this single-weekend format is likely to be a one-off with a return to qualifier tournaments on the cards in the next cycle.

“It depends on the FIH and what will be the format going forward for qualifiers. That’s out of our hands. If it works, we could well do it again. We do need to get this one done – it is a big learning moment.

“You focus on the cost but we are getting a lot of help from the parties working on this. Having a smaller governing body doing something like this can show others what can be done and it will have a positive effect on anyone having an ambition of hosting events with big crowds.”

The pitch is set to be laid the Monday before the qualifiers which will take place on Saturday, November 2 (7pm) and Sunday, November 3 (7.10pm).

That leaves limited time to prepare on the stadium pitch. However, the turf is set to be as close as possible to the turf currently being completed at the National Sports Campus. That pitch will be christened on Tuesday and Thursday with challenge matches against the visiting China.

 “The pitch at the sports campus is an important part of the puzzle. It will be a similar surface to help with home advantage. We will get the stadium be ready the week before, taking four or five days to put the pitch down.”

In addition to the increased capacity, the qualifiers will get extra visibility on television with RTE committing to broadcasting both matches live. Tickets for the games will go on sale on October 1.

Big Stadium Hockey: QUESTIONS & ANSWERS

  1. How is Dublin (Energia Park different from The Stoop)?

At The Stoop, we installed a portable pitch into a rugby venue that normally uses a natural turf surface.  For Energia Park we will be installing the Big Stadium Hockey pitch over an artificial turf (3G) rugby pitch.

  • How does 3G make it different from natural turf?

For starters, we don’t have the issue of the health of the natural turf underneath the temporary hockey pitch, so time restrictions on how long we can cover the natural turf are not relevant.  Having said that, we have a very tight timeframe for installation & removal of the pitch between other bookings at Energia Park, so this will not be an issue anyway!

We are still mindful though that the 3G pitch surface is a high-performance sports surface and needs to be protected.  To ensure this, we have conducted extensive testing to ensure that the artificial turf fibres on the 3G pitch surface won’t be flattened by the installation, use or removal of the temporary Big Stadium Hockey system.  Once the Big Stadium Hockey pitch system has been removed, the 3G pitch will then be groomed and tested to ensure that it continues to comply with World Rugby requirements.

  • What other installations/innovations are you planning for BSH- DUBLIN?

The system used at The Stoop received fantastic feedback from all athletes who participated in the matches there.  After doing some system testing to confirm we will get similar performance on the 3G artificial turf pitch at Energia Park, we have opted to install the same system for BSH – DUBLIN.

  • Have you managed to reduce the cost/make cost savings for BSH- DUBLIN?

The costs are comparable to those from The Stoop.  When you consider the larger venue size and ticket revenue that is possible, it is a very cost-effective means of delivering major hockey events.

  • Will you be using the same install approach?  If not, how will it be different?

At The Stoop, for the first install, we took our time and did each layer in full before we started the next.  This time we will be installing each system layer concurrently, so the installation time will be condensed significantly.  This will require a lot of careful sequencing and coordination onsite to make sure that everything flows smoothly.

  • What are your ambitions for the pitch?

The Olympic Qualifiers at Energia Park are an opportunity for the Ireland Women’s team to make history and qualify for the Olympic Games for the first time.  For Canada, it is a chance to qualify for their first Olympics since Barcelona in 1992.  For such a momentous occasion, the pitch surface needs to provide a fantastic playing surface for the teams to chase their dreams.

Our ambition is to see high quality hockey played in a packed stadium with a fantastic atmosphere on match day.

  • How will the pitch play/differ to a traditional pitch?

We have worked closely with the International Hockey Federation (FIH) to test, test and re-test our portable pitch system with a range of different configurations to get the optimal performance and player welfare outcomes. 

The pitch surface feels slightly different underfoot to a traditional pitch, but the athlete feedback from the matches at The Stoop was extremely positive.  All athletes said that they did not notice the pitch playing any differently to a permanent pitch and that the atmosphere on match day was incredible.  We are hopeful that we will receive similar feedback from the athletes who are lucky enough to compete in Dublin.

  • How will you manage the watering of the pitch?

We will be manually watering the pitch using volunteer fire fighting services, which is the same as what we did at The Stoop. 

  • How long will it take to install?

We are planning to install the complete portable pitch system from start to finish in 3 days, with a small buffer in case of inclement weather.  That is a very tight timeframe, but we are confident it can be achieved.

How long will it take to pull down?

We expect to remove the entire pitch system in two days and will then need another couple of days to remove all materials from the venue.

Are you using a local team for the install?  Is so, who are they?

The installation team will be a combination of specialist installation technicians in combination with local workers and some volunteers to provide the necessary workforce. 

Why is this good for Hockey?

The Olympic Qualifiers at Energia Park are a milestone event where the Irish Women’s team will potentially qualify for their first ever Olympic Games.  Enabling fans to attend such an important event and support their team is important.  Taking these matches to a larger, fan-friendly stadium not only enables more fans to be there to witness history, it also provides the team with the match day atmosphere that they deserve for what will be the biggest home matches of their careers to date.

The matches at The Stoop this year generated a lot of interest and lead to this exciting project at Energia Park.  Hopefully, the matches at Energia Park will generate further interest in how hockey can leave behind small, purpose-built venues and enter big, fan-friendly stadiums for major hockey events around the world. We’re already working with England Hockey for the next FIH Pro League season, supporting their audience growth through Big Stadium Hockey.

Does the pitch use green technology?

The pitch surface we will be using at Energia Park is Poligras Tokyo GT, our green technology system that has been developed for Tokyo 2020.  Using re-growable raw materials, it is the most sustainable hockey pitch surface on the planet.  Visit www.turfresponsibly.com to find out more about Poligras Tokyo GT.

What will happen to the pitch after it has been packed up?  Where does it go?

The pitch surface has been leased for usage in Dublin. It may be used as a portable pitch again or installed into a permanent hockey venue after the event to provide a lasting legacy for the sport.  The shockpad components have been borrowed from England Hockey and will be used again next year for the matches at The Stoop.

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