Taking the floor: Floorball’s plans for global expansion

The 11th edition of the Women’s World Floorball Championships was held in Bratislava in December. SportsPro travelled to Slovakia to learn more about how the sport has built up a loyal fanbase, and its growth plan.

Taking the floor: Floorball’s plans for global expansion

It’s early December, but Christmas is already very much in the air in Bratislava. The market, spreading between the 18th-century spires and Soviet-era buildings of the historic town centre, lures tourists with its variety of traditional food, drink, and hand-carved wooden gifts, the frosty air heady with the scents of mulled wine, spiced gingerbread, and fried potato Rosti.

The sense of celebration is palpable, too, at the Ondrej Nepala Arena further out of the city, where crowds have gathered to watch the final of the 2017 Women’s World Floorball Championships. Fans bang drums, jangle cowbell-like instruments and add vuvuzelas to the mix, creating a cacophony of sound that is suggestive of sleigh-bells and fitting with the festive theme.

Meanwhile, the drama of the sport continues to unfold below. Floorball, for those unfamiliar with the game, is comparable to an indoor, high-octane version of hockey or ice hockey. The players are a disciplined wave of movement, performing with astounding pace and agility, their bodies crouched low to the ground, bending and swerving amongst one another in a dance of athleticism that is breathtaking to watch.

A dummy, a turn and the spinning arc of the shot from a player, and the goalkeeper dives, twisting, to see the ball hit the back of her own net. The crowd roars to its feet and a wall of triumphant noise rises with it, lifted to the roof by the soaring Europop anthems blaring from speakers around the arena that the goalscorer raises a victorious fist to. 

We know that the top four nations in floorball will always do an excellent job, but we need to go to other countries if we want to grow the sport outside of those areas

First developed in the 1960s and 70s, floorball is most popular in the Nordic countries where it has its roots, but is growing rapidly across other continents. Thailand are competing for the first time at this year’s 11th Women’s World Championships, while other forces are emerging to take on the ‘big four’ of Sweden, Finland, Switzerland and the Czech Republic, who have dominated floorball since its beginnings.

Bratislava is a new host for the event, which is only the fourth Women’s World Championships to be staged in a country outside of the largest floorball-playing nations. Having previously been a venue for the Under-19 Women’s World Championships in 2012, and several qualification events for both the men’s and women’s game, Slovakia has proved itself a country determined to grow the sport, and a worthy host.

“We know that the top four nations in floorball will always do an excellent job, but we need to go to other countries if we want to grow the sport outside of those areas,” explains Jorg Beer, head of marketing at the International Floorball Federation (IFF), the sport’s global governing body. “So it’s very good to have Bratislava hosting this year.”

The 9,000-seater Ondrej Nepalu Arena provides an ideal location for floorball’s growing fanbase. Normally an ice hockey venue, the venue has been transformed into a floorball hub, its wooden flooring layered on top of the ice. Its sister venue, the Hant Arena, is located just 300 metres down the road, allowing teams and fans to travel easily between them without the need for public transport.

Slovakia made it to the quarter-finals in a creditable display that saw them given a standing ovation by their home supporters

The morning’s entertainment begins with the first game at 8.30, and the tournament fits three to four matches in per day. The floorball matches themselves feature five players and a goalkeeper per team, and are split into 20-minute thirds.

Ten-minute breaks in between that let the spectators refuel and stretch their legs while entertainment comes to the floor, varying from dance routines to a showcasing of matches from youth teams, as well as teams from the Special Olympics, with which the IFF has a partnership. The two VIP areas at the main arena lure visitors with the prospect of an all-you-can-eat buffet and as much wine as you can drink. All in all, fans can have a full day of floorball  if they so desire – and many of them do. 

“The main thing that stands out for this championships is the Slovakian audience,” says IFF secretary general John Liljelund. “Yesterday, when Slovakia lost the quarter-final to Finland, the Slovakian audience gave a standing ovation for the last two minutes, and that was really special. And of course, there have been really good games, and also the fact that we got to see many more teams play well and challenge for the title than we usually do.”

Slovakia themselves manage a fifth-place finish, their best so far in a World Championships. Meanwhile, the final sees eight-time world champions Sweden taken to extra-time and then a penalty shoot-out by Finland, clawing back their title only after the Finns missed two penalties to lose 6-5 in a match that delivers the perfect dramatic spectacle.

The tournament is by all accounts a success, with an overall attendance of 31,668 making it the third-highest attended in the event’s history, and that being with the championships held outside of its comfort zone.

“The most important thing is increasing visibility of the event,” says Liljelund. “This event’s visibility is a new record for us; we had 43 matches broadcast and 12 takers. Of the 16 countries participating, we had TV deals in 11 of them, which was pretty good.

“We also had Singapore and the USA showing their games in their countries for the first time, as well as having all the matches streamed on our YouTube channel on SportDeutschland.tv. Overall we’ve had 4.8 million TV viewings from all broadcasted matches, as well as 900,000 on YouTube.”

Floorball has a high-tempo, action-packed appeal but the IFF is considering how to make it more accessible to a bigger audience

The Olympic Channel also covered a total of 19 matches, all with English commentary. The highest ratings, according to Liljelund, are still coming from the ‘big four’, followed closely by Latvia, Germany, Singapore, the US and Poland.

Participation has also grown internationally: from 2014 to 2015, the number of licensed players jumped by three per cent to three million. The sport has been played in 80 countries, 68 of which now have national floorball associations recognised by the IFF. Sierra Leone became Africa’s first floorball nation in 2008, which meant the sport was being played on every continent – barring Antarctica.

“We have doubled our participants [in Slovakia] in just three or four years,” says Teo Turay, vice president of the Slovakian Floorball Association (SZFB). “And I think we will do the same after these World Championships. This event is big for us – smaller events have targeted the region and cities around and have helped to raise the profile of the game, but we needed something bigger for the whole country. We wanted to show floorball to the people, show them we are here and we can do it, and we can progress.”

As a sport outside the mainstream in many countries, and without the big broadcasting deals that top-tier sports reel in, floorball has focused on utilising digital platforms to facilitate its growth. This year’s World Championships has a presence across Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter, with the event’s main sponsor, the floorball stick manufacturer Unihoc, working with players to create small shareable skits and humorous videos that allow athletes to showcase their talents in ways that mean audiences otherwise unfamiliar with the sport can appreciate their skills.

Sweden forward Anna Wijk, for example, hits a hole-in-one with a floorball golf-style from the roof of a nearby building, in a video that gains a lot of traction on Twitter. Unihoc also runs in-venue activations throughout the tournament on Instagram, where it gives away kit and other VIP prizes.

Liljelund notes that floorball was “the top sport on social media” at the 2017 World Games in Wrocław, Poland, and believes that the range of additional content around the event, from highlights to interviews and background stories, provides a vital link to supporters.

“For us it’s really important for our fans outside the main participating countries to be able to access information and feel connected,” he says. “For the men’s World Championship in 2016, for example, we had 1.3 million views on our YouTube channel for the total event.

“Our biggest platform at the moment for growing social media is Instagram. We do a lot of short video clips and if something funny happens, we cut it and we’ve made an arrangement with the member associations so that we’re giving them the right to use 35 to 45 seconds of footage to use in their social media. They’re also allowed to film 15 seconds for Instagram Live and Snapchat stories. Consequently, we have a constant flow of information and entertainment for our fans around the world.”

Swedish fans enjoy their team’s run to the world title

IFF president Tomas Eriksson adds: “We streamed all our matches to broaden our reach. We also have a magazine wrap-up which we send out to people, and the reach of that was more than 190 million.”

To increase participation and engagement in floorball further, the IFF is not afraid to make changes to appeal to a more global audience. “We know that we need to develop the game as a spectacle to attract more people,” says Liljelund. “We face a challenge with the upcoming World Games in 2021 in Birmingham [USA] because it’s a very niche sport there, so we want to make it more of a spectacle so it attracts more interest from the American public.”

Liljelund believes introducing more and better in-game commentary “on TV and also in-venue” will help new fans “understand what floorball is and how it works”. Bringing in more off-pitch entertainment, meanwhile, is another way the IFF is seeking to create a more engaging product, utilising the two breaks the game affords. “Last year, for example, we had a live band,” says Liljelund. “We had a stage in the corner of the field of play. It’s a question of trying to find our niche, not just copying the NBA or NHL.”

Keeping the crowd engaged through the sound system is a floorball staple but the introduction of cheerleading, so familiar to audiences in the US, would be more controversial among some of the IFF’s leaders in Sweden, where there are concerns that it objectifies women.

“We want to showcase cheerleading as a sport itself in the correct way where the athletes play an important role in fan engagement,” says Liljelund. “It is a question of trying to find a clear role for everyone there. We will not let it be a part of the award ceremonies, so it’s about keeping those parts separate.”

Another strategy for leveraging the commercial opportunities floorball events afford lies in using the arena to showcase products creatively. Liljelund cites the example of a car sponsor whose vehicles were used for courtside premium seating at the 2008 Men’s World Floorball Championship. “Sponsors are always looking for visibility in the arena and something special,” he says, “and we are looking for ways to give them the opportunity to do that.”

The Women’s World Championships’ roster of partners includes sports drink Gatorade, apparel brand Asics, construction company Strabag, and Austrian snack food Toobs, among a host of local media companies and floorball equipment manufacturers. Beer, however, is keen to expand that portfolio.

“Most of our sponsors at the moment come from our supplier industries, but we need to come closer to the decision-makers in the marketing field,” he says. “We need to start lobbying work to bring floorball to the fore for those who make decisions. We are getting better at connecting with the media, and now we need to reach those who don’t know so we can grow the sport. We are looking to partner with a major commercial TV channel so as to reach a broader audience.”

Bringing in new technology is also a consideration for the organisers seeking to raise the standard of the sport and ensure it remains up-to-date with recent refereeing developments. A video refereeing system has been trialled, though Eriksson suggests the process needs to be shortened before it can be fully implemented.

Hosts Slovakia bear down on goal during the 2017 Women’s World Floorball Championships at the Ondrej Nepala Arena in Bratislava

Next in the IFF’s sights is increasing the number of multi-sports events that floorball will be involved in – it has twice been contested at international multi-sport event, the World Games, in 1997 and 2017. “We hope and are confident that we’ll make it to the USA World Games 2021,” says Eriksson. “We’re working hard to be a part of the Youth Olympic Games and the Indoor and Martial Arts Games in Asia. We want to broaden our events portfolio as much as possible.”

Floorball received its full recognition from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2011, and entry into the Olympics remains a future ambition for the sport. “Getting into a number of multi-sport events will help prove we’re worthy of being in the Olympic Games,” explains Liljelund. “We think in reality we have a chance of being in the 2028 or 2032 Olympic Games.”

In order to make the cut, though, floorball may have to undergo further changes to make it attractive to spectators of the Games and to grow the sport’s fanbase through a more accessible format. Finding a compromise between meeting the IOC’s needs and preserving the fundamental sense of the game is a difficult balance. “We need to play a competition format but we don’t want to have to be reduced hugely in numbers, such as rugby sevens or something like that,” says Liljelund. “We need to make the numbers of our team sizes smaller, but we had a good experience cutting down the squad at the World Games, when we played with 14 players instead of 20.”

As Beer explains, the World Games tournament also saw an experiment with three 15-minute periods, rather than three of 20 minutes. “We had a very good experience doing that and very good feedback at the World Games because the game is faster – every second of the game is an important second, and there is no time to rest,” he adds. “Also, to watch the game, you don’t need any more than two hours – just one hour and thirty minutes. Nowadays the young viewer doesn’t want to take such a long time to watch.”

For Liljelund, the success of the tournament in Bratislava has “proven that it’s possible to organise the event outside the top four”. China has made a bid for the Women’s Under-19 World Floorball Championship in 2020, “which would be a giant leap forward for the sport”, while “countries like Singapore and Thailand could be organisers in the future”.

The IFF has clear ambitions for new markets it wants to take floorball into. The aim is to expand World Championship events from 16 to 20 teams, and to reach out to South America, Africa, and heavily populated Asian nations like India and Indonesia. “If we do a very good job in this way then we will find some bigger sponsors who want to share our values,” says Beer.

Introducing newcomers to the elite tournaments, Eriksson adds, will mean addressing any potential gap in quality. “We now have seven members in Africa,” he says, “and I think they’re ready to enter the championships. We hope that our strategies to aid development will help these members to grow.”

One aspect of the IFF’s strategy to level the playing field is its ‘Each One Teach One’ project. Launched in 2014, it encourages cooperation between member associations, enabling neighbouring countries to learn from one another. Malaysian referees, for example, have been invited to work in Singapore, and a clinic has been held twice a year to develop refereeing best practice and initiate projects to ensure long-term development and education of referees and players.

Floorball’s organisers believe that the sport will ultimately succeed in growing its profile because of its accessibility, its speed and its drama.

“You don’t need as many materials as, say, ice hockey,” says Beer. “Just a stick and ball and you’re ready to go.

“That means it’s open to all, it can be played anywhere, and it’s fast and dynamic. You can have pressure at one end for one minute and then you score a goal three seconds later – that doesn’t exist in a lot of other sports.”

Getting into a number of multi-sport events will help prove we’re worthy of being in the Olympic Games. We think in reality we have a chance of being in the 2028 or 2032 Olympic Games