Floorball developing rapidly in the Baltics

  • 2011-06-15
  • By Jared Grellet

Floorball is slowly gaining in popularity.

RIGA - In a small market, where an overabundance of sports is attempting to attract a limited number of participants, floorball is succeeding where many others are failing.
It seems that every year in the Baltics new sports are emerging in each country, fighting with each other in an effort to gain participation numbers. In the past decade baseball, lacrosse and touch rugby have all emerged alongside traditional Baltic sporting pastimes such as soccer, basketball, ice hockey and track and field as potential activities for residents – particularly children – to choose from.

While it is undoubtedly a good thing that children and adults alike now have more sports available to them, people in the Baltic States opt to pick one sport from a young age and stick with it, meaning that there are only a limited number of participants to be shared amongst the sports. The American and British systems, where children opt to play at least one summer and one winter sport, has not been picked up here in the Baltics. Financial restraints on families, coupled with the demands that trainers put on participants for unerring year-round commitment means that most children tend to focus on just one sport.
This means that new and developing sports struggle to gain a foothold as they attempt to pry participants away from sports that they are already familiar with and developed in. But despite these odds, floorball participation – particularly in Latvia and Estonia – is growing at a rapid pace.

Floorball can best be described as ice hockey played with a plastic stick and a plastic round ball on a hardwood floor. Therefore it is naturally appealing to countries that have big followings in ice hockey, proving to be safer, cheaper and more accessible.

Developed in the ‘70 as an off-season training program for bandy players in Sweden, floorball rapidly grew in popularity in its home country before fellow Scandinavian countries, the Baltic States and Central European countries began to pick up the sport, leading to the creation of the sport’s governing body – the International Floorball Federation – in 1986.
According to Dace Mozeiko, who plays in the Latvian women’s elite division, there are now almost 3,000 licensed players playing in Latvia. In 2010/2011, 13 teams competed in the Latvian men’s elite division with a further 10 in the 1st division, 20 in the 2nd division and 11 in the veteran’s competition. Disappointingly, women’s participation rates in floorball are reflective of so many other sports, with just seven elite teams and three 1st division teams.

The statistics are just as impressive for Estonia. Since its formation in 1993, floorball has gone from having almost no participants to an estimated 4,000 playing across 32 clubs in 2011. Eight teams make up the elite division, alongside 11 in the first division and 17 in the second division. Again however, the statistics in the women’s game are less impressive, with just eight teams.

Lithuania has been slower to pick up the sport with the Lithuanian Floorball Federation only being established last year. Despite this, the country already has four clubs and 85 registered men playing in the elite division.
These figures also do not take into account the many more that are also flocking to their school gymnasiums on their lunch hours to recreate the previous evening’s Dinamo Riga game, albeit on wood rather than ice.

However, despite the impressive stats that document the rapidly rising popularity of floorball, sponsorship money remains at a minimum. This restricts the sport from developing to an even wider market and seeing a would-be next generation of senior players failing to take their participation in the sport past their school gymnasiums at lunch time, with soccer and basketball offering more realistic futures at a professional level. To date, the sport is only played professionally or semi-professionally in a handful of countries.

Due to the relative newness of the sport, it also does not have a traditional fan base or wealthy former players to call upon for much needed funding, and limited television exposure does not assist the situation. These factors mean the sport still has a long way to go before it can hope to become a success commercially.

It is not a situation unique to floorball, however, with sports’ sponsorship across the spectrum drying up. In the face of the financial crisis companies are already pulling out of sponsoring developed sports, such as basketball and soccer, so they are not about to take a risk on a sport that currently holds a limited influence in the sporting cultural sphere.
Another problem is the fact that many sports that have begun to lose out on sponsorship money have still been able to rely on funding from their respective Olympic committees – a benefit that cannot be enjoyed by floorball, which is currently not competed for in the Olympics and does not look like it will be until at least 2020. However, becoming officially recognized as a sport by the IOC (International Olympic Committee) was a major step in the right direction.

Mozeiko estimates that for the 2010/2011 season, the cost of entering a team in the Latvian women’s elite division was about 6,500 lats (9,285 euros) – money that for the most part had to be provided by the players themselves. While the men’s game does see some basic funding, it still finds itself in a similar situation.

Despite these problems that the sport is facing, the number of youth that are taking an interest in the sport – even at just a social level – gives the sport in the Baltics a solid base for the future. It is hoped that it will not be before long that the sport begins to gain ground in more traditional sporting markets such as North America and Western Europe, bringing interest from sponsors who will begin to return to sports as the financial horizon begins to brighten. If that is to occur, then the next generation of Baltic children could just as realistically be emulating Dace Mozeiko in the same manner in which this generation emulates ice-hockey star Sandis Ozolins and basketball veteran Zydrunas Ilgauskas.