It’s all fun and games until someone loses their floor
[For the tl;dr crowd: yes, this is a 2000-word rant about a sport you haven't heard of. In a nutshell: the University of Bath is very proud of its Olympic performance, but minority sports such as floorball are treated badly.]
If the University of Bath were to declare independence from the UK and set itself up as its own country, it would currently (Friday 3rd before the start of play) be 18th in the Olympics medals table, between Romania and Brazil. Team GB, having composed itself after the shock, would drop from 5th to 8th, between Italy and the “Democratic” “People’s” “Republic” of Korea. [update 1:30pm: we've got another gold this morning, so "we" would now be 7th, between Germany and Italy, and other results would put Bath 19th, still between Romania and Brazil. I'm not going to keep updating this throughout the Games.]
Bath is very proud of its sporting performances. It has long been one of the best centres for sports studies in the UK. They even like to think their main rivals are Loughborough, although Lufbra themselves don’t quite see it that way. Apart from the medal-winners, there are many other athletes being plucky at an elite level in London this month.
Random factoid: One of my Chemistry tutors during my undergraduate degree was the father of Amy Williams, who won a gold medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics, having learnt her skeleton bob skills from scratch whilst at Bath Uni.
But what is it like for regular students at the University? The 99%, as it were.*
On the whole, the Sports Training Village (known to externals as the TeamBath Arena, I just discovered) is very good. Modern equipment is provided to students at relatively cheap prices, or even free, the recent introduction of additional fees notwithstanding. Compared to the national average, Bath students are at an advantage. But for minority sports that aren’t moneymakers like e.g. Superleague netball is, the internal attitude does not seem very supportive. Timetabling issues are rife, for instance. When an “important” (i.e. profitable) event requires weekend-long hiring of the main hall, student clubs‘ trainings on Friday afternoon/evening are often disrupted or cancelled outright, often with only very little notice (if any), and no possibility for rescheduling.
Despite all this, I remember my time at Bath fondly. Aside from my degree and volunteer charity fundraising, I was introduced to floorball, a sport I would never have otherwise encountered. I was able to progress quickly and made many friends around the country. But last season, some changes occurred at Bath, which I found very frustrating as a returning alumnus (I was with playing with a club in Trowbridge by this point – non-students, alumni included, are no longer welcome in uni sports, even if they re-invest their skills**).
New floor, new lines
The floor in the main sports hall was completely refurbished last year. I don’t know the exact numbers, but I’m told by people who would know that the project was worth five figures. The new floor, we were told, was top of the range; high performance, all that jazz. The floorball club, which had been going strong at Bath Uni for at least 8 years by that point, were thrilled. So were many others. Although the old floor had been largely fine, at times and in certain places it was a bit sticky. As a goalkeeper, whose job it is to slide around very quickly, I find stickiness to be less than ideal.
In floorball, like in many sports, there are markings on the ground, defining certain areas of the field of play. There are the 7 face-off points, the half-way line, the goalies’ areas (where they can use their hands) and the 2 “cages” (where no-one besides the goalie can go, not even defenders). On the old floor, these markings were traditionally made using gaffer tape***, which has a suitable width and is tough enough to be run over and played on without disintegrating. It is also very easy to remove afterwards. This had been done several times per year, for as long as the club had been around.
The new floor, however, was a bit sensitive to the tape. The glue, apparently, was damaging the precious surface. The high-performance, ten-grand-plus surface. Of course, the club weren’t told this when the floor was being put in, nor when the hall was being booked for the first tournament after the installation, nor even during the two hours club volunteers spent laying down the markings and setting up the rink on the night before the first tournament, under direct supervision by Sports Village staff. No, it was apparently thought that the best time to deliver the message was about five minutes before the first face-off. All the tape had to come up, we were told, and none was to be put down again. Ever. The day’s play, including 6 national-level league games, would have to be played without markings. Now, face-off points can be guesstimated, and even the goalkeeper’s area can more-or-less be done by eye. Even “did-it-cross-the-line/did-it-not” style goals only happen about once per game, so maybe even the goal lines could be done without. But the “cage” area immediately in front of the goal is not just there to prevent cheating – it’s there to keep the goalie safe. In the end, we negotiated to have the corners of the areas marked out by small points of tape. This seemed like the best compromise, although quite why they wouldn’t let us keep the tape down for the day, given that it was already there, is beyond me.
The silver lining to this episode was that Matt, the chairman of the floorball club, was able to arrange for the Sports Department to lay down permanent markings for floorball. This was a significant achievement, although it was not due to the Sports Dept trying to be helpful. Nonetheless, after 8 years, we finally had our own lines. To my knowledge, this made the University of Bath the only place in the UK to have floorball lines. [update: it turns out both Farnborough and Farnham Leisure Centres have permanent floorball markings, used by a local youth team and the Southern Vipers. Well done them!] There were smiles and nods of approbation and jealousy at the next tournament, with players from all over the South-West admiring the lines. This was going to be a big deal for floorball in the UK, which has been going through difficult times for the last few years (but that’s another story).
Getting kicked out
The week after the first ever tournament in the UK to feature proper lines (this was a really big deal; as a minority sport, we really felt vindicated), we heard through the usual channels -internal comms were suddenly working quite well, suspiciously- that we could no longer use the main sports hall for floorball. This came as a surprise, given that we’d been in there for years. Apparently, the impact of the sticks was causing damage to the new floor. We were all somewhat dismayed at this, having just been told how amazing this floor was meant to be. Upon inspection, it turns out that the damage in question was indeed there. However, according to the student representative who had met with the Sports department, it was
“nothing you could feel with a fingernail”
Apparently, if you got your eyes right down to floor level; some small scrapes would catch the light just right. This was enough, in the view of the University currently ranked 18th at the Olympics, to ban floorball from the hall.
Now, they couldn’t ban floorball entirely. The Bath club had recently purchased a full set of plastic boards for a rink, with contracts set up with Detica and the Alumni Fund (thanks guys!) – there was a responsibility to display their logos. Also, floorball rinks in the UK are extremely rare: there are fewer than half a dozen in the entire country (for comparison, there are at least 3 in Geneva alone). Not to use this equipment would have been incredibly stupid, even by the Sports Department’s standards.
Instead, all subsequent tournaments have had to take place in the “Founders hall”, the other sports hall at Bath. This is a smaller, older space, with a raft of problems. Even before the move, the 1/3rd of the sports hall we were allocated made playing conditions very difficult, particularly for referees. Now, we were very cramped indeed. Because it is seen as secondary, much less care is taken of the founders hall, particularly the floor, which isn’t flat. It is made up of parallel wooden boards, with ever-increasing gaps between them. Now, a bit of stickiness on the old floor in the big hall was a minor inconvenience. A floor that isn’t flat, on the other hand, is a real issue. I mean, we play floorball. The clue is in the name. As for gaps, well, they definitely aren’t a hazard if you fall on them at all. To add insult to injury, within a couple of months of the hall change, the gaps in the boards – despite our best efforts at taping (oh, the irony!) - had torn through one of the knees in my goalie trousers, causing more damage in half a dozen games than in the previous two seasons put together. If I’ve given you the impression that floorball rinks and markings are hard to get in the UK, don’t let me get started on getting goalkeeping equipment. Suffice to say it generally involves the Internet, middle-men, and plenty of money.
So, having gone from having a shiny new floor, with our own lines and rink, to a rubbish old floor with no lines and a smaller rink, the floorball community around the South-West was not feeling terribly well supported. However, floorball players are generally quite passionate – I think this must be true of all players of minority sports, it comes with the territory. So we have kept playing our tournaments, wearing through goalie kit and avoiding passing across certain sections of the floor for fear of bumps. On the plus side, those of us who volunteer to referee have increased our flexibility and ability to jump out of the way, because there’s no room beyond the boards any more.
What is the real reason?
On the face of it, this matter seems to have been about the Sports Department wanting to keep its precious floor from being damaged – first by tape, then by sticks. Quite why they ordered a brand new floor that was more susceptible to minor wear & tear is beyond me. And it’s not like floorball was a new idea, introduced after the new floor. We had been a regular feature in the main sports hall, training three times a week and frequently hosting day-long, national-level tournaments for almost a decade. So “resistant to floorball” should have been on the list of criteria when getting the new surface in.
Apart from anything else, even after moving us out, they still allowed the badminton club to use the main hall. Several times a week, the staff helpfully set up the nets (unlike floorball, where we have to set up our own kit…), dragging the posts across the floor. Yes, there are wheels, but no, that doesn’t mean they hover magically above the delicate high-performance surface. I would be very surprised if the nets, in transport and during the games, don’t cause more damage than our sticks ever did. A cynic might suggest that the Sports Department are avoiding ruffling the feathers of large number of International-fee paying students in the badminton club.
I can’t help but wonder if this might also be an issue around elitism in sport. Floorball is not very popular in the UK (or around the world, really). Even at Bath, it’s very much a minority. The attitude of the staff in the Sports Department always seems to be
“how quaint, such an unusual sport; let them have their fun, as long as they don’t get in the way of the netball.”
Indeed, I remember turning up to a Friday evening training session which had been cancelled (without anyone telling me), only to find a netball team practise going on. After suggesting that I was not entirely to blame for turning up, and that I didn’t think it was completely fair for the major sports to trample all over our timetable, I was told in no uncertain terms that it was in fact completely fine because
The fact that I wasn’t was news to me. I thought I was meant to be part of a sporting community, centred on a number of values and bla-bla-bla. Not so.
Overall, I think the Sports Department were very pleased that they were able to move floorball to the Founders hall, and frankly, I think they would prefer it if we just gave up altogether. How Olympic of them.
* yes, I am aware that even going to University is a privilege. This whole post is very much about a ”good problem to have”.
** actually I think that’s quite right
*** no, the tape was not responsible for the stickiness – there was no overlap in where we put tape and where got sticky