The Hockey Pro-League is due to commence in just over a year. A competition that is predicted to “revolutionise the sport.” Yet six months after the announcement of the nine men’s and women’s teams due to compete in this new global home-and-away league there are many still scratching their heads as to what is going to transpire.
Three days ago during the Hockey World League finals in Bhubaneswar a press conference was held with the CEO and the President of the International Hockey Federation (FIH). It is interesting to note that the Communications Manager is not in India, as surely he would have tried to stop such an event happening, as it appears to have caused more confusion and upset some of the National Associations.
On June 11th in an expensive publicity stunt the CEO of the FIH Jason McCracken announced the teams due to participate in the competition. He also stated that the Pro League had been “the major plank of the Hockey Revolution which we launched some four years ago.” He went on to explain the the selection process for those who would participate was “extensive.”
So why a year out are there still so many questions unanswered?
On the 8th of July the FIH’s plans were thrown into turmoil when it confirmed that India was withdrawing from the Pro League. The decision sent shock waves through the Hockey World as India are to hockey what Brazil is to Football. It seemed unthinkable that the spiritual home of the game would not be participating in this showpiece event.
Not only has India been the most successful nation at the Olympic Games they are a team on the rise again. The President of the FIH for the first time is from India. In addition the Hockey India League was the competition that allowed the best players in the world to earn enough money to dedicate themselves full-time to hockey. Also in 2014 the FIH had signed an eight year deal with Star Sports as their Global broadcast partner. It also appeared that the majority of companies willing to sponsor major hockey tournaments were based in India. As the public were constantly told Hockey needed India.
However it seemed India felt very differently. Prior to the withdrawal of both the Indian Men’s and Women’s teams from the Pro League the FIH terminated prematurely the agreement signed with Star Sports, just three years into an eight year deal.
When on the 28th of July 2017 the FIH confirmed that Spain would replace India in the men’s Pro League and Belgium in the women’s event, the door appeared shut for India. With it, according to many, closed the door for a potential global sponsor; as allegedly the FIH’s commercial department had only ever considered an Indian partner, and had not explored businesses in other markets.
Star Sports were re-signed as a local broadcaster of Pro-League games, but that agreement could now be terminated as allegedly the contract was based on India and Pakistan participating the Pro-League. Without India and with Pakistan playing their home games in Scotland why would Star still want to invest in the league?
As McCracken mentioned in his interview with Chris Hollins on BT Sport in June, this tournament had been four years in the making. In that planning it had been decided that the best format was for nine teams in each competition. Yet the Press Conference in Bhubaneswar made it appear that already that could be changed, and India may well be allowed back into the competition.
McCracken was quoted as saying that “Hockey is stronger when India is around.” Few would argue with that. There are some teams that every sport needs to be strong, in football it is Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Italy. In hockey the powerhouses of yesterday need to be amongst the top teams, these being India and Pakistan.
To be fair, McCracken’s comments were initially ambiguous, when he said “The FIH would be delighted to have India as part of the Pro League. I think in future when the time is right I hope India will be joining us because hockey is strong when India is there. We are always talking to Hockey India. The doors are always open. There is a process by which countries can join the Pro League.”
However then he is quoted as saying, when asked specifically if India can join the inaugural competition. “the doors are open now. We are working on the schedule. There will be 144 games all over the world so we have to adjust the schedule. There is a process and not only India, other countries can join the Pro League.”
It is this comment that has a number of national associations squirming. They have budgeted for nine home and nine away games, for each mens and womens team. Suddenly if the league increases to ten there will be a whole set of added costs. With some nations not expecting to make profit until year three of the Pro League, this will be a major issue. Then there are the Television companies who have been sold a competition based around 144 Games. Suddenly the number of games would increase to 180. Can they accommodate them?
The league is twelve months away, as yet there is no naming sponsor, which in turn has meant that the national associations are having to hold off on whom they can bring on board. Neither has there been an announcement of an airline partner to ferry players to all corners of the globe. With some nations financial years not working on a calendar year this throws up another set of issues when it comes to potential sponsors and budgeting.
However, the biggest issue is still the payment of the players. McCracken was quoted in the official launch statement that the Pro League would take Hockey to a new level. “As a result it will become a professional sport, making it a career choice for athletes who will be given the opportunity to perform in big, bold, packed and loud venues both in their homeland and overseas. It will also allow fans to engage with more world-class hockey more often, whether on TV or live at their national venue.” Yet as yet the players have not been advised as to what they will be paid in order to make it a career choice. The FIH continues to say that this falls back on the National Associations, despite Mr McCracken stating that the competition will generate USD$150million over four years.
Of course the resurrection of the Hockey India League would once again make it possible for some players to dedicate their lives to Hockey. Sadly not all the top players can be signed to clubs in India and the HIL is not due to re-commence until 2019. So this is a very real issue facing the game.
For those who have to take jobs to support their Hockey careers how are they going to get time off from those jobs to travel for eight weeks as they compete in the Pro League. Then in two of the years they will also want to compete at the Hockey World Cup and the Olympic Games as these are the pinnacle of the sport. Only a very understanding employer is going to accept a staff member being absent for so much time. Increase the competition and the time away from work also increases. It appears that players really are going to be forced to choose between a career and a sport they love which offers by comparison low financial rewards.
In June McCracken stated there would be a Grand Final, as yet it has not been revealed who will host this and whether this will also be a home and away game with the winner winning on aggregate. He also revealed that there would be “Substantial prize money,” again just how much has not been revealed.
The truth is there could be an advantage in expanding the competition to ten teams. This would enable the FIH to re format the competition and have two pools of five playing home and away, then the top two teams in each pool could play off home-and-away and the winners of those games on aggregate could then play off in a final home-and-away. The problem is this would not total the 144 games the FIH have been talking up and which the television companies that have been signed up are expecting. Even if relegation from the Pro League became an option with the two bottom teams playing off home and away with the loser on aggregate dropping out and the winner from the revamped Hockey World League coming up, there would still not be 144 games.
There are plenty of arguments as to why India should be a part of the Pro League, many make commercial sense. However, having opted to withdraw should they be allowed back in? Many of the National Associations feel that if they are it is going to have a huge financial impact on the planning they have done and their budgets. It will also of course have an effect on the television contracts that have been signed.
This is why Mr McCracken’s comments have caused so many ripples. A year out from the start of such a major change to the game and one that will need to start a marketing campaign in at the latest July 2018 it seems strange that changes are still being entertained. At this stage it should be more about finalising sponsors and partners for the competition as a whole and for each nation.
Hopefully a clear message will come from Lausanne before the end of 2017 so that everyone, National Associations, players, coaches and fans, as well as Television stations know exactly what lies ahead, and can plan with confidence knowing that everything is set in stone. Silence will simply generate more speculation, misinformation and uncertainty.