Clarity Needed Leading into 2018.

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.

Clarity Needed Leading into 2018.
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2 thoughts on “Clarity Needed Leading into 2018.

  • December 11, 2017 at 2:26 pm
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    Will, thanks for your comment, some really pertinent questions here and I am not sure I will be able to answer most of them. This was why we requested an interview with the CEO back in June this year, to try and find some answers. Sadly three months later the Communications manager said that there would be no interview, and no reason was given.

    1. You would hope that the only reason the format would be changed now to include India or any other nation would be down to the money that they could guarantee in terms of a naming rights sponsor.
    2. Again if the door is being left ajar for India it should also be open to any other nation. If not, that could cause problems down the track.
    3. I would think, and I am not a lawyer, that if the contracts were signed and stated a nine team competition and suddenly it becomes ten it would indeed make all of them void. So you would want to be sure the sponsor was bringing in a very large amount of money. Most TV stations plan a long way in advance so I could imagine some would consider seeking compensation if the goalposts moved and more games had to be covered. Then the National Associations may follow suit. It could prove an expensive exercise.
    4. To me this is a key issue and I have upset people by continually raising it. The players are who we all go to watch. Without them there is no TV product, there is no competition. They HAVE to be paid as full time athletes for this league to succeed! So it is essential that the money that comes in is shared with the players. Sadly the costs of participating are going to limit many National Associations in terms of paying players a full time wage.
    5. Again a very good question and one that I cannot answer, but it would be nice to hear from the FIH on this issue.
    6. Will, it may be too early for this, but clearly something has to be done and assurances need to be put in place in the next month as to what is going to be done to ensure that we have an excellent world cup that does not see the outcome affected by the illness of players. I think personally all National Associations need to be asking this question and demanding prompt assurances and timeframes in which things must happen. If not received will they put their players into such a position again?
    7. I made a quick call to a lawyer friend and they said that said based on standard contracts for hosting events they believed that the host nation and the FIH would be the two that would be held accountable. The host nation in most sports is apparently beholden to guarantee the safety and well being of all players and officials as part of its hosting agreement. The FIH who sanction the tournament, do by sanctioning it declare that they are satisfied that the host has in place all the necessary requirements to deliver a tournament to the standard they expect, which includes protecting the safety and health of the players and officials and all other guests from the media. The FIH must do their due diligence on the host to ensure that they are satisfied that all necessary requirements are in place for everyone involved in the tournament, including fans.
    8. Again I cannot answer that. However you raise a very pertinent point when it comes to the NFL being held responsible for athletes under their control suffering concussion related issues. It makes sense that those governing the sport either locally, nationally or Internationally are held accountable, as that is their role to oversee the governance of the game. Athletes may well be commodities to some, but there is still a responsibility for a duty of care. In the USA several years ago there was a player who sued a club for playing him when injured, shortening his career, and increasing his suffering post career. He won the case as the club was deemed to be operating ‘in loco parentae,’ in other words having the role of a parent. It was their job to protect and nurture their players. So a very interesting question you raise.
    9. Again this is a very valid point. When one sees the pollution levels in Delhi at the cricket being close to hazardous this is again a very pertinent point and one that the FIH need to address promptly and is tied to earlier questions.

    Thank you for raising some really good issues, I am sorry that I cannot answer most of them.

  • December 11, 2017 at 12:39 pm
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    Ashley,

    Thank you for your post and comments above. The information you have detailed raises a number of questions that are without doubt of significance to the world hockey community.

    1. Does the inclusion of India in the inaugural Pro League season ensure that FIH will be able to find a naming rights sponsor for the event?
    2. Have other nations been offered the same opportunity to have their inclusion in the league reconsidered, or is this purely and India specific offer?
    3. What impact does this have on contracts for the Pro League that National Associations have already signed? Furthermore, does this also impact the Broadcast contracts that have been put in place?
    4. Does a potential naming rights sponsor from India offer the opportunity for athletes to earn an income from the substantial time commitment that they will have to make to participate in this league?
    5. What is FIH’s position in accordance with the recently created World Player Rights Policy, which broadly covers the duty of care and economic rights that athletes are entitled too?
    6. In viewing the recent World League Finals in India, where the 2018 Men’s World Cup is to be held, four out of the eight teams were struck with significant health concerns, with the German team down to 11 players for their last match, are you aware of any actions by FIH or the National Associations to move to protect the athletes from such an environment?
    7. Further to this, is there any position from FIH or the National Associations to protect the integrity of the World Cup from such health matters.
    8. Additionally, are FIH or the National Associations going to take responsibility for the long term health issues of athletes who are year in year out exposed to these conditions, such as the NFL is facing matters regarding long term athlete issues with CTE?
    9. Given the above, and given that all Pakistan matches in the Pro League are being played in Scotland due to safety concerns, is it now being considered that all Indian matches in the Pro League are to be played in a neutral venue due to the health issues being experienced by athletes?

    It’s appreciated that you don’t have the answers to these questions, though it is hoped they are one’s that are being treated with great consideration, now and ongoing.

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