The bi-lateral agreement signed yesterday between Hockey Australia and Hockey India is good news for the Hockey India League, as it guarantees Australia’s top players will be free to participate in the competition for the next three years.
The league benefits Hockey Australia as its top players have the opportunity to earn a decent wage from the Hockey India League, which enables them to dedicate more time to the sport and focus on keeping Australia the number one team in the World. If the players were left to survive on their AIS funding they would find that the time spent focussing on the game would be severely restricted, as they would be forced to generate income in order to live day to day in Australia’s most expensive city, Perth.
This agreement is good news for Hockey India, but there is still a great deal to be done to keep the momentum of the competition moving in the right direction. This year has seen the standard of hockey lift to a new level, but despite the success on the pitch cracks are appearing off of it.
Crowds at games and viewing figures on Star Sports have been down; the reason, many believe, including the players and Franchise owners, is that Hockey India has failed to market the League adequately. There was next to no promotion leading into the tournament and most promotion was left to the Franchise owners who had already spent heavily buying a team and then bidding on the top players in the world and in India to be competitive.
Newspaper coverage leading into the tournament was hard to find; partly because the cricket World Cup was about to start and with India the defending Champions, many were focussed on their defending the title. This should have been foreseen and Hockey India should have either brought on board one of the newspapers as a sponsor/media partner, or bought editorial space to ensure coverage.
Marketing and promotion aside, the biggest challenge facing Hockey India and the Hockey India League in 2016 is that it will be an Olympic year. Speaking to overseas players participating in the tournament many have said that they fear their national association will not allow them to head to India for five weeks in an Olympic year. One of the main reasons being that during that five week period their fitness levels drop off, as much time is spent travelling between cities prior to the team’s next game. In an Olympic year, teams cannot afford their top players fitness levels to dip.
A suggestion put forward by some of the players likely to be playing in the Olympic Games is that in an Olympic year Hockey India should run the Hockey India League like an international tournament. Meaning that the event be held in one city. It also should be played over a shorter period of time, – say a fortnight – with games coming thick and fast and on a daily basis. Players believe if this were done they would be free to play as their fitness levels would be maintained and they would not be away for an extended period of time. Hockey India needs to talk to a quorum of the top players from the 13 nations represented and sound out a consensus of opinion to ensure that next year the standard of 2015 is maintained.
In the long term they have to look at where each of the Franchises are currently based. Delhi, despite winning the League last year is not a hotbed for hockey, the team plays in a stadium that locals say is hard to get to with no parking available, and crowds have been poor. Mumbai have finished last for the second time in three years despite a new regime running a new Franchise; they were second last in 2014 by just a point. In fact in 32 HIL games the Mumbai franchise has won just four games!
There is an argument, and it is a strong one, that these two major cities in India should not have Franchises. There is talk of expansion with teams coming in from traditional hockey regions, such as Pune, a few hours from Mumbai, Bhopal and Bangalore. Many Hockey fans in India believe that these teams must come in as they will be well supported as Hockey is strong and has a great deal of tradition in these areas. The question is which team gets dropped, Mumbai or Delhi? Hockey India may not agree with such a statement but one of the two has to go if the League is to see the games played in packed stadia, which will in turn lift the atmosphere on television.
The bi-lateral agreement with Australia is crucial to the League’s future as there are more Australians, World Champions, playing in the league than any other nationality. The key thing will be the negotiations with the other top nations in the coming months and listening to their concerns and finding a format that suits all concerned.
After a wonderful tournament in 2015, it would be a shame to see the league take a step backwards in 2016. It would be a blow to the resurgence of Indian Hockey and ultimately a blow to the game worldwide.