News that there may be no Hockey India League in 2018 seemed to send the Hockey world into shock. After all this was the blue riband hockey event away from Internationals. It was a high calibre competition attracting the best players in the world, it was therefore unthinkable that the league would not be played in 2018; even if it is only put on hold for a year.
IF that news sent shockwaves through the Hockey Community India’s pulling out of the newly formed Pro League was a Tsunami. The reasons cited for the withdrawal are that with the women’s team having a World ranking outside the Top ten they will have a better chance of qualifying for the World Cup and Olympic Games via the World League.
Yet the Indian Eves as they are known would also have a chance through the Asian Games and Asian Cup. Last year they won the Asian Champions Trophy beating China 2-1 in the final, reversing a 2-3 pool game loss. This was India’s first ever win in this tournament and an improvement on the silver won in 2013. Did not this result show that they have the ability to match the best in Asia? Would not the Pro League have helped close that gap and helped assure them of a place at the World Cup and Olympics?
The great thing about these two tournaments, the World Cup and Olympics is you have to earn your place on merit. Unlike the now expanded FIFA World Cup. No longer is it the cream of World football competing at the Finals.
As soon as the withdrawal from the Pro League became common knowledge rumours started to spread that the Hockey India League was going to go head-to-head with the FIH’s new Pro League. That Hockey India was going challenge the FIH and that the two competitions would both vie for the services of the best players in the World to play in their competition.
Despite the lure of money from India the reality is that most players dream of an Olympic Games, and not just taking part, but winning a medal. Argentina and Great Britain’s wins in Rio have now made players believe that you can be ranked outside the top teams and win Gold, and those victories have revitalised that Olympic dream. So even if these two were to go head-to-head can the Hockey India League really compete with that Olympic dream?
The Hockey India League was a great concept. It was also just what Hockey needed. Yet sadly the crowds in some areas stayed away. At this point in time it is worth looking at its history.
In 2008 the Indian Hockey Federation was suspended and the Indian Olympic Association stepped in to run the sport. Hockey India was created in 2008. This meant that there were two bodies claiming to run the sport in India. In 2009 the International Hockey Federation (FIH) recognised Hockey India as the governing body and sent an observer to oversee their elections.
Yet the Indian Hockey Federation was still operating and in 2011 announced a new competition that they said was “designed to reinvigorate hockey in the country,” it was called World Series Hockey. In what could well have been an embarrassing move for the FIH, Australian Dennis Meredith, a member of the FIH panel of tournament directors was the technical director of World Series Hockey.
As the IHF was not recognised by the FIH it meant that the World Series Hockey event which commenced in 2012 was an unsanctioned event.
The then FIH president Leandro Negre warned players looking to participate in the WSH that they would be suspended from international matches. The entire Indian squad had signed contracts to play in the league but Negre made it clear that any Indian player who participates would be banned from the Olympic qualifiers and all FIH tournaments. One by one they dropped out, despite the IHF offering to postpone the tournament until after the qualifiers.
The league went ahead in February 2012. Eight teams competed in the competition, with teams coming from Chandigarh, Pune, Punjab, Karnataka, Bhopal, Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai.
The Hockey India League was launched a year later in 2013 and in its first season consisted of five teams from Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Punjab, Ranchi and Mumbai. In 2013 a sixth team came into the league, Kalinga Lancers.
The best supported teams have been Ranchi and Kalinga Lancers in the HIL. Delhi saw their support grow when they moved from the Commonwealth Games built Major Dhyan Chand stadium to the more accessible Shivaji Stadium. The other teams have struggled to attract crowds.
Marketing has been one of the reasons that crowds have been poor. Star Sports the league’s broadcast partner invested heavily in promotion of the competition, and produced some outstanding advertisements, but regrettably some of the franchises did little to support this promotion. They in turn felt that Hockey India should have been promoting the league, as the body overseeing the competition.
Then there is the view put forward by some that those who became involved in the league were never really committed to the sport and were there more for Political reasons than helping grow the sport. Although their investment in the sport and their team for little return is a strong counter argument.
These arguments continue to rage, but the big question has to be were the franchises located in the right places?
In the WSH competition Sher-e-Punjab were crowned Champions, a team based at the Surjeet Hockey Stadium in Jalandhar. Pune Strykers were runners up with Chandigarh Comets and Karnataka Lions losing semi finalists.
In the first season of the HIL Jaypee Punjab Warriors were based in Jalandhar but moved to Chandigargh as it was felt it was too far for teams to travel. Yet despite having a team that made the finals every year, except 2017, and winning in 2016 the team struggled to attract decent crowds. The temperature was always put down as one reason, as it was exceptionally cold at that time of year.
Was it the right decision to have teams in the big cities of Delhi and Mumbai? Mumbai came last in the WSH and until 2017, when they made the final, was last or second last in every season of the HIL.
Would teams in hockey hotbeds such as Bhopal and Karnataka have seen the league in a stronger position? Would a team in Pune, still in the state of Maharashtra, have been a better option than Mumbai?
As they say hindsight is perfect vision.
Yet even if Hockey India changed their mind about having a competition in 2018, just as they did about being a part of the Pro League, would not the HIL now face similar problems as World Series Hockey?
Would the FIH sanction a competition that was planning to run in direct competition to their own event? Would they not raise the threat of International bans to players who opted for the HIL over the Pro League?
There is a definite place for the HIL, a competition from which not only Indian Hockey has benefitted but also those from overseas fortunate enough to play in it. However just as the Events arm of the FIH is trying to compile a set calendar of International events to assist in obtaining television coverage of the game, there must be a similar calendar for domestic competitions. The HIL needs to be in a window where it can attract the best players as well as television coverage, and then the whole game benefits.
Looking forward, if the HIL is to reappear in 2019 is it worth considering a different structure? Would it be worth having national associations being given the option to own a Franchise? The foreign player restrictions would still apply and also the number of local players, but it would be down to that association to market their franchise and the key issue would be they could make money from the team, which in turn would help them grow their national program. Sponsors could still come from India, but also from outside of India. Sponsorship could come from companies looking to establish business ties in India, or ones who already have such links.
By having outside owners this may too garner support for that Franchise from overseas. It may also encourage more overseas television stations to pick up the coverage, which in turn would help grow not only the league, but also the sport.
Such an option may see National Associations outside of the top ten nations in the World keen to stretch their wings and create a new revenue stream. Then again some may feel it is too far outside their comfort zone.The cost of participation in the Pro League could restrict those nations, but what about other nations not in the original nine such as Malaysia or South Africa which have large Indian communities?
Hopefully there will only be a one year hiatus and the league will return bigger, better, and stronger in 2019, but not in competition to the Pro League.
In the meantime every option to ensure its longevity and success should be explored, such as having the teams in places where they will receive support. Bhubaneswar and Ranchi are the envy of every team in the league, yet they are not enough when in a hotbed such as Punjab the stands are empty. Also moving forward it is vital that already underpaid athletes are paid on time, or the athletes will not sign up to play, and without the players you have nothing.