The Hockey Pro-League which is due to be launched in January 2019 is a competition that many believe will revolutionise international Hockey. As with any major changes in life there are those who are in favour of this new competition and the traditionalists who are deadset against it.
The key issues have to be whether it will benefit the game in the long run. Will it give the game more exposure on television, online and in print? Will it allow the dedicated athletes who excel at international level be able to make a living from playing their sport, or will they remain professionals in all aspects apart from the financial rewards?
On June 11th the International Hockey Federation (FIH) announced the nine teams that would play in the Men’s and Women’s Pro Leagues. The CEO of the FIH Jason McCracken addressed those key issues when he said that the Pro League will 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.”He is quoted as saying in the official statement.
The competition suffered its first body blow less than a month after the announcement of the teams selected to participate. On the 8th of July the FIH confirmed that India was withdrawing from the Pro League.
This decision sent shock waves through the Hockey World as India are to hockey what Brazil is to Football. It seems unthinkable that the spiritual home of the game will not be participating in this showpiece event.
It seems even more unthinkable when one looks at the events of the past ten years.
However as with many things in life it pays to explore the history before looking at the present.
Hockey first appeared at the Olympic Games in London in 1908. There were no tournaments at the 1912 or 1924 Olympic Games but it has been a regular feature at the Olympics ever since. India, has since won eight Olympic Hockey gold medals and six consecutively, more than any other nation.
After the partition of India in 1947 one of the World greatest sporting rivalries emerged, hockey between the newly created Pakistan and India. Having lost the Olympic final in 1956, Pakistan finally dethroned India in 1960.
It was from 1928-1972 until the subcontinent’s dominance of hockey at the Olympics was broken when West Germany defeated Pakistan in the final.
Four years later the Olympic Games were played on a synthetic pitch for the first time. The reason being that host city Montreal was having trouble growing grass. Many in the subcontinent feel that this was a deliberate plot to undermine their dominance, and this topic has been debated much over the years. The truth is it had a massive impact on Indian and Pakistan teams. Artificial pitches were and are expensive to lay, and India and Pakistan were unable to afford to lay such pitches in adequate numbers, so players played on grass and then had to adjust at international tournaments to an artificial surface; a surface that also changed the way the game was played.
In 2008, one hundred years after its first Olympic appearance the sport found itself facing its biggest challenge to remain a part of the “Greatest Show on Earth.”
India failed to qualify for the Olympic Games in Beijing, and as a result no one wanted to buy the television rights for the tournament. The International Hockey Federation (FIH) realised then that for Hockey to survive, they needed India.
Yet in India in 2008 the game was in disarray. The Indian Olympic Association had been forced to step in after the Indian Hockey Federation was suspended. A new governing body was created in Hockey India, so effectively there were two bodies claiming to run the sport.
In 2009 the FIH sent observers to India to oversee that Hockey India’s elections were carried out in a democratic manner, and to the satisfaction of the game’s governing body. They then pinned their colours to the Hockey India mast.
No one knows just how much money was invested into Hockey in India over the next four years, but former FIH staffers claim it was an extremely large sum, and something that neither party has ever revealed.
At the start of 2012 a League tournament attracting some of the best players from around the world, World Series Hockey, which was set up by the Indian Hockey Federation, was quashed when all who played in the tournament received bans. All of the Indian national squad had signed up for the competition, but then were forced to withdraw when also threatened with bans. They were all available for, and played in India’s Olympic Qualifier. India won, and was back on the Olympic stage. Sadly though they lost every game at London 2012.
In the next four years the FIH and Hockey India became closer bedfellows. The FIH’s reasoning was that India was where the money was. With a booming economy and a strong national hockey team, a sport close to the hearts of all Indians, it seemed a logical assumption.
The Hockey India League was set up, sanctioned by the FIH and launched in 2013. It was a very similar competition to World Series Hockey, where the best players from around the world were auctioned to the Franchise teams in various cities in India.
In 2014 the FIH signed a “ground-breaking deal will run from January 2015 to December 2022,” (sic) with broadcaster Star Sports in India.
In the press release the FIH revealed “As part of the deal, STAR Sports has acquired global media rights for all territories, excluding Argentina. Through its network of international affiliates and other national broadcasters, content will be distributed to over 200 countries, reaching billions of sports fans taking hockey’s global viewing audience to unprecedented levels.” This simply did not happen.
Star Sports invested heavily into the sport, but soon found that there was little marketing being done to support their efforts. As the viewing figures failed to materialise Star sports understandably looked to shave costs on production, to minimise their losses.
The eight-year deal came to a premature end in 2017.
Also during this period Hero Motorcorp emerged as an outstanding sponsor for Hockey and came on board as a sponsor not only of the HIL, but also of international tournaments in which India featured. They withdrew from sponsoring the HIL in 2016 and Coal India stepped into the breach.
In addition, Hockey India and the FIH agreed that India would play host to a major international Tournament every year. Which in turn meant that as host nation India automatically qualified for the final of every major event. This appeared to be the perfect marriage.
Yet suddenly in 2017 the relationship seems to be unravelling. The FIH deal with Star came to a mutually agreed premature end, but Star remain a partner in India. The Hockey India League has been put on ice until 2019, and India has pulled out of the Pro-League, the FIH’s showcase event.
The timing of this is all very strange as Indian Hockey has never been in a better position. The Juniors were crowned World Champions at the end of 2016, The men won Bronze at the Hockey World League finals in 2015, Silver at the Champions Trophy in 2016 and won the Asian Champion Trophy in the same year. The women’s team the Indian Eves qualified for the Olympics for the first time since 1980, and they too won the Women’s Asian Champions Trophy.
Understandably people are asking what went wrong?
Some in the sport are very concerned that India’s withdrawal will see the money available for the Pro League greatly diminish. Fans of the game in India fear that by not playing against the best teams and hosting the best players in the HIL their national teams will once again drop down the world rankings.
These are understandable fears. Yet one feels that with India now back amongst the best teams in the World, the goal that was laid out in 2008 has been achieved. Indian Hockey is now in a far healthier place. So should not the FIH turn their attention to other nations and try and help build them up, for example India’s arch rival Pakistan?
The sport benefits from both of these nations being competitive, as do they as nations. Pakistan have suffered not qualifying for the Olympics for the first time in 2016, they also failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2014. In the interests of the sport as a whole, should the FIH invest in bringing Pakistan’s game back up?
With Star Sports no longer a global media partner one would expect that the FIH are in an ideal position to in fact reap more money from television rights, dealing with multiple stations rather than just one. However as Star will attest these agreements need to be supported by strong cohesive marketing campaigns, by not only the National Association in that country but also the game’s governing body, the FIH. Marketing that goes beyond social media.
As for the money in India, there must be other companies around the world who, like Hero, who see the benefit in being a part of this great sport. It is now up to the powers that be at the FIH to work with the National Associations and source such support.
It is sad that a great Hockey nation such as India will not be a part of the Pro League. It is sad that many will be deprived the sublime skills that are unique to players from India. It is sad because those players who came through the junior ranks under Harendra Singh and won the Junior World Cup – India’s first win since 2001 – deserve to be mixing it with the best as they establish themselves at international level. They carry the hopes of a nation that India can once again climb atop the medal podium at the Olympic Games, but one feels their task will be made harder by playing outside the Pro League.
So have the roles reversed? In 2008 the International Hockey Federation needed India, now is it India who needs the FIH?