No Conspiracy Behind the Home and Away League

Ever since the introduction of artificial turf at the 1976 Olympic Games the hockey nations from the sub-continent have claimed that this was a deliberate move by powers within the game of hockey to halt their success. The reason given for the change was simply that in Montreal, host for the 1976 Olympic Games, they were struggling to grow grass of a suitable standard to host the hockey tournament, so alternatives had to be found.

Between 1924 and 1976 only one nation had won Olympic Gold in the men’s hockey event apart from India and Pakistan, and that was West Germany in 1972. India had won six consecutive gold medals up until 1960 when Pakistan beat them in the final. They reversed that result in 1964 in Tokyo, before Pakistan won again in 1968 beating Australia in the final. India having been defeated by Australia in the semi finals and not made a final for the first time in 44 years.

The Olympics Games in Montreal in 1976 was the first time since 1924 that neither India or Pakistan made the Gold medal match. India would claim Gold in 1980 at an event weakened by an international boycott and four years later in Los Angeles Pakistan would win Gold. This would be the last time that either team would make the Olympic Final.

The switch to artificial turf has been blamed on the demise of both nations. In both countries where hockey is still played across the country, the number of artificial pitches is not in line with those playing the game. In the 1980’s the situation was far worse. So there is merit to the argument. India is finally back in the mix having medalled at major international tournaments in the past two years, but sadly Pakistan has fallen behind even further with no one playing them at home, and the game is struggling financially there.

Australia played in the Olympic final of 1968 and again in 1976, the first final not to feature India or Pakistan, where they lost to New Zealand. They have since then not been out of the top four teams in the world.

The FIH announced a year ago that the international hockey calendar was to change in 2019 and that they were to launch a new Global League. In principal it made sense. This was a tournament that could elevate the top teams and gain them much needed international exposure and television coverage. The concern at that early stage was that the League would widen the gap between the first tier nations, those in the top ten, and those outside the top ten.

Once the criteria for inclusion was revealed, of which a broadcaster was a key part, the landscape shifted. There were concerns that Germany, winners of the Gold medal at the London and Beijing Olympics would not be a apart of the tournament as they were struggling to secure a national broadcaster. This seemed unthinkable.

This led to other top nations questioning the honeymoon period after which the FIH would announce the teams included in the tournament. Some of the top European nations wanted to have a period in which they could “opt out” based on which nations were chosen to participate. They feared that many of the top teams would be prohibited by the cost and the television rights issue, and therefore the quality of the tournament would be compromised. They wanted a period that allowed them to withdraw if they felt that not enough of the top sides were a part of the new league.

The new league was always going to be a challenge for the teams from the Southern hemisphere, namely Australia and New Zealand. There were some conspiracy-theorists who felt that this move, was a deliberate one to pull Australia back to the pack, and prevent them from being so dominant. Yet these carry little weight as the former CEO of Hockey Australia was a part of the working party that came up with the new Global League concept.

However the financial burden of being part of the new league is likely to stretch Australian Hockey. The current plan of playing games a week apart, and teams not being allowed to play friendly games against other Global League opponents in between games will mean a huge cost for minimum games.

There are many who feel that the format of the competition should be changed and that each nation should play a three match series rather than one match. These games could be scheduled on a Saturday and Sunday to maximise crowds and television coverage, with the third game being played on a Tuesday evening. The teams could then move on to their next opponent and play Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. The key incentive would be bonus points for any side managing a clean sweep over their opponent.

Many of the players and coaches have said that they would prefer such a format as they want to play games, rather than sit in a hotel and train for six days. It is understood that the administrators are concerned that the extra games would result in extra costs, and make the competition unviable.

Australia and New Zealand if they are to participate in the new league will under the current rules be faced with having to make two trips to Europe to play their European opponents, as the plan is that no team should be away for more than three weeks. Such travel and accommodation costs could prove crippling.

In addition to the travel costs to Europe, Australia faces higher costs than most when hosting games at home. The idea of the league is to be able to take games to other parts of each country and spread the promotion of the game. Australia has all its players based in Perth. To have to move them around the country to meet this key part of the participation agreement would again be costly. With a men’s and women’s team playing it could become unfeasible. A flight from Perth to Brisbane is the equivalent of flying from London to beyond Moscow! Not quite the same as London to The Hague or Munich.

When one takes these issues into account it is understandable that the conspiracy-theorists feel that the new competition has been created to stop Australia’s dominant performances.

Applications for the new league have been, according to the FIH oversubscribed. Not surprisingly no one want to miss out. Yet at what cost must they be a part of such a competition? Would a regional competition with the Champions and runners up playing crossover matches home and away have been more viable?

Twelve nations have submitted for their men’s teams to be a part of the nine-team competition. Thirteen nations have submitted for their teams to be a part of the Women’s competition, which will also be made up of nine teams.

It is an interesting time to embark on such a competition. As Super Rugby has shown, albeit it in the Southern Hemisphere a cross country tournament is an expensive exercise. With only one Super Rugby franchise out of 18 managing to break even last year, the warning signs are evident. It is vital that all the nations participating are not relying solely on money generated from television, as the television landscape is changing. Money that may be available now is not going to be guaranteed in two, let alone three years time.

It is therefore vital that those assessing the applications make sure that each nation has the financial backing over the next five years to be able to survive in this competitive environment. The sport cannot afford to have a national association go broke, and neither can such an ambitious competition afford to have nations pull out after one or two years due to “unforeseen costs.”

The concept is a great one, and it has the potential to elevate the sport to another level, yet it comes with many risks. It has taken India forty years to recover from the introduction of new technologies. Financial losses are unlikely to set a nation back for that long, but it could see them take ten years to recover, as long as they are able to garner government support. Yet that support across many nations is now being cut when it comes to sport.

A decision will be made on June 8th, and then we will know which nations are in the new league. Not surprisingly with a leap into the unknown there is some resistance and fear. Once the FIH announce the teams they will hopefully reveal along with each individual nation the financials behind their participation and allay any fears that fans of the sport may have.

One of the key components for the competition to be a success will be the marketing of it. Whose responsibility will that be? Will it be a communal pot that all the nations pay into, and the FIH manages in order to have a uniform marketing strategy, or will it be left to each individual participating nation to market their teams? This will be another key component and one that will need to be well thought out and planned.

As has been witnessed by the Hockey India League the marketing of the league has dwindled in recent years and that has had an impact on the tournament. Regrettably too much of the marketing was left solely to the broadcast partner Star Sports, when so much needed to be built around that promotion by those running the Tournament and the individual franchises.

A similar three pronged approach will be needed with the Global league in order to reap the greatest rewards. The FIH, the individual nations and the television partners must all work together to promote the league. It is encouraging that the FIH recently advertised for a new Marketing Manager, this indicates that they are placing a great deal of emphasis on the promotion of the game and in particular this tournament. To be a success in such a competitive environment it has to be marketed properly right from the start.

To many these are exciting times, to others they are nervous times. Let us hope it proves to be the launching pad for the game, and showcases the sport, one that Dutch great Marco Van Basten was advocating football follow!

No Conspiracy Behind the Home and Away League
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