Food for thought from our global round table

Ahead of the very important FIH congress on November 4 & 5 of 2022 we brought together a couple of hockey people from around the world, from different walks of life and with different roles in our game of hockey. The idea was to ask them the same questions I asked the two candidates for the FIH presidency some weeks ago and listen to each others views. Read about both presidential candidates in our column “A clash of cultures“. What would you like to continue? What would you like to change? What would be your priorities?

We hope this gives all administrators from the NA’s attending & voting at the FIH congress next week some extra food for thought…

Who participated in the round table talk?

We went for a diverse panel with hockey people from all over the world to share their views from different perspectives. The people who attended our round table were:

  • Katrin Kauschke from Germany. Former international player and currently vice president for the German NA (national association)
  • Leandro Martinez-Zurita from Spain. President of the EHCO, the European hockey clubs organisation
  • Jorge Dabanch from Argentina. Having coached top division clubs in Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium he currently is the head coach for Chile
  • Rajpal Singh from India. Former captain of the national team for India
  • Paul Kelly from Australia. Sponsor & business partner to hockey among many other sporting organisations
  • Jade Bloomfield from the UK. Editor for Hockeyworld News
  • Tyron Barnard from South Africa. Editor for Hockey The Magazine & podcaster
  • Jimmy Bhogal from India. Social media & twitter voice from India as Give Me Hockey
  • … and yours truly: Ernst Baart from the Netherlands & living in Belgium. Founder of both – where it’s all about sharing insights and opinions regarding the bigger picture for hockey & – where it’s all about sharing knowledge among coaches from all over the world.

All of us spoke in our own names, not as a representative for any organisation. Just some people who love our sport & take the time to reflect on it… We did not agree with all that was said, as was to be expected. But we did find common ground on some matters. Sometimes much to our own surprise… Some sensible remarks were made that deserve to be heard by those who will decide the fate of our sport for the years to come next week.

We touched on many topics, so I picked the views from different people that stuck with me following our talk. I might not agree to the fullest myself with all of these, but thought they were worth sharing…

Recreational & professional hockey

As I mentioned in my previous column ” A clash of cultures”, hockey is seen and lived in very different ways around the world. Leandro Martinez-Zurita and myself talked about our love for the family focussed clubs.

The tradition from over 100 years of families coming together to enjoy our sport. Live a healthy lifestyle and make connections. Provide our kids with the “village we need to raise our children” in the form of clubs, safe havens as a part of their education. These clubs come with leagues for all ages to play on a regular schedule for at least 6 months of every year. I think, with some local accents, this will be very recognisable for countries like Argentina or Australia. Not so for Asia…

Rajpal Singh painted a very different picture for India when he stated:

“We don’t have a league. We have tournaments. There are no family based clubs. We are totally professional players. If someone gives us money we will play, otherwise there are no family based clubs.”

(Rajpal Singh, India)

Paul Kelly made it very clear hockey in Australia is still very much an amateur sport. Same remarks from Jorge Dabanch in Chile.

The players in Chile are engineers, doctors,… they work in other things, they study. They can not attend international competitions and just leave for hockey. They are not interested in earning money from hockey. And that is different in every country. And every country needs to find the way to grow. And in Chile the only way is sharing life and hockey.

(Jorge Dabanch, Argentina / Chile)

It is clear the way sport and hockey are perceived around the world are very different. It is clear these differences are here to stay as well, at least for the foreseeable future. So we have to deal with these. It means – in my opinion – there can be no one FIH policy to manage our sport for the entire world. We need different approaches. But… and this is a big but… the different approaches need to be managed and harmonised in such a way they do not clash. Where possible they should reinforce each other. I do not think this is possible unless we move away from the fetish of international hockey. I believe this is only possible if around the world we make sure domestic hockey – in whatever shape or form – comes first! It means the FIH for some is only there to manage the international pinnacle events and for others it would more a support in sharing expertise on how to grow our sport, wether that is on a recreational or professional level (or a combination) makes no difference, it just depends on local culture.

Domestic & international hockey

It means NA’s (national associations) should focus on their domestic growth and second to that on their national teams. Not the other way around. It means the FIH should be there to support its NA’s, not compete with their domestic hockey. International hockey is not the end goal, just a means to grow domestic hockey.

Domestic hockey can take on many shapes and forms. Obviously I’m a big fan of the clubs and leagues we have in most European countries. It combines recreational hockey with in some countries different levels of semi-professionalism. But it does not have to be the same elsewhere. If India – and/or other (Asian) countries – see sport only as a possible career, I can imagine the system of regional tournaments with cash prizes could use a boost from their NA to get more people picking up a stick or attending these events. If they can manage expectations a bit better I do believe a renewed Hockey India League (HIL) would be very beneficial to the sport. In some countries domestic hockey will be about corporate or franchised teams and tournaments or about school & university leagues.

Whatever the format you prefer I strongly believe hockey has NO future if it is not build upon the foundations of domestic hockey. Any NA, whatever your situation should always have its domestic hockey as the number 1 priority and know international hockey is but a means to an end. It’s the cherry on top of the cake, yes. A very attractive and sexy cherry. But without the cake to support it, our sport would go hungry and die. Nobody can live on just a cherry 😉

It means NA’s (national associations) should focus on their domestic growth first. And second to that on their national teams. Not the other way around. It means the FIH should be there to support its NA’s in the way that works best for that NA. The FIH should never compete with their domestic hockey.

Paul Kelly, a sponsor and business partner to many sports in Australia, shared his thoughts about the Pro League:

The thought of bringing a Pro League was great, but it was so expensive and I think the structure was just so wrong. It actually took our best players out of our clubs and even our National League for extended periods of time. So it didn’t allow us to promote our own players. So our clubs and national leagues didn’t have our best players…

(Paul Kelly, Australia)

So what about the Pro League?

Most (if not all) of our panellists were convinced the Pro League, as is, has no future. The time has come we all need to face the facts this was a megalomaniac project. On my end I loved the original concept. I still do. Moving away from tournaments to home & away games only, so every international game would always be played in front of a home crowd made sense to me. Unfortunately the concept suffered from:

  • Poor politics: refusing (!) the sponsor who was there before it started and would have made it financially viable
  • Poor management: changing formats, rules and calendars at every turn, often without seriously consulting those involved; not thinking of the impact on those not involved
  • Poor marketing: not being able to secure a new global sponsor; still believing old school media solutions (TV) would make a difference; selling 3rd rate TV productions to often unreliable media partners so even hard core fans around the world often have a hard time trying to watch the games live.

Some suggestions from Paul Kelly:

An example that works very well is volleyball. Australia is in the Volleyball Nations League. It’s an international event with 16 nations and basically 4 weeks where they play all 15 other countries in that period. So they get really a high level competition but they’re only away for 4 weeks. So FIH needs to look at this example and not compete with domestic leagues, taking away their players and not dominate the time of the international players all over the world. It would allow business to invest again in domestic hockey and national programs, because that is where the growth is going to come from.

(Paul Kelly, Australia)

Are you playing Pro League or playing for your club? That should not be a question players have to answer. There should be set periods so we can get the best of both. But at the moment the Pro League is causing issues to allow us to grow the game. We’ve got to strengthen our national leagues and I think Pro League is taking away from that.

(Paul Kelly, Australia)

Tyron Barnard gave us some African perspective:

We had pinnacle events. The World Cup and the Olympics were our pinnacle events. Next you would have the different continental championships. And you would have 1 other thing and that was the Champions Challenge (or Champions Trophy for the top nations). Now it just feels like there’s too many things happening. That has devalued hockey.

(Tyron Barnard, South Af rica)

Or about the consequence for countries not in the Pro League, Tyron Barnard:

What happened for us in South Africa is countries, because of budget spend in Pro League, stopped coming to us for practice games which used to give us great exposure. The more the best teams play only each other in the Pro league, the more you create a bigger and bigger chasm with the next tier of nations.

(Tyron Barnard, South Africa)

Here also Jorge Dabanch is weighing in as the head coach for Chile:

For us the problem is, we have not enough competition. We only have 1 event every two years. Recently we played the South American event where we had 7 games, but only 1 real match. The final against Argentina, because the levels are very different. The Pro League is showing too many so called big matches. If you show the big games only ever 2 or 3 years, the people are interested. But if you play these every 3 weeks, the people are not interested.

(Jorge Dabanch, Argentina / Chile)

About the effect of Pro League on choices for the NA’s, Paul Kelly:

Australia wasn’t sure about competing in the Pro League because it was so expensive. But when they did, they literally had no more budget for anything else. It had an impact on our Australian national league, there was no more money for touring with the U21 or U18 development teams. Because all of the money went to the Pro League.

(Paul Kelly, Australia)

…or again Tyron Barnard:

South Africa only took the recent invite for the Pro League because it was a 1 year deal and a local TV channel (Super Sport) already had invested in the broadcasting rights. The budget was more or less 650K US dollar. For that money our national teams could have played over 50 test matches. Now the Nations Cup is coming up. The prize for winning the Nations Cup is a ticket into the Pro League… and a massive, massive bill…! So is it worth it winning the Nations Cup if you don’t have that sponsor lined up?

(Tyron Barnard, South Africa)

The message FIH keeps sending is so confusing according to Jade Bloomfield from Hockeyworld News:

First they told us the Pro League was our flagship tournament. Now it has just been decided winning the Pro League gets you a spot for the World Cup or Olympics. So surely the World Cup should be that flagship event, not the Pro League. So where are we going with this, how are they selling the competition? They’re going to the media with a completely confused message. So no wonder broadcasters are saying: You don’t even know your own sport, so how are going to push your sport?

(Jade Bloomfield, UK)

And let me add on a personal note it is completely unacceptable that an invitational event like Pro League becomes a qualifying event. That is something that goes against all rules about fairness and sports conduct…

Tyron Barnard agreed with Bloomfield regarding the importance of the Pro League:

If you ask any hockey player, the pinnacle event is the Olympic Games and next the World Cup.There is not a single player saying the pinnacle is the Pro League. So much so that players quite happily miss a test match in the Pro League game because they want to play their club game domestically.

(Tyron Barnard, South Africa)

Katrin Kauschke is responsable for tophockey in the German NA and has the experience of a former international player herself. She also shared her thoughts on the Pro League:

In Germany we are thinking about how can we afford all these international games? And how can we secure the support from our clubs association to go with us this way in international hockey. The format of the Pro League probably has to be rethought. And I think this progress already started. Maybe the final decision could be a return to the Champions Trophy. Which was a format I very much liked. Maybe it’s another format.

(Katrin Kauschke, Germany)

She goes on describing the possibility of returning to each country deciding themselves when to go and play abroad. Essentially practice games, but these could be branded as some kind of Test Series or Pro League games. But in any case the weighing of this format should be rethought. It could give back meaning to events like the Sultan Johor Cup in Malaysia or the Summer Series in South Africa…

Some thoughts shared about the way our game is managed by FIH…

Tyron Barnard shares an African perspective about Hockey5s, the artificial 3rd format of our game the FIH is so desperately trying to push down our throats:

I’m a big fan of Rugby 7s as a reduced form of the original Rugby 15s. But they have taken none of the fundamental values of the game out of the rules! Indoor hockey or Hockey6s does the same thing. They’ve kept the fundamental spirit of hockey. Hockey5s doesn’t! Just taking away circles and short corners… it doesn’t. We are also not a big enough sport, that we need a 3rd variation. I look at the fairytale story of Namibia or the ones from Trinidad & Tobago or Kazachstan. These are guys who will never qualify for the 11-a-side world cup. But they do get there in Indoor hockey. They do not need hockey5s for that… they’ve got indoor hockey.

(Tyron Barnard, South Africa)

And a side note from me to this statement from Tyron Barnard. We all know indoor hockey doesn’t need to be played indoor. It can be played on any outdoor smooth field of play. It shares the same pitch size with sports like handball or futsal. We probably should stop marketing it as indoor hockey and call it Super Sixes or something like that to make that clear to the uninformed. In my belief there is NO added value from Hockey5s that could not also be attained by the existing short format of hockey that already has a legacy and following around the world. This unnecessary 3rd format is costing us…

Jorge Dabanch was straightforward in his message to FIH about the notion we should compete with the big sports with a project like Pro League and the priorities for FIH:

We are not a big sport! And that is important! We lost this race. We lost it. Hockey is not a big sport! Hockey is a small sport. And FIH needs to take care of what is the way to grow in every country.

(Jorge Dabanch, Argentina / Chile)

Jorge Dabanch also has another message for FIH in managing international hockey events and the non-stop changing of rules & regulations:

I’m an international coach and even for me it’s difficult to understand how we play the next World Cup. If you take a 3rd place, you have to change the city. And you have to play a 1st ranked team who has been waiting for 1 full week for another match, without matches. And you say why??? Just play two groups, semi finals and finals. Everybody understands that. It’s easy!

(Jorge Dabanch, Argentina / Chile)

FIH changes the rules too often. Sometimes the game is better for it. But if your grandfather wakes up and sees a hockey game, they will not recognise anything. That is not traditional. This year they started talking about changing the short corner? The short corner is the heart of field hockey! And these smart guys want to change the short corner? These people are crazy! 🙂

(Jorge Dabanch, Argentina / Chile)

And about the struggles of being the coach for a 2nd tier nation like Chile:

It is too difficult to go up in the ranking. It is impossible! We have no matches. What is the way for us to take points? If you have no competitions? If you ask another country for a match, they say no to official matches. Only friendlies, because else they risk to lose points.

(Jorge Dabanch, Argentina / Chile)

I called the presidential election coming up a “clash of cultures” but Leandro Martinez-Zurita thinks it’s more about continuity or change:

Continuity or change? I think change would come when Marc Coudron gets elected… and I desire that. If Tayyab Ikram stays in office we will see more continuity of the same. I think we need change. Financially the red numbers at FIH are increasing. There is a big hole and the Pro League has been a disaster, among other initiatives like Hockey5s. They have been pulling money away from development. Money in the Foundation and other accounts totally dedicated for development has been invested in Pro League. With the excuse the Pro League is also hockey development. But sorry, that is not development. Whoever gets elected will face a big financial challenge.

(Leandro Martinez-Zurita, Spain)

Two other important trends brought forward by Leandro Martinez-Zurita were the move away from waterbased pitches, because this is not a sustainable option for the (near) future. And the need for the FIH to come up with a short format, maybe a mix between Hockey5s and indoor hockey, to serve as a developmental format to help countries without hockey to grow the game.

Jade Bloomfield, from the UK, agreed with most of what Leandro Martinez-Zurita said:

The next election is about continue or change. Everyone here is in agreement that the sport is not in a great place. So realistically there is only one thing that should happen and that is Marc Coudron getting voted in so he can start that change that is needed.

(Jade Bloomfield, UK)

There is way too much international hockey, played in Europe. But as Jorge said in Chile or South America, there is not enough. It’s the FIH’s job to ensure a unified approach for hockey across the world and the amount of games being played. I still struggle to get my head around how an international player that has been playing 2 or 3 years at the top can get to 50 caps. In football a player can go for a whole career and not get to that amount of caps. There is too much international hockey ! And that goes back to attendance, people watching the sport. GB had to change one of their venues for a Pro League game scheduled in a big rugby stadium. For that match they had sold only 486 tickets… in a stadium that seats 12.000. It shows people are not that interested anymore in international games unless it’s at a big event like the World Cup.

(Jade Bloomfield, UK)

The obsession with India

There is no denying India has been at the centre of attention for the FIH these last years. And most will agree there are good reasons for this as well. But too much is too much, even for India.

Jimmy Bhogal, known as “Give Me Hockey” sharing insights on twitter from the Indian perspective, recognises it is not sound to bet it all on just the one country. Even if it has this big potential:

FIH has this India-centric approach. Which is actually great for us in India. But if you look at the sport as a whole, it is really, really bad! I understand India has the biggest market, most of the money is here. But that doesn’t mean you rely on just this one thing!

(Jimmy Bhogal, India)

We do not have a domestic structure, so FIH gives us more international games. So we have more fans tuning in. But is this the same thing throughout the world? No, the answer is no! Everybody here agrees that club hockey is very important for the growth of our sport. But it works for some countries and it doesn’t for some countries. So FIH needs to find an approach to soothe everyone. I understand FIH has increased Pro League to give us more international games, more Indian fans tuning in, more opportunities for them to earn some money. But that is not the right approach for hockey.

(Jimmy Bhogal, India)

Champions Trophy used to be the biggest event following World Cup and Olympics. But you play those tournaments once in 4 years and Champions Trophy was more regular. But if if you take the Pro League where India is playing Australia today and next week India is playing Belgium… That takes out all the fun !

(Jimmy Bhogal, India)

Jorge Dabanch shared his opinion on India as well:

Without India, hockey will be killed. The people who watch hockey are in India.If they are without these kind of international tournaments, we are out of the Olympic Games. And if hockey is out of the Olympic Games, we are killed. So we need to find something in between the Indian view and the rest of the world view. If not we will continue to be a small sport, every year smaller…

(Jorge Dabanch, Argentina / Chile)

Final remarks

If I recap, we all agreed hockey is not in the best of places right now and a change is needed. We think Pro League, as is, will not be the solution but rather is a big part of the problem. Financially the FIH is in trouble, made some odd choices… and we urgently need to rectify this with sustainable healthy finances. We need people running the sport who realise we are not one of the big sports in the world, so we need to be smarter in the choices we make. We don’t need ( and can’t handle) a 3rd competitive format in our sport. What we do need is a tailored approach for the different needs of our sport around the world. Tailored to the needs of the different NA’s. We need an FIH focussed on supporting the NA’s in growing their domestic game first, whatever the format for this that suits different countries.

I would like to share the remarks from Katrin Kauschke for the final remarks coming from this round table talk with hockey people from around the world…

Some of us said about the one who will be elected it will be change or continuity. I just hope it will not be that choice. I hope the one who is more about continuity is also open minded and willing to have some changes. Because I think that is what we need to have. A common sense in our decisions, making our decisions thinking of all nations and people. That is why I hope each of the choices will be open for thoughts like that.

(Katrin Kauschke, Germany)

Of course we know the above is but a sample of thoughts. We could easily find others with even more different opinions. But I do believe there is some worthy food for thought for the people managing our sport in the quotes above. Let’s hope they vote with a well informed and open mind for the good of our sport…