Hockey is coming home… or is it?

Hockey is coming home. It’s the appealing (even when slightly overused) slogan for the newest event by the FIH. But is it really? The FIH Pro League will start in January 2019 and is meant to be instrumental in the long-term strategy by the FIH. They named their plans for the future the Hockey Revolution at the FIH congress in 2014. In Dubai the FIH confirmed their plans during the 2016 congress during which they also announced their new president for the FIH, dr. Batra.

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FIH 2016 congress

During the congress the FIH told us research showed the sport was doing relatively well among those already familiar with the sport. But if we were to grow we had to aim at the general sports fans. They identified 3 groups : hockey fanatics, hockey enthusiasts and general sports followers. And hockey should focus for their growth on these general sports fans.

According to the FIH we needed bigger and better events. Bigger and better events would lead to more TV & media interest. More TV and media would increase the potential for sponsors. More sponsors and more media would lead to more revenues from both. More revenue would help develop the sport throughout the world.

The same research also came up with he specific characteristics of hockey to help convert these general sports followers to our game of hockey: skill, speed & a sense of belonging.

Makes sense, doesn’t it?

President Batra

FIH president dr. Batra (picture by FIH)

The new FIH president, dr. Narinder Batra, made it clear from the beginning of his reign. He would not be involved with day-to-day organisation and the calendar of events. The staff at the FIH office in Lausanne were more than capable to deal with this. Batra would focus his attention on increasing revenue & reach for the game of hockey.

We need more revenue from sponsors and media. All money would go to the development of hockey throughout the world to increase the reach of hockey, more countries on all continents

A third focus Batra mentioned was financial security for the players. Young talents should be able to really consider hockey as a career choice.

Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Home & Away

The new event was launched in 2016 with the working title Home & Away League. Between 6 and 9 nations would be invited to join. All teams playing each other in home & away games between January and June culminating in a grand final at the end of June. All teams would be guaranteed their spot for 4 years so they could offer real value to both sponsors and local media. The FIH would guarantee income for the players helping these move from amateur status to real pro’s. Both media and the public would need a more consistent calendar, so it is clear for all concerned when hockey would be on TV. Create the habit… So dates & times would be chosen to get maximum attention from general sports fans both in the stadium as on TV. More games in front of a home crowd would lead to full stadiums and Big, Bold & Loud events. Another slogan from the FIH… No more games between for example Spain and Argentina in front of an empty stadium because the tournament is being played in Germany.

Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Big, Bold & Loud, it’s the Hockey Pro League

In 2017 the FIH baptised in a big, bold and loud way their newest event the Hockey Pro League. Nine nations were chosen for both men and women to participate. Criteria were not only the global ranking, but also the potential for TV audience, stadium attendance and the financial stability to last at least these first 4 years.

So the inclusion of Pakistan for the men raised some eyebrows. Because of obvious security reasons Pakistan can’t play their home games in their own country. So they chose to play all of their home games in…. Glasgow, Scotland! Besides questions about financial stability – confirmed by recent troubles before the Asian Games and the resignation of their national coach just recently – and a global ranking too low to be considered normally, it seems we could also question if they would be able to generate events with not only an important TV audience but packed stadiums as well. But for those of us who know the legendary rivalry between Pakistan and India, resulting in games with enormous electricity, it was less of a surprise. The big games between these rival neighbours would attract in both countries and around the world important TV audiences. So India needed their neighbours to be included to get the best TV deal…

But then India lived up to the well known tourist slogan for their own country: Incredible India! They surprised the world with the withdrawal of both men and women from the HPL before it even started. In the wake of this surprise a major media partner Star Sports, a TV broadcaster from India, also withdrew from their multi-year agreement with the FIH.

Official reason: a less favourable qualification path to the Olympics for India and a difference of opinion on awarding of global ranking points.

Unofficial reason: a bruised ego. Because Batra, still unaccustomed to his new international role, lashed out with wild and unfounded accusations of match fixing by England and Pakistan. Being president of an international federation however is not the same as being the boss in India. He got a slap on the wrist from his own federation and we have hardly heard from the good man since. He has taken on a new role in his own India as head of the Indian Olympic Association and seems to be fully focussed on Indian (sports) politics ever since instead of international hockey.

So all of a sudden, the Hockey Pro League and the FIH are in trouble… Losing India, one of the most interesting countries and the broadcasting money from their media partner. Not being able to secure name sponsors would become the official reason for the CEO to abandon ship, as do almost all FIH directors who were instrumental in designing the Hockey Revolution.

However, the course had been set… The show must go on!

Makes sense, doesn’t it?

When the Hockey Pro League becomes the FIH Pro League

In Dubai (2016) the marketing executives told us in no uncertain terms : “Not the FIH, but hockey is our hero!”

But early 2018 these executives are gone… and the Hockey Pro League is renamed to FIH Pro League. The announcement of the new name was not made in a big, bold, nor loud way. Quite the contrary… Yes, the discrete change to FIH Pro League instead of the Hockey Pro League might just be semantics. But sometimes just semantics can say a lot….

Another blow for the new event, still to be launched, follows in March of 2018 when media reports about a letter sent by the FIH Pro League panel to those in charge of good governance at the FIH. This letter is requesting “an independent investigation relating to the signing of a contract on behalf of the FIH that we have been informed could jeopardise the implementation of the Hockey Pro League and potentially lead to bankruptcy.” The issue outlined in the letter concerns the contract between the FIH and Star Sports in India, in which it is claimed “that the FIH will ensure that India will participate in the Hockey Pro League… and that “the FIH will use its best endeavours to ensure the participation of Pakistan.” Though the existence of this letter and content were confirmed by FIH, to this day we still have no public knowledge of the way this was resolved or dealt with. It’s a fine line between a cover up and being discrete sometimes…

Around the same time a new CEO for the FIH takes up the challenge of leading us though this Hockey Revolution. Thierry Weil, is a heavy hitter, previously from adidas and FIFA, with lots of experience in landing major sponsor deals. He is very excited by our concept of this Pro League. Though the name is being used by several sports all over the world already, the concept of home & away games on a global scale is new. And according to him this challenge is what drew him to the world of hockey. Even though the clock is ticking it might be a good choice to go on with the show. Deliver a quality event to the best of our ability and give him some time to find us a title sponsor or some major partners. He stated in the press this weekend he believes the FIH Pro League will be viable. But he’s realistic about it as well. Will the FIH Pro League make us the big money from the start? No, he says. We will have to be patient and work hard together with the national associations involved to make this work.

Makes sense, doesn’t it?

You only get one chance to make a first impression!

So the FIH Pro League is a go! We know who will play and when they play. Stadiums are being (re)built and traditional club leagues are rescheduled to make way for the expanded international calendar. Even in Dubai the marketeers from the FIH already stated quite rightly you have to get it right from the outset. You only get one chance to make a first impression!

But then the calendar details start creeping in, slowly but surely… and the very first game of the FIH Pro League is scheduled between Spain and Belgium on Saturday 2019-01-19 at 13h in Valencia… Siesta time and in a city with some 1000 active hockey players. So FIH and the Spanish federation will need an amazing marketing campaign to make this a Big, Bold & Loud event with thousands of spectators in the stadium and even bigger crowds behind the screens. If you take another look at that calendar they’ve got games scheduled on Friday’s at 11 am local time. So maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about, but this feels like we’re setting ourselves up for failure.

Saturday or Sunday I can see the value for TV of early afternoon games or anything different from the usual hours for bigger sports. But weekdays at 11 am? I get you want to avoid the big sports and 11 am on a Friday would do it… But that will also lead to empty stadiums and disappointing viewer numbers. We should agree with each national association and the contracted broadcaster in every country to determine what would be the best time for a weekend game and what would be the best time for a weeknight game and stick to it. Get your viewers used to a fixed pattern, create a tradition. It could be different for different countries but weekday at 11 am won’t cut it! Where ever you are…

But what ever the choices made, each and every country will have to set up a major and unseen marketing campaign together with the FIH if we want to make it work. You’ve got to saw the seeds before you can reap the harvest.

Makes sense, doesn’t it?

A Pro League needs Pro Players

Batra promised he would make it possible for young talents all around the world to make it realistic considering hockey for a career. An ambitious goal, but possible I think. However things will have to change in order for this to become a reality.

We’ve all seen what he did for pro players with the Hockey India League. But doing this on a global scale is something else. The HIL made it possible for India to make giant steps these last couple of years but it also made it possible for pro players from other countries to finally make some money. Unfortunately the HIL has been the first victim of the FIH Pro League and we’ll have to wait and see if India can bring it back and secure a spot in the calendar for this great event.

Some of the European club leagues are the only other way for pro players to make a living. But here also the FIH Pro League is making it difficult. Belgium & The Netherlands both had to adapt their league which will lead to less (!) revenue for their clubs who are providing income for their players.

So for now the FIH Pro League is the cause of stress on the existing sources of income for pro players rather than providing them with extra money. Because the lack of sponsors so far means the FIH will not be providing any substantial money for participating players.

Don’t forget, playing for your national team in several countries, even some of the big nations, does not provide these players with any income. In some countries it’s really zero, some provide their players with a very modest salary and only a few really provide an regular income.

No one expects these pro players to immediately get major salaries similar to those in major entertainment sports like cricket, football or the NBA. But if you expect these athletes to live like a pro 24/7 and 365 days/year, they do deserve a decent income. Making enough to start building their life and enough to allow them the time needed to convert to a regular job when their athlete’s life is over. Until FIH and the national associations are able to do this it is unrealistic to expect amateur or semi-pro athlete’s to go pro… Because if they don’t do this, we will see players choosing making a living from their club teams over playing for their country. And we don’t want that.

Makes sense, doesn’t it?

The road to hell is paved with good intentions

In 2014 the FIH proposed its Hockey Revolution as their strategy for 2014-2024. In Dubai during the 2016 congress they confirmed their plans and later this year at the 2018 congress in New Delhi scheduled for november, we will see another more detailed outline of the operational part of their strategy most likely.

By now we’re half way their outlined plans for the Hockey Revolution and the time has come to make these plans a reality. So we’re entering a crucial time for hockey…Money time!

Because the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Executing plans however, adapting to changing situations and making it happen will determine if hockey has a future! Will president Batra return to hockey and follow up on his promises at the start of his reign?

We will find out in 2019! Makes sense, doesn’t it?