In a round table organised by Studio Hockey on June 20 Thierry Weil, the CEO of the FIH and Angus Kirkland, CEO of the EHF, met with representatives of the top clubs in Europe. Clubs were feeling they were not heard by their own NA’s (national associations). They feel the international calendar makes it hard (or impossible) to run a domestic top league the right way. Meaning it would guarantee top hockey in healthy circumstances for the athletes involved. But also well planned and organised so commercial partners can be attracted and convinced to sign up for longer periods by both clubs and leagues. As well as fans know what to expect when. It’s one of the reasons why in several countries across Europe, clubs have set up associations. To defend the interests of clubs only. Since NA’s always have to balance the needs of national teams and clubs. The different club associations came together in the European Hockey Clubs Organization or EHCO.
Harmonising the top domestic league dates in Europe
The European top clubs, represented by the EHCO and in agreement with the EHF, have made it clear they need the guarantee of at least 25 weekends for their domestic top leagues. That is 11 weekends between the beginning of September and the end of November. Plus 14 weekends between the beginning of March and mid June. The leagues assembled in the EHCO (Spain, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Belgium) have agreed they will harmonise their domestic top leagues to this effect. All of them starting early September. Taking a break from December to February. Restarting in March and closing up before mid June. This would also make it possible for the EHF to have a guaranteed slot including the last weekend of April every year for the EHL finals.
Thierry Weil (FIH): give me 3… strike that… 4 blocks of 6 days
Before September 1st the FIH will sign a deal with all NA’s involved regarding the next 4 seasons of the FIH Pro League. Season 4 to 8 of the FIH Pro League will be divided into 4 blocks in which the nations involved play their Pro League games. One block before the end of December. A second one in January – February. A third one in March – April and a fourth in May- June. Next to the planning in blocks of the regular home or away games, they will also move to mini-tournaments, with multiple nations at 1 location. Because only the nations with a local broadcasting deal in place, will get to play home games. This way it will be better for both player wellbeing, as well as less stress on the domestic calendars.
All want to allow the European nations involved to set up their domestic leagues without too much interference from a crowded international calendar. So Thierry Weil from FIH told us he would ask the European NA’s to commit to 3 blocks of 6 days (including a weekend) between September and the end of June. No more, no less… and that’s a “take it or leave it” proposal made by the FIH to the NA’s. It is agreed upon by all involved, the European nations will not play in April. So they have enough scheduling room for the EHL and end of season finals. England is the only European nation who chooses to play the Pro League in April anyway.
So this means the NA’s in Europe in turn will have to agree with their own club associations on 1 week before the end of December, 1 week in the beginning of the year and 1 more week in June to schedule their Pro League games. If this would be set in a formal agreement, theoretically it would leave the NA’s enough time to agree with their respective club associations on the required 25 weekends to run their domestic leagues.
Confirming this afterwards with others involved, it seems Weil made a small error in our round table talk and the FIH actually needs a commitment from the participating NA’s to 4 blocks of 6 days including a weekend instead of 3. We all make mistakes so we won’t hold this against him 😉 My guess is all involved, clubs and NA’s, will be able to agree to this and still have their 25 weekends needed to run a top domestic league. Possibly with two blocks for the Pro League scheduled in June.
So, all’s well that ends well?
Stick with it
We’re not there yet. If the NA’s sign up to the Pro League deal proposed by the FIH… in theory there would be enough time left for a well structured domestic top league. But NA’s do not only listen to their clubs. They also have a high performance director and national team coaches tugging at their sleeves for more attention. Can we fit in all other activities for national teams into windows of time that would allow for the 25 club weekends? World Cups, Olympic Games and European Championships will usually be scheduled in time slots outside of those needed for the domestic leagues. But top performing national teams don’t just happen by accident. They need preparation time, usually a minimum of 4-6 weeks uninterrupted ahead of the major events. They need camps all through the year to come together for longer times in between major events. So it looks like for season 4 of the Pro League, with a World Cup in the middle of it (January 2023), it will work for the domestic leagues. Onwards all involved entities, the club associations, the NA’s and the FIH / EHF, need a well planned calendar 4 years in advance. One that is set in stone. To make their deals with commercial partners and for high performance directors to do some sound long term planning with their talents. So Weil made a good point in stating explicitly once this agreement is signed and sealed, there is no changing afterwards. None.
What becomes crucial now is the agreement to be made between NA’s and their respective club associations. It’s these two who need to confirm formally with each other that they will schedule international and domestic hockey in such a way the national teams get the time they need and the clubs get the 25 weekends exclusively dedicated to them they need.
A step in the right direction
So we have the calendar issue fixed and found a way that would work for all. That does not mean we have the best possible format probably. Or one that would make everybody happy. The marketeers in our sport will be happy with the standardised calendar which makes it easier to set long term deals with broadcasters and advertising partners. But the “product” will suffer. We will continue to have empty stadiums for lots of games, because not all games are home games. We’re still a long way from the “big, bold and loud” events we were promised before the start of the Pro League. Except for a small number of games in some countries. The event is still without a title sponsor or other dedicated and meaningful sponsors globally. It is still not the event that makes international hockey a sustainable and sensible career choice for most.
Personally, I still believe the good old mantra of “less is more”. I would prefer less international games. We should only play 1 game vs the opposing nation we are receiving or visiting instead of 2 now. It would generate enough content to satisfy the needs of broadcasters. Some fans would not hesitate in visiting both games, but most would pick just 1. So playing just the 1 game would get us fuller stadiums. The games would get more of a “do or die” feel for the players, instead of a warm up game and a performing game. Top games benefit from the aura of these being special events that only happen once in a while and not become common. I think less games would benefit the “product”.
Another error fixed recently is the element of an open vs closed event. With the launch of the FIH Nations Cup we will now have an open event for the FIH Pro League. Meaning there will be promotion and relegation opportunities. Playing nations are not guaranteed a spot in the Pro League. The inaugural FIH Nations Cup has been announced and will be hosted in South Africa. It will feature South Africa, France, Canada, Japan, Korea, Ireland, Pakistan and Malaysia. So 1 of these teams will feature in season 5 of the Pro League at the expense of 1 of the current participants.
But these considerations were not the goal of the round table we organised to write this column. So to sum up… The calendar issue seems to be fixed and that is a step in the right direction… 🙂