Will HPL save hockey?

HPLA post Olympic year, such as 2017, usually is rather uneventful. At least for those following our sport without really being immersed in it. For the few hockey followers tracking all aspects of our game and looking beyond their own backyard this year has been “interesting” to say the least. Because most recently the FIH introduced the HPL, the Hockey Pro League! That is also why my last two contributions on this website dealt with “the hockey revolution“, a video chat about the future of hockey with the new CEO from our international federation and an opinion piece detailing why I think we should stop reinventing the rules of our game for a couple of years and start being more innovative in making our game more screen-friendly

So behind the scenes there is happening a lot at the moment that will affect the future of our game in a profound way. Let me get into that… First of all I consider there to be two kinds of hockey. I’m not talking about indoor vs outdoor. I think indoor hockey should be ruled by it’s own governing body and completely be separated from outdoor hockey. Nor am I talking about the dreaded hockey 5’s vs hockey 11-a-side. For me there is local hockey and global hockey.

Local hockey vs global hockey

Local hockey is what is played on a recreational level as well as a competitive level by amateur or sometimes (semi)pro players. Think about our well known European club hockey and tournament based hockey for those countries that do not have this club culture, such as in Asia or America.
Then there is global hockey which is only being played on a competitive level with it’s focus shifting more away from pure sport values towards entertainment. Think the Olympic Games and World Cups being played by national teams of professional (or sometimes semi-pro) players.
And then there are also events like the HIL in India with franchise teams… or the EHL in Europe with the best club teams. Both live somewhere in between local and global…

I think both local and global are necessary components that make hockey is a sport instead of just a game. Global hockey needs the local hockey community as their primary group of spectators/clients. Local hockey needs global hockey to have something to aspire to and separate it from just another pass-time like reading a good book, jogging in the park or taking a stroll along the river bank…

The death of the Champions Trophy

Champions Trophy
The Champions Trophy

It is very unfortunate we lost the Champions Trophy event a couple of years ago. This event will play it’s last edition next year but has been “dead” for a couple of years already. The reasons for its death are two-fold in my opinion. What used to be the 3rd major title in hockey on a global scale, next to the Olympics and the World Cup, has been devaluated to an invitational practice series of games in recent years. It used to be the 6 best countries in the world playing each other for a title that had real value. More then that even… It probably was the toughest event for tophockey players out there. Even when compared to the Olympics or the World Cup, because at the Champions Trophy there were no sub top countries. It used to be the best of the best only.
But when India and Pakistan dropped in the global rankings it changed to an invitational tournament to still include them. So from then on countries like Germany would use it to test their new talents on the rise, rather than going full force to earn that title. The title lost its value and a great tradition of hockey died with it… Therefore today we are left with only two titles on a global scale that have true sporting value: the Games and the World Cup. It is imperative for hockey to remain Olympic!

The aftershock from London 2012

London 2012
London 2012

The world of hockey was in shock after the London Games. On the surface it seemed to have been a huge success. The crowds were at the stadium, with good attendance for all games, even the women’s games and those not played by the home country. We saw some spectacular hockey but when the dust settled… the IOC told hockey it’s future at the Games was not a certainty anymore. One of the reasons being we scored poorly in the digital world, social media & TV. So hockey panicked and started “innovating” and going out of our way even more to include India once again among the top nations to ensure we remained a sport active on all continents (or at least the ones that matter at the moment). In the world of social media we seemed to have done something right since 2012 because according to the FIH we were the 3rd most popular sport in the digital world at the Rio Games last year. But that could be different again after Tokyo 2020. The IOC also insisted on testing this new Hockey 5’s format for their Youth Olympic Games which is a clear indication of the way they would like us to evolve. It could very well be the 2024 Games will be the last ever in a 11-a-side format for us. With the move of sports towards entertainment I think beach hockey has more of a future at the Games, provided the women will play this in bikini. It’s sad, but sport performance, athletic ability and specific skills are more and more taking a back seat to entertainment. It’s a reality we will have to deal with..

So will hockey need to be saved from this fate? That is the question… And another question could very well be, is the recently announced HPL the way to save hockey?

Local hockey is the cradle

So what will the hockey calendar look like in the future? As I mentioned before we have two kinds of hockey : local and global.

On a local scale the difference is immense between the regions of the world. In some European countries we have a thriving club culture and the league that goes with it. It usually is a league where performing well over several months of time is rewarded, which makes it very different from the events hosted in other parts of the world where more “do or die” games are being played. In other countries it is more a school or college sport with limited club life. Or again in other countries it is all about local short-term tournaments, sometimes supported/organised by local sponsors or employers. Whatever the culture of your country, the true grass roots of hockey should never be neglected because these are the foundations on which you build a sport. Without local hockey leagues, in whatever shape or form, there would be no global hockey. They are not only the primary fan base but also the cradle for future hockey stars.

Local hockey also has their events where (semi) professional athletes can rise to the top. India has their Hockey India League or HIL, providing a platform for their local rising stars to compete with and learn from the best in global hockey. Also a platform for global star players to make a living in their sport, especially for those players without a (semi)professional league in their own country. Australia has its AHL, for the moment nothing more than a event for their national selectors to see who could make the national team. But there is more potential in the AHL if Australian hockey would be a little bit more ambitious. Europe has the famous EHL where the best teams from all European nations meet up and it has given us not only memorable games but also new rules which added value to our sport such as the self-pass for example.

Global hockey provides the Glory

But it’s on a global scale the FIH offers us the major events for our hockey stars to really shine and give young talents something to aspire for. Because young athletes with ambition need these to set a goal and work towards… and in the end the best want to play the best! And that’s when you get sports fans to enjoy watching also.

The ultimate level for any sports enthusiast still is the Olympic Games. There is nothing that compares to Olympic gold! So whatever we do we want to stay an Olympic sport and if sacrifices have to be made to remain Olympic, so be it… But that is just my opinion of course.
Next we have the World Cup. Together with the Olympic Games, these events are the “Glory” events of global hockey, the ultimate stage for hockey heroes. Hockey at its best!

This way hockey stars have the possibility to shine every two years in a global event, alternating between the Games and the World Cup. In the years in between there is room on the calendar for the events labelled by the FIH as the Fairytale events. The events offer smaller hockey nations also a platform to aspire reaching the pinnacle and dream big. These events are the qualifying events for the big global top events.
On a level in between local and global we have the continental championships where at the moment only the European Championship is really a tournament featuring the world’s best nations competing each other. The winner of every continental championship is qualified for either the Olympics or the World Cup.
And we have what we call today the Hockey World League. A truly global event but without much value to it’s title because once it has served its purpose of qualifying for the real global events, the rest of the games played in the HWL are nothing more than practice games honestly.

The HPL or Hockey Pro League

The recently presented but still to be launched Hockey Pro League (HPL) will be the vehicle for the FIH generating money and media attention. Because if we only have real top hockey events every two years it is difficult to keep the attention of your fans and potential fans alive. So for its top markets the FIH has the intention of bring hockey Home! Allowing the top nations to set up home games for their fans multiple times a year so tophockey stays top of mind for its fans always, that is the main idea behind the HPL. The launch of the HPL is set for 2019 and the FIH has only just started talking to the countries chosen to take part in this event about how to plan, schedule, organise and promote this HPL. So a lot is not clear just yet. But it will change hockey as we know it. That is for sure!
Will the HIL and the EHL be it’s first victims? Because the HPL will put a lot of stress on the international calendar. Both the HIL and the EHL struggle to keep or find their sponsors. The HIL has been broadcasted in its own market, but the EHL is struggling with media and has relied more on the internet to stream its games. But the balance between right holders in broadcasting who shove hockey into narrow casting and behind paywalls and getting the games to be watched on screens for every hockeyfan all over the world is a difficult exercise. The HIL has been around for 5 years now and the EHL for 10, but both are still having difficulties getting extra sponsors and their hockey on every screen. Will the HPL do better? We will have to wait and see but it is clear this is not an easy task!

But whatever the future will bring us… this post Olympic year has been everything but dull and might prove to be a crucial year for the future of hockey!