10 questions for the FIH

10 questions for the FIH
Studio Hockey

 
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A year ago, in November 2018, the FIH had its global congress. An event where several important decisions regarding the future of our sport were communicated. Also more or less a year ago we spoke with the “new” CEO of the FIH Thierry Weil, before the global congress on some my worries for the future of our sport. Following the global congress a year ago we had a talk with Mike Joyce, director of development for the FIH about the Hockey2024 plan that was about to launch.
So today, more or less a year down the road, with the end of 2019 in sight, we thought it would be good to have another talk with these two administrators from FIH about the plans launched in 2018 and what has been accomplished since then in 2019 or will be in 2020. We defined 10 topics to discuss with them:

  1. FIH Pro League
  2. FIH Qualifiers
  3. Tokyo 2020
  4. A dry artificial pitch
  5. The FIH.live platform
  6. Hockey2024
  7. Growing hockey
  8. LA 2028
  9. One short format of hockey
  10. Do all stakeholders have a voice?

Please note this column is not an exact transcript (far from it) of the podcast. I do recommend both reading the full column as well as listening the full podcast… 😉

FIH Pro League

2019 has been the year of the launch of the FIH Pro League more than anything else probably. At least in terms of visibility on a global scale.
Thierry WeilFIH felt it was very important to give a boost to the promotion of hockey around the world. When they spoke to broadcasters their major issue with our sport was the lack of a fixed calendar, a time of year when broadcasters were assured of enough international games to schedule in their programming. So the wish from broadcasters for a more consistent hockey calendar has been fulfilled. The major learning from this first year of the FIH Pro League has been the home & away games in the current schedule were too much of a stress on the health of players. So the 2nd year will see an important change with double home games for some opponents this year followed by double away games for the same the next year. This means travel is cut in half which is not only better for our environmental footprint but especially will be less of a strain on player health. Feedback from coaches and players, according to Weil, was very positive. But obviously some changes were needed going into year two. The change of schedule for player welfare but also a change in the production of these events for TV. More uniformity in showing a recognisable format of the game on TV. Another issue in year 1 has been the lack of supporters in the stands in some countries. A fact Weil blames on the short preparation time between the final green light and the first Pro League games. Not allowing enough time for some good marketing of these events to draw in the crowds. This time however there is enough time for the marketeers in each country to work on a good ticketing plan and promotion of their home games. For example in Germany this time the marketing agency that was in charge for the very successful indoor world cup will make sure the German hockey supporters will not miss out on their home games again, according to Weil. Financially it’s clear this first year has been an investment. A much needed investment in the promotion of hockey. But another equally important goal is to create revenue and profit for the FIH to use for the development of hockey around the world. Because in order to grow hockey, more money is needed. So obviously a business plan for this event at some point in time will need to show profits to be able to do more for growing our game of hockey. Though Weil states he would also be happy with a break even and more promotion of our sport, the business plan by the FIH assumes a profit will be generated to help develop hockey as of 2022 or 2023 at the latest.

Still, even if I consider myself a big fan of top international hockey & the FIH Pro League… I will be curious to see a full evaluation by 2023-2024 to see how much money not only the FIH has invested in the Pro League but add to this also the money invested by the participating countries and do a full ROI evaluation comparing to what we could have expected in growing hockey if this money had been spent directly into development of recreational hockey instead of the promotion of tophockey.
I still consider myself a fan of the concept of more home games for international hockey and do think the Pro League in itself is a good idea to promote hockey. However the way it’s organised now, even after some changes, I still believe the burden on domestic club hockey is too much and could be avoided.

FIH Qualifiers

Not really new, though in a reinvented format, 2019 also brought us some spectacular hockey and drama during the FIH Qualifiers for Tokyo 2020. The Olympics is played with 12 countries for both men and women. Both teams of the host nation qualify directly, as do the 5 continental champions. The rest comes through the FIH Qualifiers. Instead of the traditional tournament where the top 6 or 7 got their Olympic ticket, the FIH decided to go with a new format. Based upon their global ranking countries were drawn against 1 opponent and had to beat them in a best of two, played at home for the highest ranked nation.

I will not hide the fact I was somewhat sceptical about this beforehand and would have preferred to keep the existing tournament format. Feeling that would be the fairest format for all to reach for the stars. I still think a tournament has some advantages over the 1 vs 1 format of these new style qualifiers. But I’ve got to admit the drama and excitement shown during the games played in these new qualifiers were thrilling.
Thierry Weil shared my surprise at the success of these Qualifiers, though for different reasons… His main issue with the new format was the lack of time (only 6 weeks) in between the moment the participating nations were known and the games were played. He feared it would not be enough time to commercialise these events, where my concerns were about the sport and a fair chance for all to go through based upon merits.
So the changes introduced by FIH are about making it more commercial. Obviously if you only (!) look at the commercial side you’re bound to make mistakes that could hurt the sport. The FIH idea is to have more time between announcing the participating countries and the actual games in order to “sell” the event to public, broadcasters, sponsors, etc… That makes sense. However if you do not take into account the clubs in your planning you will be hurting hockey instead of growing the sport. So what happens… Because no one at the FIH is protecting club interests they schedule these qualifying games in March. This means clubs and their players get no time to train & practice together (remember the complaints by the German captain Mats Grambusch in our podcast with him during the last EC) and the crucial part of most European club competitions once again is harmed.

So my wish for hockey in 2020 and beyond would be a protected window of 2x 3 months for domestic club hockey! September, October and November + March, April, May should be dedicated to domestic club hockey. International hockey could have his fair share with December, January, February + June, July, August. That way broadcasters know which months they can focus on international hockey, plus they could/should focus some of their attention during these other months also on the top domestic leagues and market these all over the world. There is some spectacular hockey to be seen between clubs as well!

Unfortunately, the FIH claim they understand the importance of clubs and recognise these domestic club leagues are the foundation of our sport. But words are cheap… All that really matters is what you do! When push comes to shove it’s all about the international games for the FIH. So the answer to my concern on these qualifiers to be played in March was the need for a long term international calendar. Home & away games instead of two home games and more time to market & sell these qualifying events. And some shuffling around with the FIH Pro League games in those months to create a little bit more breathing room for the clubs. In my opinion that will not solve anything, the domestic club leagues and international hockey need to divide the year into manageable blocks of time sufficient for both to add their value to the game of hockey. Some half-hearted compromises won’t do the trick. In 2020 the FIH says she has given the month of April back to club hockey. That’s just not enough!

Tokyo 2020

Weil is pleased to have two major events in hockey with both the World Cup and the Olympic Games. When at first he stated it should all be about the World Cup, he says a year in the job he now has a better understanding of the importance of the Olympics for hockey. He is very enthusiastic about the venue for hockey during the Tokyo Games. Close to the city centre, with two fields within walking distance from each other. Ticketing sales is doing very well according to Weil. The two host teams managed to qualify on their own and not just for being the host nation. That is remarkable and good results from a host nation will help make the Games a success as well. We have the best teams for both men & women from all over the world with nations from all continents. Not a lot of team sports can claim this…

Weil also confirmed the participation of the South Africa women. Although they did not meet all the criteria set out by their own national Olympic committee, South Africa did confirm both their men and women will take part in the Tokyo Games. So the drama of refusing the men to go to Rio 4 years ago is not repeated.

Dry artificial pitch

More or less a year ago, during the FIH global congress it was announced the 2024 Games in Paris, would see our game played on a dry artificial pitch without any water. Obviously the idea is not to go back to grass or sandfilled turfs. Hockey has evolved because of the waterbased pitches to an ever faster, 3D game. So the ambition is to have the same playing conditions players and coaches have today but on a turf without any water.

Even though many experts (listen for example to our podcast with Arnoud Fiolet from RSI) still doubt the feasibility of this ambition, Weil maintains it will be done.

In the beginning of 2020 players and coaches will be involved in testing the first steps towards a dry pitch. Weil states ideally the next World Cup in 2023 would already be played on this dry pitch. For the Youth Olympic Games in 2022 in Dakar (Senegal) a turf without any water is a must.  That means we will see the first dry pitches to test the new technology at the very latest in 2022, ideally even in 2021…. according to Thierry Weil that is.

As many others, if not all, I applaud the ambition of wanting to achieve this. Water is a scarce resource in many parts of the world. However until today I have not yet met the company stating they will be ready by the end of 2021 with a turf that will guarantee the same playing conditions without the use of water. Most manufacturers will state the new generation of turfs will need significantly less water, but none will guarantee a dry artificial pitch to my knowledge. I hope Thierry Weil will prove us wrong here!

FIH.live

Another promise launched during the global congress a year ago has been the dedicated OTT platform to showcase hockey: FIH.live ! The platform announced had all kinds of wonderful features that would help change the way we experience hockey. However when FIH.live launched in January it was kind of a disappointment. The promised added value compared to the existing YouTube channel was missing.

But Weil assured us the original vision and ambition was still there and a relaunch of the platform is foreseen for March 2020, so in just a couple of months. Including most of the added value features promised a year ago. The OTT platform, as it is called technically, will allow finally for the FIH to start collecting data on its audience. So yes, some of it will be behind a paywall. But better to have some content we previously could not see because of contracts with certain broadcasters, now available without geoblocking. Even if sometimes it’s behind a paywall. So by March we will get a peak of what a revamped FIH.live platform could look like. I’m curious….

Hockey2024

The global development plan , called Hockey2024, was launched during the global congress a year ago by Mike Joyce. Mike JoyceWe had a long talk about this then with Mike in another podcast. So where are we now? A year down the road….
Promotion & development go hand in hand…according to Joyce. The Pro League & co also help development, these act as our shop window.
Hockey 2024 is also about having the plans ready to maximize on these moments where hockey gets to shine. So for Tokyo for example the FIH is doing a lot to help grow hockey in Japan. 
At the congress we spoke about the 3 pillars for development: participation, education and infrastructure. Meanwhile a fourth pillar was added: inspiration. 
Equally amazing was the hashtag for 2019 and some great work has been done around the world concerning that topic (gender balance) according to Joyce. Hockeydreams will be the hashtag for 2020, getting youth more involved.
Regarding education, the existing programs continued. 46 courses , 750 individuals certified in 2019 and these should be doubled in 2020. But obviously growing hockey is the number 1 priority for global development of hockey.

Growing hockey

For me growing hockey is mostly about having more infrastructure and growing the number of active players. My fear is (still today) too much focus is going to growing the number of fans & followers instead of recreational players. How is the growth of active players being measured globally and is there growth? In 2020 a new “state of the game” survey will be performed to see what the impact has been. It will still be difficult to measure the difference between registered and occasional players… a problem for all sports. So the impact will become more clear when the new survey has been done in 2020. But my fear is we will be happy to see a growth in participation while unable to prove the number of players have grown.

In order to get more players infrastructure is key. But still… with the important message at the congress that hockey can be played (also for official tournaments and events) on any surface, we should not get stuck on the lack of artificial turf pitches around the world.
A major message by Weil is not to worry so much about having “the right infrastructure”. Just go out and have some fun playing hockey…. on whatever surface is available! He’s right!

So what has been done regarding development in 2019. TAP East Africa involved 7 different nations to get started in hockey, but that’s not all. Lots of initiatives were held in other regions also to promote playing hockey. According to Joyce it is expected 4 or 5 new nations will join the FIH at the next global congress. 
Joyce also stressed every year 1,1 million dollar is invested by FIH into continental federations to help develop hockey in their region
As Weil also stated, every penny made by FIH will be invested into development of the sport, but according to their thinking promotion and events such as the Pro League also counts towards investment in development. I guess, he’s got a point. But it’s important it is tracked money is pent on projects that grow the amount of players, not just the amount of fans and followers. Weil says it’s best practice to not separate these….  But in everything Weil does it’s clear his first goal is to grow the audience, hoping the players will follow. It’s a wrong focus according to me. Yes we need both, but the ultimate goal is to have more people playing the sport. That goal is more important compared to the growth of the people watching the game, according to me.

LA 2028

When asked if hockey will still be played in LA 2028, Weil leaves no room for doubt: yes, hockey will still be in the Games in 2028….
Obviously we need to continue doing the right things to promote our sport and become more relevant of course. But hockey will still be on the Olympic roster according to Weil. When asked Weil also confirms hockey5s will not replace 11-a-side hockey in the Olympics. But he hopes 5s or a short format will be added next to 11s…. so we will have more medals which seems to be an important criterium for the IOC.

However I will not rest assured until the IOC has confirmed our traditional format of hockey for the LA Games…

One short format

My position regarding the creation of Hockey5s as a new sport remains unsupportive. Listen to my podcast on this topic entitled “Hockey5s: our Frankenstein’s monster” if you want to know more on this.

Yes, a short format next to the traditional main format of the game (11-a-side) is interesting for different needs. But why not use the existing short format of the game (indoor hockey) and adapt this to better suit your (future) needs? If anything our hockey family around the world has proven not to be wary of changing for the better… And yes, indoor hockey is suitable for playing outdoors as well.

Thierry Weil says he thinks indoor hockey and hockey5s will become one short format! Within 2 or 3 years this should be 1 format!  If that means playing with 5 outfield players and 1 goalie, playing with a scoring zone (the D or circle) an a game where dangerously hitting the ball is not promoted, I’m all for it. Even if it means some specific “indoor” characteristics such as not lifting the ball in play would be removed, even if back boards would be added as well.
I’m sure some indoor lovers would not be happy with some of the changes but anything is better than the existing format of 5s. And I do agree with Weil, as I have said all along, there is no room for 2 short formats of the game.

Do all stakeholders have a voice in FIH?

The executive board (EB) of the FIH is where decisions are made. Even though Weil disputes this, claiming most recommendations made by the different FIH committees will be accepted without change by the EB. The current EB members are elected through politics (including, according to some, lobbying, “alternative” facts, bribes and empty promises) by administrators instead of representatives of all relevant roles in hockey…. Today the members of this EB are from 2 FIH, 1 player representative, 5 representatives from every continental federation and 7 administrators chosen by their fellow administrators during the congress.

I distinguish 5 so called stakeholders in our game of hockey that should be proportionally represented within the decision making unit in the FIH.

  • Players: should have multiple representatives with at least 2 active (!) top athlete, 2 recent ex top athletes and 2 active young U23 top athlete… each time 1 male & 1 female, ideally from all continents
  • Coaches: 1 male & 1 female coach from a top 10 nation and 1 male & 1 female coach from nations outside of top 10, ideally from different continents – could be coaches or high performance directors- but need to be active
  • Clubs: 2 representatives from top clubs and 2 representatives from recreational clubs, each from 4 different domestic leagues
  • Administrators : 1 representative from each continent + FIH president + FIH sports director
  • Fans: represented by CEO & marketing director FIH

Mike Joyce claims the FIH is listening to what different stakeholders are talking about even if the y are not represented among the decision makers. That’s a start, but will not do… stakeholders need a seat at the table where decisions are made.

Thierry Weil says his door is always open for those who have a problem to discuss or for who has ideas to make our sport even better. Recommendable… but again, not good enough. Stakeholders deserve their seat at the table. That’s more than just being heard.

My 3 wishes for hockey in 2020… and beyond

Unfortunately it doesn’t work this way, but should there be a “genie in a bottle” granting me 3 hockey wishes for 2020 and beyond, my 3 wishes would be:

  1. The guaranteed continuation of 11-a-side hockey as our main Olympic sport beyond Paris 2024
  2. All stakeholders, including players, coaches and clubs, represented in the EB of the FIH
  3. A fixed calendar, respecting both international and domestic hockey, with each 2 periods of more or less 3 months uninterrupted & protected for either domestic or international hockey.

Let me know what your wishes would be… 😉


Please note, as mentioned above, this column is not an exact transcript of the podcast. I do recommend both reading the full text as well as listening the full podcast.

Episode 34 was recorded on 2019-11-27 & published on 2012-12-26 by OSMpodcasts.com.
Host : Ernst Baart
Podcast: Studio Hockey