As hockey looks to evolve, commerce gets preference over rankings

With disciplines like sport climbing, surfing and skateboarding set to be part of the 2020 Tokyo Games, traditional Olympic sports like hockey have to consistently reinvent themselves to stay relevant for an audience that is getting younger by the day.

Written by Tushar Bhaduri | New Delhi | Updated: June 14, 2017 10:53 am
 International Hockey Federation, Hockey Pro League, PHL, 2020 Tokyo Games, hockey, indian express. sports news Pakistan will play ahead of better-ranked teams in Pro League. (Source: Express Archive)

With disciplines like sport climbing, surfing and skateboarding set to be part of the 2020 Tokyo Games, traditional Olympic sports like hockey have to consistently reinvent themselves to stay relevant for an audience that is getting younger by the day.

And though hockey has a great following during the Olympics, where India is an eight-times gold medallist, there is not much attention paid to what happens between the Games and probably the World Cup. The International Hockey Federation (FIH) plans to fill the breach with the Hockey Pro League (PHL), set to start in January 2019.

“We found that routine multilateral tournaments were usually played in front of very small crowds, as most matches did not have any home interest. It translated into less media and sponsor interest as well,” FIH chief executive officer James McCracken told The Indian Express.

The upcoming Pro League will try to address the issue with one-off home-and-away matches. Nine of the top teams will compete in separate men’s and women’s competitions. But as with all things in modern sport, it is commerce which dictates the finer details.

“The nine best men’s and women’s teams from around the world,” as the FIH puts it, are not the top nine sides according to its own official rankings, but those that bring in the most revenue, TV viewership, sponsors and anticipation. That explains why the 13th-ranked Pakistan men’s team will line up in the tournament, ahead of higher-rated sides like Ireland, Spain and Korea, and why the 12th-ranked Indian women’s team finds a spot ahead of Korea (9th), Spain (10th) and Japan (11th).

“This is an attempt to commercialise hockey, to generate more revenue and professionalism in the sport,” McCracken said.

“It will be a commercial and entertainment product. Ranking are not the sole criterion. We had a thorough process in this regard, taking into consideration factors like TV ratings, fan base, popularity of the sport, sponsor interest, history as well as the potential for drama, intrigue and tension. We plan to have 144 matches over a six-month period, a 10-fold increase in hockey matches on television.”

“There were more than 1,000 pages of documentation, detailed presentations before we finalised the nine teams based on commercial viability.”

Ticking all the boxes

The India-Pakistan rivalry ticks all those boxes, and though the two teams have moved in opposite directions in their development in recent times, it is still arguably the most eye-catching spectacle in the sport. But with Pakistan set to play their home games in Scotland and the Indian government refusing to allow teams from across the border to play here, it remains to be seen whether these matches can go ahead.

McCracken did not give any guarantees, but hoped the governments will let the matches take place. “There are challenges in this regard, but hockey is an inclusive sport and India-Pakistan matches have a lot of history attached to them. We are working closely with the government and are hopeful for things to fall in place.”

The Hockey World League format was started in 2012 as a response to a threat to the sport’s Olympic status, and the new addition to the international calendar will have fresh implications for the year-long schedule. The Champions Trophy and Champions Challenge have already been disbanded.

“For starters, there is a possibility that the Hockey India League, which is held in January-February, will move to a slot at the end of the year. As for the various European leagues, they are club competitions and can carry on simultaneously with the Pro League. Teams in the PHL will have a squad of 32 players, so many of them can continue playing in the national leagues. As it is, most top-end players are on the field for almost 12 months a year,” the New Zealander said. “One-off games will not be as taxing for the players as a tournament format.”

With a plethora of sports vying for eyeballs, hockey has to battle to stay ahead of the curve.

“We have looked at other sports at how they promote themselves. And we have learnt a lot from how the Hockey India League has gone about it,” the former hockey umpire said.

Not surprising for a world body helmed by Narinder Batra, the architect of the HIL, which has seen five seasons till date.

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