Mark Knowles, the legendary Australian, has been playing professional hockey for 13 years. However, his earnings in the last three years from the Hockey India League (HIL) are more than what he collectively made in the previous decade. He’s secured the future of his three kids from the $100,000-plus he earned from the five seasons in India with Punjab Warriors. Belgium’s Tom Boon, one of the highest-paid players in the HIL, could buy his dream house in Antwerp from the $103,000 he got from Dabang Mumbai for two months’ work. In Argentina, Gonzalo Peillat used a part of his salary of $49,000 to help his family. One of the best drag-flickers in the world, the Kalinga Lancers recruit saved the other half to buy a house in Buenos Aires. But he has had to put his dream on hold. Instead, he is now concerned if he will ever be able to purchase the property.
With no set hierarchy or a clear number one, world hockey might be in a swell state. But ironically, there couldn’t have been a more uncertain time to be a player.
Hockey has never been a rich sport. The players represent their countries for free, forcing them to take up side jobs to support their playing ambitions. Among Olympic sports, it’s one of the few that still, in essence, is amateur in nature. The leagues are where the money is. Broadly put, the European Hockey League has been the top competition quality-wise, with the world’s best assembling there for eight months a year. But the remuneration has been modest. So the HIL, launched in 2013, became the cash cow that allowed players security.
Now, the future of these two leagues has been put in doubt by the very people tasked with governing the sport. Earlier this year, the International Hockey Federation (FIH) launched the Hockey Pro League, a tournament where nine hand-picked countries would meet each other on a home-and-away basis every weekend from January to July.
The FIH sold this as a grand idea that would bring some context to international hockey. But no event has been received with such scepticism by the players and coaches even though it’s still a year away. Hockey India has already pulled out, saying it is financially not viable to travel to a country just for one match. It’s a concern shared by all countries but the players are counting the cost.“The Pro League also doesn’t give anything back to the players. So if we have to choose between our clubs and Pro League, it could be clubs because the Pro League is going to be free, we have to stay with the national teams from January to July full-time and we cannot work or study,” Peillat, who plays for German club Mannheimer, says.
The hockey season in Europe lasts for more than eight months – from September to December, followed by a winter break before it resumes in February and concludes in June. There’s a separate 45-day window in the first three months of the year for the HIL. “I am not sure how it is going to work. There are a lot of big foreign leagues in Europe and India. I wonder how the clubs and these big franchises are going to let their players leave for first six months of a year,” Knowles says.
While the European clubs are yet to decide whether to change their schedule, the Pro League has already forced massive changes to the domestic calendar in India. In July this year, Hockey India decided to scrap next year’s league claiming it was a busy international calendar, although it was an open secret that most franchises were in the red and had requested Hockey India to come up with a revamped financial model. Because of the Pro League, the HIL has been pushed forward to the November-December window, meaning it will virtually not be held for two years now. This is also the time India usually hosts international tournaments, something they are likely to lose out on in the next five-year cycle.
The decision to not have the HIL next year has hurt players the most. It gave them the financial freedom that even the more established European league did not. No wonder, many were ready to give up on a couple of months of highly-competitive hockey in Europe for the HIL, which was at times a bit scrappy. “It’s a big loss. I played for Dabang Mumbai last couple of years and enjoyed my time there. So I’m sad it won’t be coming back next time. I think for every international player associated with the league, it’s going to be sad,” says German international Florian Fuchs. Fuchs was signed by Mumbai for $96,000. He invested that money in securities. “I think it’s always the smart decision to invest, no? I am really happy and grateful that I got the chance to earn money through playing hockey in India. I think it’s just smart to set aside some money for the after-hockey life,” he says.
A few others like Peillat, however, were hoping to return for a few more seasons to sort their finances out. “The money I got earlier wasn’t enough to do much in Argentina. I wanted to build a house and in Argentina, it’s quite expensive. You have to save more,” Peillat says. “The plans are going to be delayed for a couple of years. I’m not sure about the Pro League. But I really hope the HIL comes back.”