Hockey has been a conservative sport, lodged in the shadows of football and cricket. There is an assumption that, as an Olympic sport, hockey’s position in the sporting pantheon is assured. Is this assessment correct?
Hockey’s pool of success is so small that only five to six countries have been able to stamp their domination. This does little to arouse the curiosity of the casual sports enthusiast, especially because humans find thrill in the unexpected. As attendance has slipped, spectators have seen through the status quo in the sport. Artificial surfaces were expected to draw in spectators, but no day of deliverance arrived. Except for the Olympics and, to an extent, the World Cup, hockey has struggled to create its niche.
For example, the inauguration of the 2015 World League Finals at Raipur, one of the top four tournaments in hockey, had poor attendance. At the 2017 Asia Cup in Dhaka, where I am now, hockey looks like a sport with limited appeal. The majority of World League events have seen modest turnouts.
There has been a realisation that in a crowded sporting space, where an informed public has a choice of sports to follow, hockey needs to offer something cutting-edge. The visual aspect has now taken centre stage, aided by new age communication devices. The art of the close up gives us an insight by stealth. Hockey is taking the assistance of Facebook and Twitter to entice sports followers.
This effort to take hockey to every doorstep has given rise to a 'hockey revolution', launched at the 2014 International Hockey Federation (FIH) Congress. This 10-year aggressive marketing strategy aims to make hockey “big, bold and loud”, with a view to enhancing the sport’s global status and popularity. It has the promise of revolutionising hockey, propelled by strong television viewership, and easy to explain play situations that close ups and replays can’t capture.
The FIH has said that the 'hockey revolution' is the most revolutionary change in hockey in the 90 years of its history, to develop “a global game that inspires the next generation”. Tournaments will have entertainment on the side and greater professionalism, with increased television broadcasting, high performance, and commercial partners, aimed at drawing in followers, and developing a recognised image for the sport. Success stories of tournaments featuring this new marketing strategy have been posted on the FIH website.
There is sense in this. I attended the 2015 Hockey World League Semi-finals in Antwerp, and the 2017 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup at Ipoh. There were added attractions around the stadia, such as food stalls, music, and sale of hockey merchandise. For families, this is a day out, not a game of hockey alone. In contrast, the security surrounding the fortress-like National Stadium in Delhi daunts spectators. Hockey India pulled the World League Finals and the Champions Trophy out of Delhi to Raipur and Bhubaneswar respectively for good reasons.
A revolution is something that pulverises the existing order. Is the 'hockey revolution' that?
Beginning in 2019, the FIH will launch its first major initiative under the 'hockey revolution', a home and away annual Hockey Pro League, which will showcase the sport to fans throughout the year. This tournament will complement the Olympics and the World Cup. Each national team will play one home and one away game a year against the other teams, culminating in the top finishers competing in the tournament finale. This will be a three-tier system. In all, nine men's and nine women's teams will participate.
Critics call the Hockey Pro League elitist. But they forget that the top three existing tournaments - the Olympics, World Cup and Champions Trophy - feature only the top six to 12 teams. Home and away games in other sports suggest that there will be good spectator interest.
These are early days for the 'hockey revolution', but it has the promise to deliver a better profile for hockey.
Jitendra Nath Misra is a retired ambassador, and the vice- president of Jawaharlal Nehru Hockey Tournament Society.
Updated Date: Oct 20, 2017 16:22 PM