With Hockey World League coming to an end, what does the future of the struggling sport look like?
The four-round Hockey World League was an ambitious innovation running into three seasons, but will pave way for a two-tier competition from 2018 onwards.
The hugely-successful Hockey World League (HWL) Finals at Bhubaneswar have set the benchmark for the 2018 World Cup in the same city. But the spectators’ toast was also an unintended farewell.
The four-round World League was an ambitious innovation running into three seasons. But it will now have a new format. From 2018, there will be a two-tier competition: the Hockey Series Open and the Hockey Series Finals.
The winners of the Hockey Series Open will qualify for the three Hockey Series Finals, which will be played in 2019. The top two finishing teams from the three Hockey Series Finals will play in the Olympics qualifying event. So far, 170 countries have subscribed to the Hockey Series Open.
Why is the World League format being modified?
Launched in 2014, the 'Hockey Revolution' was meant to address two vital issues in the consumption of sport: attendance and revenue. As the flagship project of the Hockey Revolution, the World League failed to deliver either.
It was unable to fulfill the vision of crowds turning up in large numbers at the venues. Between 2014- 2016, I was witness to virtually-empty stands at Lousada and Lisbon during early-round World League games, even with Portugal playing.
Talking to the media at Bhubaneswar, Jason McCracken, CEO of the FIH, manfully owned up the lukewarm response: “A few years ago, I was the tournament director for this event in Delhi and we didn't have such strong support and crowd. It has been growing but unfortunately we still see some earlier rounds where we didn't have such strong support from TV, media, athletes and also fans coming to the game.”
Is hockey’s future under threat?
The answer is no, because the innovative FIH has a strategy of perpetual pre-emption. If something does not work, it finds another way to get around the problem. Thus, the World League has made way for the Hockey Pro League.
What is the Hockey Pro League?
This is a home-and-away round robin tournament over a four-year cycle, featuring the top nine men’s and women’s teams in the world. Beginning in 2019, the league will be played between January-June, as a qualifying tournament for the Olympics and World Cup. Each of the 144 games will be a home game for one team or another. The top four finishers will qualify for the grand finals.
In a home-and-away structure, good spectating is expected. The FIH might have drawn a lesson from India, where stadia are full when India plays. Will the same happen in other countries, as the FIH hopes?
McCracken told Firstpost at Bhubaneswar: “It is the first time for a home and away pro league. The home team means [something] big, [getting] a big crowd, something the media and athletes want. Even when you are playing away, we want to create rivalries.”
Is McCracken’s optimism about the Pro League justified?
At Bhubaneswar, coaches like Shane MacLeod expressed the hope that the FIH would succeed in selling TV rights: “I think there’s a good chance for our sport to move on and become a world sport again.”
AB Subbaiah, the former Indian international player, expressed a different view though.
“It is the right experiment but will it be sustainable? With one match at home and one match away, the cost is too heavy.” For example, travel from Malaysia to Argentina will be very long. Within Europe travel is easier, he said.
Players also weigh in on the long travel for another reason. In conversations with the media at the World League Finals, German player Christopher Ruhr and Dutch player Seve Van Ass complained about fatigue resulting from lengthy travel.
But it is the same in any sport with a home and away format. Europeans, accustomed to short travel for play within Europe, might recoil at something they don’t often do. Down Under, Australia has no qualms about travelling long distances for competitive hockey.
In July earlier this year, Hockey India withdrew from the Pro League, clarifying that it does not ensure direct qualification for the Olympics, and that it would be difficult for the women’s team to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics through this league. India being hockey’s financial powerhouse, this was a blow to the league.
This is the context of McCracken’s public call for India to reconsider its withdrawal: “At this stage Hockey India has withdrawn. The door is open for them to return. Hockey will be stronger with India as part of the Pro League.”
What of the future?
Constant changes in format may seem to augur in instability, but innovation has a better chance of yielding success than inaction. The fact is that hockey has struggled to create its niche. A home-and-away format looks set to get the spectators’ emotions into the equation, stimulating interest.
In a 2013 decision of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), wrestling, after struggling to develop a grammar for the layman, almost got knocked off the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The FIH does not want hockey to go the same way.
FIH President Narinder Batra’s vision of creating a financially-sustainable model for hockey, and McCracken’s emphasis on the importance of India in achieving this goal, point to the shift in hockey’s power structure.
There is a realisation that the Pro League’s revenue model might not work without India’s participation. Officials from Europe, Africa, Oceania and the Americas will not admit it openly, but the FIH is clear about the need to cajole India into readmission into the Pro League.
But even after the launch of the Pro League, hockey has a mountain to climb. Being, like cricket, an English export to the colonies, hockey got left behind in creating a sustainable revenue model. But we can take cheer from its retention in the 2024 Paris Olympics, and the continuing conversation on it featuring in the Olympics beyond.
Jitendra Nath Misra is a former ambassador to Portugal and Laos, and vice president of Jawaharlal Nehru Hockey Tournament Society.
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