A familiar sporting feel played out on Saturday as the FIH launched its self-titled Pro League tournament.
On the chilly continent, the sun was beating down, referee commentary was heard on the TV coverage and players were simply getting on with the task in hand. One could be forgiven for thinking we were in the midst of a Six Nations rugby clash in Rome or Paris.
BBC rugby commentator Eddie Butler even provided the voiceovers on the FIH pre-show. Yet, this was where the similarities ended. Swap presenter John Inverdale for the more-than-capable British Olympians Sam Quek and Simon Mason and we were watching the opening gambits ahead of the Pro League game between Spain and Belgium, the world champions.
Instead of the six-week Six Nations’ jamboree, we were also witnessing the start of a six-month international hockey fest. Near to 150 games will be played out until the end of June to determine the inaugural Pro League winner. Big incentives too, with $250,000 in prize money across both men’s and women’s tournaments.
“In the beginning we have to keep it free, we have to keep it simple,” Thierry Weil, the FIH chief executive, said before Saturday’s opener. “It’s only geoblocked in the country where the broadcaster will show it live.”
Therein lay the confusion if you were a Great Britain fan looking to get an early taste of the action ahead of the men’s rather perplexing opener in Valencia on Friday, at 10am UK time.
According to the FIH, subscription broadcaster BT Sport have acquired the media rights “with the intention of broadcasting as many Pro League matches as possible. When they do not show a Pro League match live, it will be on FIH.live.”
Judging by the fuzzy geo blocked screen in the UK on Saturday, free looks like it will not apply to Great Britain from here on in.
Thankfully, The Hockey Paper‘s mobile subscription has a three-month service to BT Sport and a hasty sign-up proved sufficient to watch the entertaining 2-2 draw.
— Alberto Ruiz Castillo (@Albertiken_Ruiz) January 19, 2019
With the FIH hierarchy present in Valencia, there was still minimal fuss over the coverage.
The pre-live show was pre-recorded, with the ever-present Quek and Mason giving us an indication that the Pro League will hopefully be the shot in the arm needed for international hockey outside of the World Cup and Olympics.
There was little TV fanfare at the Estadio Betero, barring the introduction of the umpire audio throughout the match. This didn’t add much to proceedings, given the muffled audio was akin to listening to a radio conversation between a navy vessel directing in a fighter plane.
Still, it did add gloss to the fact that hockey has no delays due to whinging players.
— International Hockey Federation (@FIH_Hockey) January 19, 2019
And when Spain Enrique Gonzalez struck in the dying seconds to level at 2-2, it seemed a well-appointed ending to the authoritative coverage. However, it took several moments to realise that we had, of course, a shoot out to decide the extra point.
The shame for those without a BT Sport subscription was that there were no highlights to be found on FIH.live as of Sunday night. Hockey fans were left to sift through the ‘Hockey Heroes TV takeover‘, broadcasting live from the stadium.
With a fixed camera focusing on the three presenters due to rights, there was little interaction with the viewer when it came to describing the exciting crunch of the game. Still, there are six months to improve this offering.
With so many matches to come, time will also tell how the FIH best package the action, goals and skills to bring to a wider audience and make the concept understood. And, more importantly, talked about.