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Can FIH and Hockey Pro League prosper amid economic impact?

Missing masses: The Australia v GB clashes were devoid of supporters

By Rod Gilmour

“Sometimes”, proclaimed the Daily Mail‘s chief sports writer Martin Samuel, “there is great benefit in obscurity. In relatively minor sports it allows hopeless administrators to flourish unquestioned.”

It was but a small item in his regular column, but it struck an immediate chord. Samuel, who is a keen hockey observer, was talking about the FIH Pro League following the points debacle which saw Great Britain women, back when sport was in full flight earlier this year, finish the Sydney leg of their tour with nothing to show for it.

Well in the past now, of course, GB were beating Australia 1-0 when a lightning storm occurred and the game was ‘cancelled’. Under a Pro League rule – which the FIH said had been given the green light by all competing nations – the points were awarded to Australia after they won the previous day’s game. Indeed, if this had happened in football, there would have been outrage.

Further, if the Pro League was acting as an Olympic qualifier, this story would have run for days and hockey would be big news for all the wrong reasons. As it is, ‘Pointsgate’ was largely played out on social media by perplexed fans who have yet to see the Pro League as the Six Nations-style, cut and thrust hockey most would like it to be. Which is about right when reading between the coaches’ lines; that some teams treat the Pro League with the Olympics in mind, trying out different variations as they would in ‘Test’ matches. With no relegation for the Pro League elite, why not?

This is hardly conducive for the ‘game-changing’ tournament that the FIH was hoping it would turn out to be when it launched. The points controversy – which GB goalkeeper Maddie Hinch called ‘ridiculous’ and ‘obscene’ – has led to wider opinion on the Pro League, which is fast turning into more of an ‘event-changing’ tournament. It has gone from home and away league, to home then away league after one year, with cost-saving measures at the core. In only its second season, it scrapped the Global Finals, with the winner accruing most points in the standings being crowned champions.

This correspondent has been an advocate of the equal prize money Pro League, although enthusiasm may be waning. There’s no doubting the concept was sound enough before the 2019 launch. Less trying to explain the semi-finals of the World League Finals, now there was more hockey over a half a calendar year with the best in the world. What’s not to love? (That’s if you can find a way past the fuzzy geo blocking on FIH.Live or don’t have BT Sport, if you live in the UK). The pandemic has afforded some governing bodies to step back and take stock of their sport. The FIH have been positive in their outlook and have even announced details of season three, when the league will run from September through to June.

This could be construed as a bold move, with a title sponsor – which the FIH chief Thierry Weil told The Hockey Paper in January was close to being inked – yet to materialise. In the FIH’s latest auditors report, released in late 2019, the financial statement revealed that TV production costs were ‘under-estimated’ while broadcasting deals were ‘overestimated’. According to the FIH accounts, losses amounted to £590,000, with budgets for 2020 and 2022 secured, thanks to India hosting the 2022 Men’s World Cups and the bolstering of the world governing body’s coffers.

The Pro League bandwagon meandered on. The early Sydney matches of the current season were hosted at the Olympic Stadium with a pitch-long empty stand akin to a low grade athletics event. In a nation where two teams have gleaned world gold aplenty, administrators still fail to grasp the notion that taking the tournament to the regions is a better bet.

Sydney also seemed to be devoid of silverware. The FIH had stated pre-tournament that the ‘iconic’ trophies would be journeying across the globe during the event, with a chance for fans to get up close while national associations would “showcase the sport and the competition via exhibitions and innovative events.”

Now, do correct me, but were the trophies stuck in Australia’s nanny state customs house? Perhaps it was stopped by a concerned official who was wondering why it was entering the country on account of the restrictive FIH.Live, which has yet to deliver on promises on data, clubs being able to upload matches and other user generated initiatives. This is likely down to the fact that those who conceived the project have now left the FIH and departed Lausanne.

World hockey’s recently-announced optimism for Pro League 3 comes amid growing uncertainty with sport in general following the ongoing pandemic. In a recent Play The Game report, it was revealed how revenue was divvied up from Oympic Games, with sports split in five groups and distribution ranging from $40 million down to circa $14m. Hockey is placed in the penultimate group and handed $16.3m.

It was also reported that 15 of 28 international sports federations in the Olympic programme relied heavily on International Olympic Committee income. With future income unknown, German investigative reporter Jens Weinreich wrote that these sports are “in a situation that threatens their very existence”.

IOC president Thomas Bach said last week the Olympic movement would look at how sport would be shaped in a post-coronavirus world. “We may also have to look more closely into the proliferation of sports events,” he said. “The financial pressure on all the stakeholders… may require more consolidation in this respect.”

Such an uncertain future for sports and its programmes mean that the FIH will have plenty of financial decisions to make. Is currently being housed in Lausanne viable? Will there be more pressure to make more inroads on hockey 5s as an Olympic sport (smaller pitch, economical athlete numbers)?

At the moment it’s hard to see any of these questions being answered with a truly global hat on. The FIH congress was due to take place in a little over six months time in Delhi and current president Narinder Batra set to enter another term unopposed with no challengers in the offing.

However the FIH congress, Batra reportedly said late last week, has now been pushed back until June 2021 following the global pandemic. With growing concerns evident within European hockey over the way the global game is being run, as reported by The Hockey Paper in recent issues, will a suitable candidate emerge before congress election in India?

The Pro League trophy was last spotted there for the Pro League matches. But raising the sport’s profile is not a problem for this powerhouse nation, with Odisha also now a global partner of the FIH and more senior and junior events seemingly being staged there. No, it’s about making sure the sport doesn’t flounder in obscurity once hockey can return to pitches across the globe. And with authoritative administrators who can assure us of the sport’s future – one which can flourish – in whatever shape this may turn out to be.

This column has been adapted from a previous print edition for online.

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