The International Hockey Federation (FIH)’s ‘global innovation partnership’ with Loughborough University is seeing both parties question every single facet of the sport and its business.
Running a global sport in the 21st-century isn’t easy. On the one hand, you need to stay true to the fundamentals that made your sport popular with hardcore fans. But on the other, you need to keep up with the pace of innovation.
Recognising this, the FIH under CEO Kelly Fairweather is undertaking a fundamental review of its sport, placing everything from grassroots development to elite event coverage under the microscope. The outcome of this so far has been a revamped partnership structure, designed to maximise the sport’s impact and appeal.
“We’re not in the business of making money for the sake of it,” says FIH commercial manager Richard Tattershaw. “We’re in the business of making hockey. So our new emphasis is on teaming up with businesses and organisations that have the capabilities to enhance the sport in ways we cannot alone. We want partners that can help transform the sport and that truly see the value of engaging with the hockey community.”
In practical terms, this has meant ditching old category exclusive-style sponsorships and replacing them with partnerships that reflect the FIH’s priorities. The first company to come on board under the new regime was India’s Star Sports, which took up the role of media and entertainment partner for eight years from 2015.
Another partnership the FIH has signed is with Loughborough University in the UK, which became the body’s first global innovation partner earlier this year. According to Tattershaw, the partnership with Loughborough is wide-ranging and is seeing the institution look at everything from the equipment used to the way young people get introduced to the game.
“The point of the partnership is to review everything,” says Tattershaw. “We might conclude that some things don’t need to be changed, but only after they have been explored.”
“We are able to offer the FIH holistic support,” says Andy Borrie, Loughborough’s deputy director of sport. “We’re not just focusing on innovation in isolation, we’re looking at it within a much broader business context. In addition, our business school is helping the FIH develop a strategic ten-year plan that will run to 2024. And our design school is helping the FIH with its design and image.
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“We also have 700-800 active hockey players, some of whom will go on to join the England/GB Hockey set ups. We also have links with local clubs and coaches so we have lots of opportunities to try our new ideas with an intelligent and engaged audience.
“What this means is if we change one component like the ball, we can immediately experiment how that affects other areas. In addition to that, we can provide the federation with detailed data to help it shape its development of the game.
“For us, nowhere else in the UK has the breadth of sports expertise we do, and we see the FIH partnership as a way to get that message out internationally. Higher education is a global business so this is a great opportunity to build our brand in markets like India, alongside a progressive governing body.”
The FIH’s director of sport David Luckes says a key part of the Loughborough partnership is the development of hockey’s short-form game.
“It’s our equivalent of rugby sevens or 3×3 basketball. For us, this is an important part of our strategy to extend the appeal of the game to a wider audience,” he says. “As a federation you’re always looking for ways to make the game work at a youth level and in emerging markets, so developments in terms of cheaper equipment and surfaces can benefit the sport.”
Running in parallel, Loughborough is working with the FIH on ways to make the elite end of the game more compelling for TV audiences.
“Lots of sports face an issue with how to get across the speed and power of their discipline to TV audiences,” adds Luckes. “So we are looking at what we can do to translate the excitement of the live experience into our media product.”
One example of this has already been announced. As of this month, major FIH events such as the Champions Trophy, Hockey World League Final and 2016 Olympic Games will assume a new format that includes moving to four 15-minute quarters and having 40-second time-outs when a penalty corner is awarded and after a goal is scored.
Lots of sports face an issue with how to get across the speed and power of their discipline to TV audiences
This change, says Luckes, is purely about fan engagement: “With the additional breaks, fans will see more replays and commentators have more time to analyse between plays.”
Other areas being looked at by Loughborough and the FIH include ways to make the ball more visible, ball-to-surface contact and ball size, says Luckes.
“If the ball was 10 per cent bigger, would it be easier to see on TV, and how would that affect the entertainment value of the sport? What if we changed the colour of the pitch? We’ll explore everything and then feed it in to the work we are doing with Star Sports, which joins us as a partner from 2015,” he adds.
In addition to the mechanics of the game, Tattershaw says there is also scope to research the positioning of the game in the minds of consumers.
“All sports have a constant challenge overcoming outdated perceptions, So we’re looking at how we can increase the urban appeal of the game and how we can increase the profile of our players, because celebrity is such a strong currency among young people.
“All of that has implications for how we use digital and social media, areas where we have been very proactive as a federation.”