Stick or twist | How new international league will revolutionise hockey’s calendar

  • Hockey Pro League to launch in 2019 with nine men’s and nine women’s teams
  • FIH optimistic of commercial success despite India’s withdrawal
  • FIH partners were part of Hockey Revolution ‘New Events Portfolio’ consultation

The Hockey Revolution is well and truly underway for the International Hockey Federation (FIH), which has become the latest sports governing body to flesh out details of a significant calendar revamp.

In June the FIH announced the participating teams in its new national team competition, the Hockey Pro League, which will launch in January 2019.

With the FIH moving away from the established Champions Trophy and World League formats, nine men’s and nine women’s teams will compete in the league, which will serve as a qualifying route for the 2020 summer Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Each team will play eight matches at home and eight matches away between January and June every year before a Grand Final, featuring the top four teams in both tournaments, takes place within two weeks of the conclusion of the ‘regular season’. The winning team in each tournament will receive the single largest financial prize in the sport – although exact figures are yet to be disclosed.

The southern hemisphere teams will host the northern hemisphere teams in the earlier months of the year, before the roles are reversed as the weather improves in the northern hemisphere towards the middle of the year.

The league is the flagship tournament in the FIH’s ‘New Events Portfolio’, which is part of the ‘Hockey Revolution’ 10-year roadmap that was launched in 2014, with the aim of raising the global status and popularity of the sport.

The FIH’s strategy for the league is underpinned by principles that were outlined in the New Events Portfolio. The current Hockey World League Round One and Two events will be repositioned within the new calendar from 2018, forming a set of defined events that will eventually sit alongside the Pro League, Hockey World Cup, Olympic Games and Olympic Games qualifying competition.

With a goal of establishing ‘stand-out’ and ‘simple and meaningful’ events as part of a ‘predictable, regular calendar’, the FIH in December 2014, through its Event Portfolio Working Group, started consulting with the sport’s various stakeholders on the creation of the league.

At the heart of the league concept is the idea that, rather than staging 25 matches in a single destination, there will be 144 ‘home’ matches, giving fans in various countries considerably more opportunities to watch games.

Most valuable asset

“It’s like taking our most valuable asset and increasing it – overnight – by over 500 per cent,” FIH chief executive Jason McCracken tells SportBusiness International.

“Never in the history of hockey have we consulted so thoroughly with so many people from different stakeholder groups and different backgrounds in different countries.

"We held meetings, workshops and conference calls, presenting early drafts and many, many amended drafts – including concepts that were completely discarded along the way. We also undertook an extensive global brand research project, speaking to thousands of hockey and general sports fans from across the world.”

The process involved three years of research and included input from more than 600 individuals, including athletes, national associations, continental federations, broadcasters, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), individuals at continental federation congresses, officials and umpires, FIH committee and panel members, and other FIH staff.

The governing body also invited external contractors in specialist areas including finance, law and commercial to offer advice.

“We will continue such consultation once the league begins, as it is the only way we will stay relevant in what is a fast-moving industry,” McCracken says.

“At present, too many of our events are planned without specific attention to the needs of TV, media and digital support. Too many of our events have no particular purpose or meaning for local fans. In short, they are simply not ‘fan-focused’ enough.”

The league’s home-and-away format, the FIH believes, will provide a more partisan atmosphere and stoke up rivalries, all with the aim of providing a more engaging spectacle. The Grand Final will then provide a fitting crescendo for the campaign.

“It’s built with TV in mind,” McCracken adds. “The Hockey Pro League will leverage – and make the most of – one of our most important, powerful and underused assets: ‘The power of home’.

“Home fixtures provide us with a chance to drive loyalty and passion. We see the evidence of this in other sports the world over and we see it for ourselves when home teams are playing in our existing events. 

“The impact is huge. With more spectators and more local fans, our events are suddenly more attractive to broadcasters and commercial partners, so we are able to generate more income. At the same time, we stop playing the matches that we know have minimal value.”

Scheduling clash

The league represents a radical shake-up of a competition schedule that was felt to have run its course, but not everyone is on board.

Despite being selected for the men’s and women’s competitions, Hockey India announced in July that it would not participate in the league, with reports suggesting possible concerns over a scheduling clash with the domestic Hockey India League.

“Whilst we regret India’s decision to withdraw, it was their decision and we respect that,” says McCracken, who adds that he would “love to see India participate in the Hockey Pro League in the future”, especially considering the country’s rich pedigree in the sport. “We had an oversubscribed application process, with all of the candidates providing extremely competitive and robust applications.”

India’s lack of enthusiasm – for the time being at least – would appear to be an anomaly.

The women’s Pro League is set to feature Argentina, Australia, Belgium, China, England/Great Britain, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand and the US, while the men’s teams have been confirmed as Argentina, Australia, Belgium, England/Great Britain, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Pakistan (which will play its home matches in Scotland) and Spain.

IMAGE: The FIH hopes hockey fans will buy into the new Hockey Pro League (Charles McQuillan/Getty Images for FIH)

Teams that were not chosen for the women’s tournament include Ireland, Italy, Japan and Spain, while Ireland and Malaysia were unsuccessful in applying for the men’s competition.

The FIH distributed application documents to the top 16 men’s and women’s teams in December last year. The quality of each team was not the only consideration in the final selections, with the potential to generate more exposure for the sport and higher commercial revenues through hosting matches that are ‘big, bold, packed and loud’ – a slogan that supports the league’s ethos – also important.

Long-term partnerships

The governing body also asked each national association for detailed financial modelling, projected budgets for home and away matches, proposed marketing and commercial strategies, and evidence of financial sustainability.

Interestingly, as part of the selection process, the FIH also held discussions with media companies in an attempt to gauge where the league could potentially strike up fruitful, long-term partnerships.

“Earlier this year, during the candidate application phase, we visited broadcasters around the world to establish the strength of their relationship with their national association and their appetite for covering the league,” McCracken says.

“Conversations with all of them were extremely encouraging and it’s clear there’s a strong appetite from broadcasters to show the Hockey Pro League, particularly in participating nations.

“Many of those interested are already broadcast partners for our current events. However, the success of their coverage is also driving competition with other broadcasters in their territory who are now looking to obtain the rights for the Hockey Pro League.

“Over the next couple of months we will be going back into those territories to develop plans with broadcasters to ensure that this competition is covered globally for the first four years at a minimum.”

The league certainly provides an intriguing proposition for platforms such as DAZN, the OTT service operated by digital sports media company Perform, which in June acquired exclusive rights for events operated by the FIH in Austria, Germany and Switzerland through to the end of 2018.

Huge appetite

“Our focus lies on the next FIH events, which are covered on DAZN within our current partnership,” Kay Dammholz, DAZN’s managing director of rights and distribution, tells SportBusiness International.

“We see huge appetite for hockey in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and obviously the success of national teams gives a massive boost.

“Any event that creates excitement and offers high-quality action helps to grow hockey and we are excited to see a boost in interest in the sport following the launch of the Hockey Pro League, which we believe is a great addition to the hockey calendar.

“We are excited to be broadcasting the world’s best hockey action to the fans right now on DAZN and I’m sure we’ll talk about any further steps when the time is right.”

Participating teams are guaranteed a place in the competition for four years – a period of time in which, according to the Hindustan Times, there are hopes that the league will generate commercial returns of $150m (€134m).

“With more opportunities to see their heroes in action throughout the year, national teams’ followers are expected to grow,” McCracken adds.

“This will not only increase the commercial value of the sport through ticket sales, hospitality and merchandising, but also commercial interest in the teams and their athletes through increased sponsorship opportunities.

INTRO: Anouk Raes of Belgium celebrates after scoring in the Women's Hockey World League (Charles McQuillan/Getty Images for FIH)

“It is predicted that the increased commercial potential of implementing the new structure will generate considerably more value for the sport, which will filter down into all levels, including new and developing hockey nations, from elite to grassroots level. 

“Now that the teams have been confirmed, we are now taking this product to the market and from initial discussions with several potential partners we are excited by the interest we are receiving.”

Loughborough University is the FIH’s global innovation partner, with the UK institution’s School of Business and Economics having been a key contributor towards the Hockey Revolution strategic plan.

Real innovators

According to Brett Holland, Loughborough’s hockey programme coordinator, the new league represents “a fantastic opportunity.”

He tells SportBusiness International: “We were in the consultation at its first conception and believe it robustly aligns with the Hockey Revolution’s ambition of growing the global game by presenting great, consistent televised international hockey matches over a prolonged, but standardised period.

“The FIH are real innovators, constantly looking to find opportunities to make hockey more accessible for all, more engaging for those involved and always looking to be as proactive and progressive as they can.”

For McCracken, who underlines that such an approach is essential in the highly-competitive industry, the league represents a significant change in strategy for a federation that is looking to the future. 

“We think that sports are now catering to the needs of several different stakeholder groups due to the fact that fans have more choice, not only in terms of what sport to follow, but also how to consume it,” he says. “In the past, events were sport-focused, ensuring that competitions were built around the athletes at a time when spectator numbers were much higher.

“In a bid to stand out from the rest and maintain interest in our sport, we need to consider the many different ways to reach our audiences, ensuring that the needs of TV, media and digital support are catered for.

Athletes are and will always remain at the core of our decision-making process, but we need to monitor changing social patterns to ensure our sport remains relevant to fans of all ages, so that engagement and subsequent participation levels continue to increase.”

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