FIH Pro LeagueThe first edition of the FIH Pro League has declared its winners… and its losers! Thierry Weil, CEO for the FIH declared the first edition of his Pro League a success. Which resulted in a few giggles as well as grinding teeth around the world. To those who believe the FIH Pro League has potential added value for our sport, it is clear it was not the concept that failed. Sure some tweaks, as expected, are necessary but the idea behind the Pro League is still a valid one. The execution however did fail on several counts and the promises made by FIH president Batra once again proved to be hot air and nothing more…

Overpromising & underdelivering

Batra is proving to be a true politician instead of the hockey aficionado he claims to be. He quickly rose to power within Hockey India in the wake of the restructuring enforced by the FIH several years ago. Next he gave us the Hockey India League (HIL). The HIL was his first really great idea that unfortunately crumbled after just 5 years because of poor execution, promising too much and underdelivering. What a shame! Because it had real added value for the world of hockey, allowing pro hockey players to live like a pro. But even more for India, because finally young Indian talent came into contact, even though for just a couple of weeks a year, with the best in the world. This is part of the reason why India climbed the global ranking these last years.

Next up Batra became FIH president in 2016 and again, obviously, promises were made… some out loud, some behind closed doors. Listen to Batra, in his first press conference when he became FIH president, when asked if his election as FIH president is part of a bigger plan to become an IOC member:

So we retain the following… Even though the rumours already existed about Batra aiming for the presidency of the India Olympic Association and his ambition to become an IOC member, he states the opposite:

“For me it’s only hockey and I refuse to look beyond that. That’s where I should remain focussed into and concentrate. It’s hockey, hockey, hockey and that’s it!”

Narinder Batra – FIH president

Of course, by now, we know a year later in 2017 he became president of the IOA, claiming he could do both jobs without a problem. And in June 2019 he got elected as IOC member as well… Sure, there could be benefits for hockey to have more hockey people in the IOC defending our interests. But there’s doubt Batra really cares about hockey… Batra cares about his status, power and influence in India first and foremost. Is it really hockey, hockey, hockey? Or rather Batra, Batra, Batra…

The second claim by Batra we retain from his first press conference as FIH president is about his priorities within hockey:

“I would like to concentrate and focus more on how to increase the revenue and the reach for hockey.”

Narinder Batra – FIH president

He states the FIH office is perfectly capable without him to deal with all calendar and sport related issues. His own added value, according to Batra, would be in increasing the reach of hockey and the revenue. In my view increasing the reach of hockey would mean: more countries and more people actively involved in playing hockey. In his view it means more hockey on TV, more viewers, … But that aside, obviously it’s early to judge him on increasing the reach of hockey. That is not something that happens overnight. Though I fail to see what he has done so far towards this goal.
The revenue part of his promise to the world of hockey however is something we can measure every year…

“Me and the new CEO will not let you down, will not let hockey down on the revenue part. (…) Give us some time. The revenue will go up, rest assured.”

Narinder Batra – FIH president

Increasing the revenue is something we can evaluate every year… Though here as well, in all fairness, it’s a goal that would take some time to really make a difference. However, before Batra, the FIH had an ongoing deal with for example Star Sports, an important Asian sports broadcaster from India. Since Batra taking office, this has been withdrawn by the broadcaster. That was a significant amount of money, of revenue the FIH lost. Was there a relationship with the disciplinary action by the FIH against Batra around the same time? Some might say it looks like a political manoeuvre orchestrated by Batra, after he got slapped on the wrist for his behaviour, to show FIH and other countries he and only he controlled the flow of money.

In setting up the FIH Pro League, the FIH panel responsible for starting up the Pro League agreed (!) to an offer from a third party who would manage the entire event and commercialise it. This independent sports management company guaranteed a yearly budget for 4 years, sufficient to honour all promises made by FIH with regards to the Pro League towards players, national associations and broadcasters. But, opposing their own administration, Batra and his Executive Board declined the offer… without anything to replace these funds needed to make the Pro League a success! Because, I can only assume, he needs to be in control of the flow of money…

So it looks like his promises to hockey players about hockey as a valid career choice are yet to be fulfilled.

“My main focus will be to increase the revenue… That’s how we will be able to assist the FIH members and grow. The benefit goes back to the athletes, so people can feel they can make a career out of hockey.”

Narinder Batra – FIH president

I get it is a difficult task. Perhaps a task too big to accomplish in just a couple of years. But when you turn down a partner that would make all of this possible straight away from the beginning, alarm bells start ringing. If the proposal would have had too many “ifs and buts” I assume the FIH Pro League Panel would not have recommended this to Batra & co. So what would be the ulterior motive for declining this guaranteed revenue able to fulfil all (or most) promises made? In my opinion, Batra needs to be in control for him to agree…

The pressure from IOC to do more with less

IOC has changed a lot since the day of Pierre de Coubertin. They have become the main source of income for most of their affiliated sports. As is the case for hockey. The perceived need for growth and more revenue has led them to believe they are in fact in the entertainment business instead of health & education through sports. So the pressure is on, as in most businesses, to do more with less. More medals with less athletes, though from more countries and needing less infrastructure. Compared to individual sports, team sports have more problems answering that call. The FIH developed Hockey5s for that sole purpose. Allowing for more countries to participate without raising the number of athletes. Plus, while unthinkable in regular hockey, they might even add a 3rd medal by adding a mixed category in Hockey5s. With games being played on smaller sized pitches, with possibly more flexibility in surface and game-time being restricted to 2x 10 minutes they could cram an entire tournament in less days also.

The idea of the Pro League came about from a need to become less dependent on the IOC funds. Change the given where the Olympic games are perceived to be the pinnacle of success to more importance for the World Cup and FIH’s own events such as the FIH Pro League. Where enough money would be generated from these events to become less dependent from the IOC. Following the example of rugby, cricket, football…

The Batra agenda

Batra, however, quickly understood pushing the Hockey5s agenda would please the IOC and thus help him get elected into their ranks. If he succeeds in replacing our old school hockey with Hockey5s by LA2028 it might help him wheel in the 2032 or 2036 Games to India which would elevate his status and influence in India to the desired level… That is his ultimate goal!

If you believe this to be true it’s easy to see why they would call this Pro League a success. Its real goal is to prove the time of our beloved traditional hockey game, 11 v 11, is over. A failing Pro League would prove our standard game can not be made into a global commercially successful sport and needs to be replaced by a so-called modern version of it: enter Hockey5s!

This way the FIH can raise its medal events from 2 to 3, adding mixed teams. Hockey’s needs in terms of infrastructure would be a lot easier to handle with smaller pitches and possibly other surfaces than water-based artificial turf. Hockey could raise the participating nations from 12 to 16 and still have 15% less athletes in the Village. And finally with games taking up less time, each medal event could be reduced to 1 week or 10 days instead of two weeks. One can see the appeal for the IOC, but it would be the death of a sport with so much tradition in the Olympic movement. A sport that does not give in to diminishing attention span of viewers these days, but promotes real teamwork and perseverance. All this however doesn’t mean a lot to people like Batra. They see hockey as a means to their own goals. In case of Batra these goals are getting into the IOC and bring the Games to his India. He is halfway there…

A solution?

Who knows… Any solution will have to start with more professionalism (and political savoir faire) from European, Australian and American administrators. The time of well meaning volunteers managing the sport is over. Because as long as important decisions can still be made with the “one country, one vote” principle within the FIH, politicians like Batra will be able to lobby their way through it all…

Having grown up in the Netherlands and Belgium I know all about the art of compromise in politics. It’s in our DNA. One possible solution to save our hockey would be for the other nations really involved in hockey to support Batra’s attempt to host the Olympic games in India some time soon. In return for his support to grow hockey, our traditional 11-a-side hockey. Getting more revenue to become less dependent upon IOC money while also making sure to not replace the IOC with only Indian money of course. If we can turn our FIH World Cup and FIH Pro League into money making events, without selling our soul to the devil, we stand a chance of surviving. But time is running out…

Meanwhile… let’s enjoy our hockey while we still can. After a hectic hockey month in June (never seen soooo much international hockey in one month) we were given a short break from it all. But before you know it the Junior European Championships gets underway (live streamed at eurohockeytv.org)… the Pan Am Championships, the senior European Championships (live streamed at eurohockeytv.org), the European club leagues, the new Australian Hockey One event and the all important Olympic Qualifiers in October and November. Lots of good old fashioned hockey, just the way we like it ;)