A lot is happening lately behind the scenes for international hockey, so it seems. The FIH announced the “game changing” Hockey Pro League, starting in 2019 for example. Today marks the birthday for the Hockey Series, a new event replacing the Hockey World League. Always want to know who is playing when in the world of hockey? Take a look at this hockey calendar or click here to add it to your own calendar.

It is not an easy task managing expectations of hockey fans, coaches and players all over the planet. We live in a diverse world and hockey is not experienced the same in western Europe as it is in India or China or South Africa or Canada for example. And therefore expectations are different all over the world. Read Domestic hockey versus international hockey as I described it in an earlier opinion piece from last year here. Or listen to my “rant” :) on the global hockey podcast from 2018-05-31 by The Reverse Stick. Quite a challenge ahead for the FIH, as well as for all national hockey associations.

We know, in the aftershock from London 2012 and the bad report card hockey got from IOC, the people running our game seem to be questioning it all. Often a good exercise and not something to shy away from if you want to remain relevant. However we’re going somewhat overboard these days in my (not so humble) opinion… Small but insightful experiments in the EHL have given us real added value. The HIL from India with a more commercial set-up also added value. But it seems some these days want to completely reinvent the game of hockey. Why? Changing too much, especially all at once, will not add value but alienate the existing fanbase I’m afraid. The very, very strange ideas Hockey Australia is playing around with are not one but several steps too far for me. As is the new format the FIH is so keen to support: Hockey5s… But that’s just me being a rusty old traditionalist… or is it?

Hockey5s … Why ?

whyLast week I got triggered by a statement from the sport and development director at the FIH in The Hockey Paper about their newest toy, Hockey 5s, claiming :

We’re delighted to see the expansion in numbers,” added Wyatt. “Hockey 5s has already proved very popular, and the FIH envisages that this exciting format will complement the 11-a-side game.
The title of this piece was “Hockey 5s will grow world game, says FIH“… Needless to say I have my doubts.
I talk to hockey people every day, from all walks of life and from all over the world… players (top & recreational), coaches, fans, officials, administrators, media… If among those I can find 1 out of 100 who thinks Hockey5s is a good idea that would probably even be exaggerated. Of course we should also consider other sports enthusiasts who are not familiar with our game of hockey in countries where our sport is not or hardly played. It is there we want to grow the game (as well)…
But do we really believe potential sports enthusiasts are looking for a completely new sport nobody has heard about, without or hardly any fanbase or active players, teams, clubs, competitions, events around the world?

So I asked the FIH sport and development director, Jon Wyatt, the following question(s):

As many in the world of hockey I still wonder why Hockey 5s is being promoted and endorsed. Most of the big hockey family throughout the entire world I talked to over these last years don’t get it either… But, instead of just bashing the idea, I would like to ask you to help me understand.

I think everybody (or most) get(s) the concept of a “smaller format” needed, next to our traditional 11v11 game. To help promote the game of hockey in countries/regions where it is not easy to get started with the original 11-a-side game, something easier for people at grassroots level to get involved.

But in my opinion we already have such a format with indoor hockey, which does not have to be played indoor but could just be rebranded to Hockey6 or whatever. According to me, there are a lot of advantages to promoting a slightly adapted format of this existing 6-a-side game instead of inventing a totally new format such as Hockey 5s.

First of all the 6-a-side game already has a fanbase, players, teams, recognised domestic and international events and infrastructure in lots of regions all over the world. Hockey 5s in my opinion has none of these… So in order for Hockey 5s to become a success all involved would have to invest heavily in new infrastructure and marketing because you start from scratch. Whereas the 6-a-side game already has history, legacy, a fanbase, players, teams and even new infrastructure (indoor or outdoor) in developing countries would be a lot cheaper because shared by other sports such as handball or others…

So help me/us understand why a choice for Hockey 5s instead of the existing formats is a good idea?
Also I’ve read a statement by the FIH about the new Hockey 5s already being very popular? Could you back this up with data?

Wyatt only just started his job at the FIH, so maybe it’s not entirely fair to burden him with this question. But then again it is his job… and he’s not exactly new to the sport having captained England and Great Britain in the 2008 Sydney Games. Nor to the business end of sports having been involved with the 2012 London Games, the 2015 Rugby World Cup, the English Premier League, etc…
He answered:

I am hugely excited about the game at the moment and the developments that are being put in place to grow hockey around the world.

Specifically on Hockey5s, as you’ll know it was conceived after feedback from the IOC in 2010 regarding the importance of engaging younger people and the benefits of short sided formats to do this at the Youth Olympic Games. Equally important was the emphasis on developing the game globally and not to be too Euro-centric. Out of this feedback the Hockey5s concept was launched and proved a great success at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China. An average of 11 goals were scored per match throughout that competition, with near full capacity for the majority of games plus competitive matches between traditionally uncompetitive nations. Outside of Europe, where you rightly point out that indoor hockey is very strong, Hockey5s has been very well received, with particular enthusiasm in Africa, Asia and Oceania, and international tournaments played in all five continents in countries who have not previously hosted international hockey tournaments, including in Papua New Guinea earlier this year.

The YOG gives us the chance to keep innovating and test this format, and we are continually assessing performance, fan engagement and looking for improvements. There are many National Associations who strongly support Hockey5s, many who support Indoor hockey (particularly in Europe), and many who have other ideas and priorities. These are all influenced by the particular factors in their countries and regions and whilst the points you make about indoor hockey are very valid, they are mainly true of European nations and less relevant in other parts of the world. As you’ll be aware, 5-a-side indoor hockey was tried a few years back, but based on feedback the game was reverted back to 6-a-side, so we are willing to listen and want to keep moving the game forward.

Our role within the FIH is to balance all feedback from our members (the Continental Federations and National Associations), as well as players and our many and varied stakeholders, to grow and develop the game throughout the world.

Well… obviously it’s easy to consider me or my opinions “Euro-centric”. And in some way probably right as well… Europe is my home. On the other hand I do think it makes sense learning from what worked here and other parts of the world to help grow the sport in “new” regions around the world. Remember which country came in 3rd at the latest indoor world cup? Iran ! Not exactly a Euro country, nor one of the usual suspects.
The existing format of indoor hockey (rebranded and not restricted to indoor) would answer all needs stated by the IOC. I honestly do not see the benefit of doing this with a completely new format without history of fanbase. Still don’t ;)

No criticism without offering solutions

So I doubt the claimed success for Hockey5s. No public data on players involved exist to my knowledge. So how do you measure success? I hope it’s not by other administrators patting the FIH on the back with their new format, while in the VIP lounge with their backs turned to the field. So how many players (and new countries) got introduced to hockey through this Hockey5s and how many took up the game? My guess is nobody knows… My guess is zero…

Let me also point out that I hate criticism without offering solutions. So these are some of my thoughts on this and possible solutions…

  1. First off… I love our game as is! I think any future changes should be minimal. Especially changes affecting the core of our sport. Hockey is great the way it is. We should not change it. If people don’t get it, that’s their loss… Instead of changing the way we are, we should focus on teaching the sports fans about our game to help them understand and love the game as is. So grow the game from within… We’ve got two existing formats of our game: outdoor or 11v11 and indoor or 6v6. These, with occasional minor tweaking, should cover all needs to grow the game of hockey. Yes… also outside of Europe ;) But the focus should be to remain an Olympic sport, 11v 11 and if possible add the 6v6 format there as well. If volleyball can do this, why not hockey? If Hockey5s is the only way to remain Olympic I guess I could learn to live with it, but I don’t see it taking off…
  2. Future innovation should not be (or not so much anyway) in rules or new formats, but rather in other domains such as the way we bring hockey to the fans. We need (more) professional and knowledgeable commentators able to transfer the love for our game to other sports enthusiasts. Bring our game to as many screens as possible instead of geo-blocking live streams. Right holders should bring extra value to our sport, not only money. If they do this, they will have no more need for geo-blocking either. Educate fans, even those who “know” hockey, by using a lot (!!) more statistics, the way lots of American sports do.
    We need to be graphically creative to solve the issues with a ball too small and a game too fast for our screens. Show the path of passes played, the reasons why players choose to run a certain direction. Show the build up and passing systems before the goal is scored. The tools to do this exist but we hardly use these.
    More camera’s, more angles, more slow-mo’s and definitely more screens (TV, laptop, phone,…) to entertain the fans.
    That is where we should focus innovation on, for the coming years. The game itself needs a rest to remain recognisable for the existing fanbase. Alienating the existing fanbase would be the end of hockey…
  3. We need a calendar that has room for all components of the game : domestic as well as international hockey. The foundation of domestic hockey (wherever in the world) is essential to enjoy the international game and grow as a whole from within.
  4. We need a more fair and honest global ranking to remain credible and protect our values. So no more points for invitational events for example…
  5. Keep the game as simple as possible… “KISS” !
  6. Focus research & development on a replacement for waterbased artificial grass pitches. These are not sustainable…

But we’ll get back to these suggestions in the future… ;)
Meanwhile… we would love to hear your thoughts on this!