Falling flat on finances: Indian hockey’s experiments with a league formats

The experience of playing with and against the best in the world helped the Indian players improve their strategising skills, made them confident and gave them access to some of the best minds in the business. But it did little in terms of coaching talent and behind the scenes, things weren’t hunky-dory.

Champion in the last edition of the Hockey India League in 2017, Kalinga Lancers is optimistic of the future of the league.   -  Akhilesh Kumar

Indian hockey’s experiments with a league format go back a long way.

The Hockey India League was the most recent one. Controlled and organised by Hockey India since inception in 2013 and accorded a dedicated window in the calendar by the FIH to ensure participation from across the world, it is universally credited with the rapid ascension of Indian men’s hockey on the international stage in the last decade, both in terms of players’ individual growth and the team’s fortunes.

It helped the players financially. The experience of playing with and against the best players in the world helped them improve their strategising skills, made them confident and gave access to some of the best minds in the business. But it did little in terms of coaching talent and behind the scenes, things weren’t hunky-dory.

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In its five years’ existence, the HIL could not establish itself as commercially viable. Starting with five teams, it could only add Kalinga Lancers as the sixth, mainly due to the support of the Odisha government that owned it through IDCO and MCL. Hero pulled out as title sponsor after three years and it was mainly PSU money that kept it ticking. The owners bled badly, two of the five teams — Mumbai and Ranchi — changed ownership midway and by 2018, when it was finally decided to ‘suspend’ the league, there were questions on the viability of others. Jaypee and Wave group sought a way to exit and one-time national sponsor Sahara, with stakes in two of the franchises, has lost interest.

“In the current situation, I neither see the league happening any more nor anyone being interested in or able to get involved. Financially businesses are struggling but even when it did exist, there had been issues,” Sahara’s communications head Abhijit Sarkar admitted.

“Sports leagues or teams can neither be a way to satisfy egos nor be a charity. There was no long-term planning to generate a Return on Investment (RoI) or make it professionally managed. The HIL did a lot for players but a professional league needs people who can plan ahead, contribute full time and are in for the long haul. Apart from Sahara, most were in it either because of personal connections or as part of their CSR. That’s not how you sustain.

“But the biggest culprit was the broadcaster. Star Sports did absolutely zilch. In terms of production quality, promotions, involving the franchises, revenues, there was nothing. No league can survive without broadcast interest,” he said.

Orissa Steelers and Sher-E-Jalandhar players fight it out in the final of the Premier Hockey League in Chandigarh in March 2007. The PHL, predecessor to the HIL, in fact, introduced many of the radical ideas that are now part of international hockey — four quarters, time-outs and shoot-outs being some of them.   -  Akhilesh Kumar

 

Champion in the last edition in 2017, Kalinga Lancers, though, is more optimistic. Odisha Sports Director Vineel Krishna indicated that the state would not hesitate to take part in “any such league whenever launched in near future” but was practical enough to admit that the Covid situation and the strain on the economy would make it a challenge for most. “Hockey has good commercial potential in India. Hockey India League can be a good sporting league with proper marketing,” he said.

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The HIL was expected to return in 2019 as a five-a-side tournament but was postponed to 2020 because of the Olympic Qualifiers and there is no word on its future. However, even though HIL is the league that people remember, its predecessors need to be mentioned here for the impact they had.

Contrary to popular belief, cricket/BCCI is not the pioneer of leagues and innovations. That honour rests with hockey, courtesy the Premier Hockey League and the erstwhile Indian Hockey Federation that made its debut in 2005 and continued till 2008 before the IHF was suspended and the sport plunged into administrative uncertainty.

Ironically, the IPL took wings in 2008 and never faltered since then, mimicking perhaps the fortunes of the two sports at the national level as well.The glamorised PHL, in fact, introduced many of the radical ideas that are now part of international hockey — four quarters, time-outs and shoot-outs being some of them. It had seven teams spanning across the country, unlike HIL which was concentrated in the north. However, apart from token presence from the Netherlands and Australia, the bulk of the teams were made up of Indians and Pakistanis, restricting its global appeal.