World hockey's expert helmswoman

COMPETITIVE hockey acquired a new touch of dynamism, a vibrant note of developmental endeavour and a pragmatic progression towards effective marketing with the elevation of Ms. Els van Breda Vriesmann as President of the International Hockey Federation in 2001.

COMPETITIVE hockey acquired a new touch of dynamism, a vibrant note of developmental endeavour and a pragmatic progression towards effective marketing with the elevation of Ms. Els van Breda Vriesmann as President of the International Hockey Federation in 2001.

VINO JOHN

As the first ever woman holding the reins of power in the FIH and only among a handful women at the top in the arena of sports, the 62-year old Dutchwoman from Enschede, has moved up the ladder leaving an indelible imprint in every facet of administration.

From 1980 when she got into the council of the Royal Netherlands Hockey Board till this day, Ms. Vriesmann has held a wide range of positions in the hockey hierarchy, as Council Member (1982), Secretary General (1984) and President (since 2001). A linguist who can converse in English, French, German and Spanish, besides her mother-tongue, Dutch, Ms. Vriesmann was an all-round sportswoman, adept in hockey, tennis, golf, skiing and speed skating.

A zealous champion of sports in general and hockey in particular, Ms. Vriesmann achieved the honour of gaining a place in the International Olympic Committee (IOC) after serving in the Evaluation Commission, and was recently elected member of the Association of Summer Olympics International Federations (ASOIF).

In a wide ranging interview on e-mail with S. THYAGARAJAN, Ms. Vriesmann touches upon various issues confronting contemporary hockey on the eve of the 25th edition of the Champions Trophy at Amstelveen in Amsterdam.

Question: The hockey scene today is reaching a vibrant stage moving towards the big events such as the Champions Trophy (men and women), Olympic qualifiers and the Olympics. How do you view the current scene and what reasons do you attribute to this buoyant mood?

Answer: Every hockey year is now an exciting year because the hockey fraternity is more involved and enthusiastic, mainly due to our improved communications system and quality requirements for events. The "product" has improved over the last few years.

The induction of global sponsors, Rabo Bank and BDO, has opened a new vista, thanks to your initiative in the matter. How exactly is the FIH proposing to use this for the development of hockey? And in this context, what would be your advice to the national federations which have acquired sizable sponsorships from corporates?

Sponsor money is only used to improve the quality of our events. Thus all proceeds from the sponsorship are reinvested in order to make the events more attractive to spectators, television and further sponsors in the future. We are expecting to announce a 3rd FIH Global Partner on the first weekend of the Rabobank Champions Trophy in Amstelveen.

Whilst priorities at the national level may be different, I would still expect the National Associations to share FIH's philosophy of reinvestment for growth, to a significant extent.

There is a general feeling that hockey, despite being a charming sport, has not been marketed well for nearly 50 years. But the attempts now are too late to catch up with established sports such as soccer, F-1 racing and golf. Do you subscribe to this view?

We should not compare ourselves with the major sports of the world. Hockey should instead set itself more realistic goals, concentrating on niche markets. It is never too late. We just have to work harder to make up for lost time.

If indeed it is true that hockey has missed the bus so far, what measures is the FIH taking to challenge the market forces and make hockey acceptable for major TV channels such as BBC and CNN.

Since the beginning of 2002, FIH has implemented a new, innovative and relatively high-investment television strategy. The strategy largely consists of establishing a central team of expert television production staff that work in collaboration with host broadcasters to guarantee worldwide television channels a consistently high-quality presentation of our sport. The style of production is also changing to reflect the high skill level, motion and emotion of our sport. In addition a daily newsfeed is distributed free of rights charges via our broadcast partners Octagon/CSI from our major events.

In a short time the strategy has already achieved significant results with massively improved worldwide news exposure from BBC World and CNN. Also broadcasters are beginning to realise that, televised well, hockey is a great visual spectacle for television. The MeadowLea Women's World Cup in Perth last November achieved the highest global potential audience reach of any hockey event ever.

FIH is also working hard behind the scenes to develop broadband internet broadcasting that will bring high quality hockey coverage to fans of our sport in every country.

There is a perceptible conflict of interests among broadcasters who are compelled to buy rights from contracted marketing agencies who demand exorbitant amounts for permission. It happened at Hamburg where an Indian crew (TWI) landed at the venue but the Broadcaster under contract with DHB didn't allow them to shoot and demanded US $ 500 per minute. Of course, a compromise was reached, but so far the Indian viewers have not seen anything of the event despite the endeavour of TWI. Any comment?

I can only comment on the rights controlled by the FIH and distributed by our partners Octagon/CSI, which are only for major FIH events such as the Champions Trophies, World Cups, Olympic/World Cup Qualifiers, Champions Challenges and Junior World Cups. TV rights to all the other events are the property of and subject to the discretion of the respective host organiser or Continental Federation.

FIH works very closely with Octagon/CSI to ensure that hockey is priced very competitively, whilst also safeguarding the financial interests of host organisers of its major events, who receive an equal share of the net international income. As mentioned above, FIH invests considerable funds in guaranteeing a quality production and equally, broadcasters should not expect to receive a high quality product free of charge or a long term exposure commitment.

The decision to increase the participants in the World Cup to 16 and then backtracking has caused some confusion and denied some teams the opportunity of breaking on to the world stage. Last time, we had the men's World Cup qualifier at Edinburgh played in one format and the World Cup at KL in a different format. The same event for the women in France ended in so much confusion with the matches being played at two venues far apart from each other. What corrective measures are being taken?

The World Cups are, by their nature, elite events and the 12 teams format was chosen in order to display high quality hockey and also as a matter of practicality for the organisers. Sixteen teams are admitted to the Junior World Cups for development reasons.

Will the Olympic qualifier at Madrid have 16 or 12 teams for men, and who are the automatic qualifiers?

Don't you find a certain imbalance in stipulating the number of qualifiers from Europe and Asia which constitute the major power centres when compared to Oceania, Africa and South America? Why not two qualifiers from Asia and three from Europe, one each from Oceania, Africa and South America, leaving three or four places for qualifiers?

We have a representation from each continent in the Olympic Games as well as the World Cup. The strongest teams should participate.

More than once, you have hinted as being against frequent changes in rules. But every year we have a set of rules on experimental basis and most of them are focussed only on penalty corners. Why?

Trials of rule changes address concerns of safety and simplicity only. We have to focus on those aspects of the game.

Personally, do you believe that the third umpire concept is workable in a fast game like hockey? A related question is that, are you happy with the standard of umpiring in important tournaments? Almost every team seems to have a complaint or two with umpires.

The third umpire is workable in a limited number of situations. With hockey being a fast moving game there will always be mistakes, but the standard of international umpiring is generally good. The FIH is taking steps to maintain its improvement with the use of high quality umpires coaching practices, such as video analysis and the recent appointment of our full time Umpires Development Manager, Richard Wilson. There will always be complaints from players, especially from those not on the winning side.

Do you agree that the Champions Trophy would have greater focus with eight teams than the present six which has injected an element of monotony with at least four or five been more or less permanent on the table. Would it not be possible to allow the host team to grant a wild card entry with the permission of the FIH?

A one pool event is the most interesting format which limits the participants to six. The Champions Trophy aims to display the best hockey in the world and the standard of any of the 18 games per event in the current format is said to be worthy of a World Cup final. The Champions Challenge already gives opportunities to teams ranked 6-12.

While the hockey fraternity is delighted by your elevation into the IOC and the ASOIF, how do you see the chances of hockey remaining a part of the Olympics forever in the light of the discussion about reviewing the number of disciplines in the future to curtail the growing gigantism of the Games.

The IOC's Programme Commission evaluated all the sports on the Olympic Programme under the criteria of Games participation statistics, global participation, media coverage and venue and operational costs, and proposed a number of sports for review. Hockey was considered as fulfilling the above criteria for inclusion in the summer Olympic programme and thus was not one of the sports proposed for review. I am very optimistic about hockey's Olympic future if we remain vigilant, do our homework and continue to develop.

Are you confident that the Athens Olympic Committee would be able to deliver the hockey pitches in time considering the fact the sport does not enjoy much popularity there?

Yes.