In January 2019, national teams from 11 countries will take to the field for the inaugural Hockey Pro League.
It will mark the culmination of a project that began in 2013, when field hockey came close to being ditched from the Olympic Games by the International Olympic Committee’s executive board in a post-London 2012 review.
It was, to cite McCracken, a “wake-up call to make our events more relevant.”
The New Zealander was an observer at the time – albeit a close one having served as a technical delegate at London 2012 away from his day job at Australasian banking giant ANZ.
McCracken officially joined the FIH on 1 February, some 10 months after the federation had announced plans to scrap the established Champions Trophy and Hockey World League after 2018, in a major overhaul of the international calendar.
The plan, it was said at the time, was to launch an annual global league for the top nations, comprising home and away fixtures, from 2019.
Since taking the reins of the FIH, McCracken has been busy firming up commercial and logistical plans for that new property, which was officially unveiled last week as the Hockey Pro League - the nine best teams on the men's and women's side playing each other home and away.
It is, in essence, a made-for-TV product, with the FIH working closely with its major broadcast partners – the likes of Star India, Sky New Zealand and the UK’s BT Sport – to develop a concept that enthuses audiences.
“We’ve had tournaments played in front of empty stadia - Australia would play Argentina in India and no-one would come to the match. It was only when a home team played that people would people attend,” McCracken explains.
“So through consultation with broadcasters and national associations, the concept of the Pro League was launched. It has a narrative, a story. Rather than having a circus of tournaments, broadcasters wanted a window when they know these things are running. That’s what we’re creating. A January-to-June, four-year cycle, with hockey played every weekend.”
He continues: “Aside from narrative, our broadcasters wanted more content. With Hockey Pro League, we’ll have 144 games each season, a tenfold increase annually [on international matches played at present].
“The market is telling us the product is of value. More hockey, and a narrative.”
The Hockey Pro League is, in McCracken’s words, “a $150-million project for a federation with annual turnover of SFr10 million [$10.3 million].”
“It’s a big step up for us,” he says.
The league is essentially being underwritten by TV rights, with the FIH recently taking the decision to buy back its rights from Star India, the pay-TV broadcaster owned by Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox, and which runs the Star Sports network.
The market is telling us the product is of value. More hockey, and a narrative
Star India was appointed by the FIH to distribute international media rights for events in all territories worldwide except Argentina in an eight-year deal beginning in 2015, in what the federation described at the time as a “game-changer.”
Another commercial revenue boost will come from the sale of title sponsorship of the league. The FIH is selling that itself, with preliminary conversations under way with brands.
Each national association competing in the league will be able to sell a presenting sponsorship package for their home matches.
The men’s league will consist of: Argentina; Australia; Belgium; England; Germany; India; Netherlands; New Zealand; and Pakistan.
The women's competition will feature: Argentina; Australia; China; England; Germany; India; Netherlands; New Zealand; and USA.
The league will embark on a ‘follow the sun’ schedule, with matches to be played in the southern hemisphere in the early part of the year, and in the northern hemisphere in the second half of the season.
McCracken says there has already been “strong interest” from regional authorities and cities in India and New Zealand seeking to host matches to promote tourism.
“Cities are willing to put money on the table to attract this event,” he adds.
In Belgium, the national body is already talking about using a 30,000 to 40,000-seat stadium for the ‘Battle of the Lowlands’ with the Netherlands.
“It’s a step change in revenues,” McCracken notes.
The FIH expects to “break even, perhaps produce a modest profit” in the first four-year cycle after significant initial outlays on production and marketing, with “real value to come in the second cycle.”
Pakistan will play their matches in Glasgow following “a pretty innovative agreement with Scottish Hockey.”
McCracken says that as a “historically commercially important market” – given its rivalry with India – Pakistan’s presence was “vital,” yet it quickly became evident that, for security reasons, the other eight nations would not travel to Lahore for matches.
The Hockey Pro League is the first manifestation of the FIH’s ‘Hockey Revolution’, a 10-year strategy that aims to make hockey a global game that inspires the next generation.
It could be argued, however, that rather than globalising hockey, the Pro League is in fact creating a closed shop of the elite.
The FIH has said there will be no change to the make-up of the competition in the first four years, despite obvious interest; Spain and Ireland were unsuccessful with bids for representation in both the men’s and women’s leagues, while Belgium, Italy and Japan failed with bids for women's teams and Malaysia missed out on the men’s competition.
But McCracken defends the structure, saying: “This will be our commercial entertainment product. It will be our flagship product, but we have broadened, and will continue to broaden hockey.”
For those nations not in the Pro League, the next tier of competition will remain similar to the current Hockey World League Round 1 and 2 events, played over two-year cycles.
This format still give countries the chance to qualify for the World Cup and Olympic Games. There is a pathway
“Seventy national associations have applied to be a part of that,” McCracken says. “This format still give countries the chance to qualify for the World Cup and Olympic Games. There is a pathway.”
Tearing up your established event calendar to launch a multi-million dollar initiative is, undoubtedly, a risk, yet it’s a word that sits comfortably with McCracken, a former head of insurance and investment risk at ANZ.
Reflecting on his first four months in the role, he says: “It’s a seven-day-a-week job, but certainly not the office job that I had. We are fundamentally changing what we are doing and how we are doing it.
“I deliberately took this role to commercialise hockey and bring it into a professional space and I’m loving that aspect. This has been my sport – I’ve worked on four Olympic Games, two as a referee and two as a technical official. I’m fortunate to have turned my passion into a job.”
McCracken describes himself as “incredibly commercial” and says he is fortunate to have found a kindred spirit in FIH president Narinder Batra of India, who was elected late last year to succeed Leandro Negre.
Batra had been president of Hockey India, which he played a key role in establishing when it replaced the Indian Hockey Federation in 2009, and also chaired the Hockey India League, the franchise-based clubs competition.
McCracken says of his boss: “He cleaned up Indian hockey from an administrative perspective, and launched the Hockey India League, which is very much a commercial franchise model.
“Our skills complement each other. He is a strong chairman of the board, and his leadership has been outstanding. For the future of hockey, I guess our working together is fortuitous timing.”