Hockey goes Pro and OTT
by Callum Murray
Field hockey has a big year ahead of it, with the introduction of the new Pro League competition and the launch of OTT service FIH.live. Thierry Weil, the FIH's CEO, looks ahead to a new era. Author
10th January 2019, 11:58

Regular hockey for broadcasters - and a regular place for fans to watch it: those are the interlinked ambitions that the FIH, field hockey’s world governing body, hopes to achieve in 2019.

To satisfy the first ambition it will later this month launch the FIH Pro League, a national teams competition for both men and women, occupying the first half of the international calendar each year.

Its second ambition is to make a success of FIH.live, the digital OTT channel launched today and produced in conjunction with mycujoo, the UK-based streaming platform best known for its work in soccer. FIH.live plans to screen hockey competitions from the Pro League down to grassroots matches in territories in which the rights have not already been sold to broadcasters.

Speaking in an exclusive interview with Sportcal Insight this week, Weil, who joined the FIH in March 2018 after a career with Fifa and Adidas, says: “When we looked at the international calendar, there were quite a few windows in isolation during the year. We did not have regular hockey for broadcasters and fans. 

“The idea was definitely to have at least a six-month-long league. Then there’s our claim of ‘bringing hockey home’ [unlike the sport’s existing pinnacle tournaments, the quadrennial Olympic Games and World Cup, every game will be held in the country of one of the two competing national teams, with each of the nine men’s and women’s teams playing each other both home and away].


" The main aim is to have a longer period of consistent competition "

Thierry Weil, CEO, FIH  

“Every game is a home game [for one of the teams],” Weil continues. “That is a key element. We’ll have some of the best teams travelling to play each other and at each game a home team will be present. That will attract fans. Already, ticket sales for the first four games are sold out in New Zealand. England launched their ticket sales after the women’s World Cup, [played in England and won by the Netherlands in July and August 2018] and we know there have been a huge amount of ticket requests. The main aim is to have a longer period of consistent competition.”

The nine men’s and nine women’s teams that will compete in the inaugural Pro League have each signed four-year contracts, albeit Weil said that promotion and relegation should be implemented in due course, “for many good reasons. The biggest reason is that some teams will never make it to the top four.”

Pakistan, which is slated to compete in the men’s competition, could, however, be forced to withdraw because of a lack of funds, according to the latest local news reports. The team was set to play all of its matches away because of concerns among competing teams over the volatile political situation in the country.

FIH Pro League 2019: competing teams

Men’s event

Women’s event

Argentina

Argentina

Australia

Australia

Belgium

Belgium

Germany

Germany

Great Britain

Great Britain

Netherlands

Netherlands

New Zealand

New Zealand

Pakistan

China

Spain

USA

Source: FIH

 

Ideally, Weil said, matches would take place every two weeks, but the reality of a global competition, involving teams travelling between Europe, Australasia, Asia and the Americas means that matches will be played in geographical blocks.

The FIH claims to be a pioneer in the creation of what Weil calls a “real, true global league,” pointing out that other leagues, such as soccer’s Uefa Champions League, tend to be continent-based. He said: “This is to my knowledge the first time that this is going to happen, with all its complexities. We will try to combine and respect all the different elements of clubs in countries like Belgium and Holland [where the highest concentration of professional players can be found]. 

“If a team is playing New Zealand, we might aim for it to play a couple of days later in Australia. That’s why it’s not an even schedule through the six months. It’s about player welfare. That why athletes’ representatives have been key in the decision-making process. If Australia come to Europe, they will play Belgium, Netherland, Germany and England all at once, otherwise they would have to fly six times to Europe and back.”

The schedule sounds daunting for amateur players who are trying to juggle a job with their playing duties, but Weil stresses that it has been drawn up in consultation with national associations and clubs, saying: “We will never do anything without the agreement of the national associations. We cannot impose such complexity on associations and players without agreement. That would be counter-productive.”

Despite the Pro League’s name, field hockey remains a largely amateur sport. Could the Pro League be a factor in driving it towards professionalism? “That’s hard to say,” Weil replies. “Currently, as planned, it will be the same as in the past. We’ll have players who play in clubs, and do studies or jobs next to it. It’s no secret to say there were intensive and big discussions in creating the Pro League, especially between national associations and clubs and players, over adding additional games into a packed calendar. But I have to mention that people came to that level of agreement under the given conditions, as amateur, not professional. Will that last for ever? I don’t know, but for the time being…”

The competition is being funded by the FIH, together with the national associations, which both hold marketing rights. Weil said that the FIH is ditching its customary title sponsorship model in favour of a group of up to five main sponsors, plus three suppliers, two of which have already been signed: Dream 11, the Indian fantasy game; and GSC, the sports technology and management company. Likewise, national associations will be entitled to sign up five partners and three suppliers to sponsor their matches, and will also keep all match income, including ticketing revenues. However, each national association will be required to pay for its own teams’ travel and accommodation.

Weil said: “We made a decision we won’t go for title sponsorship. We’re looking to find partners on an equal level promoting the game and the Pro League. It’s a bit of a change of approach – we had to change the structure and our way of approaching companies, rebuilding strategy presentations. We’re now in advanced discussions with partners, including existing partners, potentially. We’re looking for a maximum of five. Realistically, we won’t get five for the first year, to be honest. It’s [the Pro League] something that people need to experience.”

All commercial sales are being handled in-house by the FIH, which will share any profits with the national associations.

The switch away from a title sponsor represents a significant change of approach for the FIH, but, drawing on his experience at Fifa, Weil argues: “A title sponsor means you give a lot of rights to one company, then ask four other companies to promote the event of another brand, not their own brand. It’s extremely complicated to sell. There are two aspects: the financial contribution; and the promotion of the event. If four good brands all promoted the FIH World Cup, that’s worth far more than one title sponsor. No other brand will heavily promote the ‘Vitality World Cup’.”

Netherlands players celebrate winning the 2018 women's Vitality World Cup

Indeed, as this statement suggests, the FIH plans to move away from the title sponsorship model for all of its events (Vitality, the health and life insurance company, was the title sponsor of the women’s World Cup in England in 2018), beginning with the next men’s and women’s World Cups in 2022. What if existing partners are reluctant to abandon the title sponsorship model? “I will just inform them that a title sponsorship will not be possible,” Weil retorts. “They will still get recognition. Sometimes they get more if there are two other strong brands to help to promote the event. The difficulty is to prove and show it so that they believe it!”

In the first instance, at least, the FIH does not expect to see any direct revenues from the FIH.live project – indeed, Weil seems surprised to be asked where the revenues will derive from (all content on the platform will be free to view). Instead, the FIH is counting it as a coup that mycujoo will shoulder all of the production and distribution costs

However, Weil says, in future “there will be potential revenues from advertising. Mycujoo will handle that in collaboration with us. Mycujoo agreed to a revenue share - if there are revenues - and in the meantime they will take care of the costs.”

The arrangement means that, for the first time, national team matches will be available to view outside the territories of the home teams. “We have now done quite a good job of getting broadcasters for different events,” Weil says. “But realistically they only show live games when the game is played at home. So, for a fan in the Netherlands or England it’s quite a frustration not knowing where they can watch [away] games. When I came in, I said we need to find a solution. It’s [the game] on my home broadcaster; and if not, it’s on FIH.live.”

The FIH now sells its global media rights in-house, after buying back the rights from Star India, the pay-TV broadcaster owned by Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox, in 2017 despite being only three years into an eight-year deal (Star retained rights in India, Sri Lanka and Nepal).

FIH Pro League broadcasters 2019

Territory

Broadcaster

Argentina

ESPN Sur

Australia

Fox Sports

Belgium

Telenet

China

TBC

Spain

Not announced yet

Germany

Not announced yet

UK

BT Sport

Netherlands

Ziggo Sport

New Zealand

Spark

Pakistan

TBC

USA

Not announced yet

Source: FIH

 

Uniquely, Weil says, the arrangement with mycujoo allows for amateur match footage to be uploaded to the platform by, for example, parents watching youth games. “Anyone can do it,” he says. “They can film with a mobile phone and they  just need to ask for an uplink. For me, the most important this is that people must know that if I want to watch hockey, I can film it and put it up.”

The platform will also be provided to all national hockey associations for them to produce and stream their competitions and matches. However, Weil warned that in the event of attempts to post amateur footage of elite games for which rights have already been sold, that footage would be blocked.

Mycujoo was identified as a result of a request for proposals that FIH presented to the market, albeit Weil says that he was already familiar with the company from his Fifa days, during which he held discussions with it over a proposed street soccer World Cup. He says: “The really interesting part was the amateur filming which can be put on [the platform] as well. It’s important that friends playing a game can upload it to show to their friends and share it with the hockey community. There are so many possibilities. What is the best goal or corner of the year could include amateur footage. It’s a close family, so let’s provide a nice tool. Mycujoo could deliver that.”

The agreement with the FIH represents mycujoo’s first major move outside soccer. The company was founded in 2014 to allow soccer clubs, leagues, federations and even players to stream content from their matches and monetise it effectively.

Soccer bodies mycujoo has worked with since its launch include the Asian Football Confederation, the national associations in Portugal, the Philippines and Tajikistan, Beach Soccer Worldwide, the international beach soccer events organiser, the Federação Paulista, the soccer association in the Brazilian state of São Paulo, and the Japan Women’s Football League.

Asked to describe his vision for hockey beyond 2019, Weil returns to the calendar, saying: “The most important element we need to have is the international calendar for the next four to five years. It needs to make sense, and be respected by the FIH. If we set a deadline, we have to stick to it, and align with all the the different strong national associations and confederations.

The second one is to get better knowledge of the hockey community. There are far more people out there playing and loving hockey than we know, because we haven’t involved them. We need to involve them in decisions. Another important point is our ranking system. We need one that’s easier to understand, and gives us the possibility to have every single country that plays hockey to be ranked.”

Sportcal