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January 29, 2011

Financial Incentive: The Real Reason FIH Says No to WSH League

screen-capture-11This past Thursday (Jan. 27), The Federation of International Hockey (FIH) refused sanction of a new multi-million-dollar World Series Hockey (WSH) League in India. Field hockey’s international governing body stated that “Any player and any association that participates in the World Series may render both ineligible to participate in any FIH tournament, including Olympic qualifying tournaments and the Olympic Games” (see article). This marks the latest turn of high drama that has been the state of field hockey in India the last several years. However, to perceive the FIH’s current position with regards to the WHS as a matter of field hockey in India alone is to miss the larger issue at stake.

Professional field hockey leagues have existed around the world since the evolution of the club hockey system. The most popular and well recognized of those today is the European Hockey League (EHL). Member club rosters boast the best players from countries around the world. Like other professional, international sports (e.g. soccer, cricket), the EHL has found a way to coexist with its sport’s international governing body, the FIH.

Generally speaking, the athlete, their National Governing Body (NGB) and professional club function together like this: An athlete’s first priority is to play and train for their respective country’s national team or NGB. In any given year, the athlete is committed to a number of ‘amateur’, international events such as the Olympics, World Cup, Regional Championships (e.g. Pan Am’s) and so on… When not engaged with their national teams, many athletes play professionally in leagues like the EHL, which give them the opportunity to remain competitive throughout the year and to financially support a lifestyle in a sport for which their country’s NGB alone cannot do.

This turns out to be a pretty sweet deal for the FIH and any given country’s NGB. Why? Since the market wage for a professional field hockey player isn’t exorbitant, the lure of winning medals in international amateur competition commands an adequate enough incentive to retain player loyalty to their NGB, and by extension, FIH events. Subsequently, the FIH and NGB’s can invest less in players while at the same time reap the benefits of player development that is acquired through professional play. Scheduling aspects of the FIH’s governing strategy have evolved as a result this equilibrium.

Enter the Black Swan that is the present state field hockey in India. If you’re not up to speed on field hockey affairs in India, here’s the scoop: India’s NGB used to be the India Hockey Federation (IHF). They didn’t properly follow FIH statutes a couple of years ago and were de-recognized. The FIH currently recognizes Hockey India (HI) as the NGB of India. If you’re still following along, last August, India’s Sport Ministry (an extension of their federal government) granted recognition to the former NGB, India Hockey Federation, as the sole hockey federation in India (article). Naturally, the FIH remains on the opposite end of the spectrum:

The IHF was a member of the Indian Hockey Confederation (IHC). The IHC’s membership of the FIH was withdrawn some 2 years ago for failure to comply with the FIH Statutes. Subsequently, Hockey India (HI) was formed and was formally admitted as a member of the FIH at the 2008 Congress. HI is now the only body governing hockey in India recognised by the FIH and the Indian Olympic Association.

So, we’ve got dueling NGB’s in India. One is recognized by the Indian Sport Ministry; the other by the FIH. While this is going on in the background, the IHF and Nimbus Sports, one of India’s leading sports production companies, have gone ahead and launched the previously mentioned World Series Hockey League with initial prize money in excess $1 million. The result? Nearly the entire Indian hockey team that recently took part in the Commonwealth Games has signed up to participate in the league against the advice of FIH recognized HI.

So what’s the real crux of the matter?  Financial incentive. The IHF and Nimbus are offering the potential to play field hockey professionally in a context that could disrupt the current equilibrium between athletes, clubs & NGB’s. That’s not to imply this could happen overnight. But what if the league is ultimately successful? A lucrative financial incentive made available to professional field hockey athletes has the ability to create a shift in loyalty. Suddenly an employment contract takes precedence over the Asian Games, for example. This would ultimately result in a decline in the relevance of the FIH. Think FIFA, the International Baseball Federation, or the International Ice Hockey Federation to name a few.

In it’s rejection of the WSH, it appears on the surface that the FIH is merely maintaining its allegiance with HI. While perhaps that makes political sense, by citing the potential of scheduling conflicts with FIH events as the basis for its non-sanction of the WSH, the FIH has constructed a loosely assembled straw-man that provides little cover for its true intentions- self preservation. If the WSH achieves measurable financial success, the effect is sure to impact international field hockey on some structural level. As evidenced by the state of international governing bodies in sports that have traveled this path before, the end result doesn’t point to a favorable outcome for the FIH.

Matt Winn

CE Business Director

[Matt Winn, CE Business Director, is solely responsible for any intended or perceived editorial content in this post. Questions or concerns? Email Matt directly at mwinn@ce-fieldhockey.com.]

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