FIH chief: Worldwide league ‘a huge test’
Claire Middleton meets the new FIH chief executive who believes hockey is heralding a new era
THE International Hockey Federation’s new global competition will mean England players travelling as far as Australia or New Zealand to play one meaningful match.
The new nine-team format is going to move away from tournament hockey in favour of soccer-style one-off games with the aim of attracting more regular television coverage and turning the sport’s international players into superstars.
While the World Cup and Olympics will remain largely unchanged, the new Home and Away League will see nations heading across the globe for large chunks of the first six months of the year.
“It will be an amazing challenge,” said new FIH chief executive Jason McCracken. “It will require a new mentality – travelling and building up for a one-off match.
“It’s a big shift and different thinking will be required, but it’s not usual in football.”
National governing bodies will have to pay all their team’s travel expenses but will be eligible for 50 per cent of any commercial revenue, plus any income from ticket sales.
The competition, which will start in 2019, will require major changes to England’s
domestic National League – and possibly to those in Scotland and Wales, assuming Great Britain are allowed to participate when the Olympics loom.
However, with the Olympics in 2020, Great Britain’s participation is not yet assured as the thorny issue of “double dipping” has yet to pass the FIH Executive Board.
“It’s likely Scotland and Wales will compete in the lower tiers under their own flags but that scenario still has to be passed by the Executive Board,” said the FIH’s new chief executive Jason McCracken.
“The Great Britain situation is an anomaly which tends to leave the rest of the world scratching their heads and, because of the new format, is back on the agenda.”
While this international reshuffle has major domestic ramifications should England take part – and they have applied for both men and women – the greater nightmare would probably be if they lost out.
According to McCracken, 18 nations have applied for nine spots with participation resting on marketing and global reach almost as much as world rankings.
The League will provide the major means of Olympic and World Cup qualification, with a ver- sion of the World League format providing opportunities for lesser nations.
McCracken reckons there will still be room for meaningful domestic competition but National League clubs, whose next meeting about the issue with England Hockey is scheduled for April 6, will need to be convinced.
THERE are a few jobs in this world where, whatever you do, you are going to leave people disappointed. Jason McCracken, the International Hockey Federation’s new chief executive, has had two of them.
First, he was a high-up banker – and everybody hates bankers – working in insurance and investment risk management for ANZ. Then he was an umpire, where around 50 per cent of your clients believe you are wrong every time you blow your whistle. Yes, every time.
So, if there was anyone ideally suited to coping in an environment where conflict, risk and the selling of unpopular decisions are part and parcel of day-to-day life, McCracken would seem to be the man.
Driven by a love of the game, which began at age five, and inspiration drawn from the Sydney Olympics, he has uprooted himself from New Zealand to Lausanne and into the storm that is the Home and Away League.
He was appointed by an FIH president who has since been succeeded and has joined an organisation whose profile is inextricably bound to the Olympic Games and which yet was a whisker away from being dumped from the Rio roster. Why? “It’s exciting, a real challenge,” he says. “It has been a bit of a culture shock, coping with a new language and trying to buy the right stuff in the supermarket but Lausanne is a beautiful place.
“I am only seven weeks in but we are moving into a totally professional era. For me, it’s a dream come true.”
Hockey’s relationship with the International Olympic Committee, he insists, is “100 per cent rock solid” while commercial proposals – yes, the dreaded Home and Away League – could move the sport into entirely new territory.
“We are held in very high regard by the IOC. We were the third-highest-ranking sport in Rio in terms of digital and online media, which shows we have captured the youth market. Previously, we were last,” he says.
“The match format is now television friendly, the quality of the television coverage has improved immensely and although we are not complacent, hockey will be a key player in Paris or LA and beyond.”
That’s good, then, but what about this Home and Away League, which seems to be causing all sorts of friction?
“It’s about bringing hockey home,” he says passionately.
“Too many games are played on pitches far from home with teams which produce no local interest. Say Scotland are hosting an event and Argentina versus New Zealand is on the schedule. Noone cares because it’s the middle of the night for television and there’s no-one at the ground.
“If we have nine men’s and nine women’s teams playing home and away, that’s 144 matches over the first half of the calendar year.
“We envisage having, say, a game on the weekend and a game during the week and that is a concept which excites broadcasters and enables massive opportunities for social media – it won’t something which comes for two weeks and then disappears.
“It’s about creating superstars. It won’t be perfect and the scheduling is a curly one but the series will be launched in London on June 21 and it’s going to happen.”
McCracken says the fixtures are likely to be worked out so that, for example, England would embark on a tour which would take in one-off games in Aus- tralia, New Zealand and Argentina.
They would then head home before embarking on a European swing, taking in Holland and Germany.
“It’s a different perspective for coaches and players. It requires a do-or-die attitude and different mental and physical preparation,” he says. “It won’t be perfect but it’s big stuff and we’re not just talking about it, we’re doing it.”
National squads would be 32strong “to allow for players who want to prioritise their club hockey” while the FIH also envisage professional officials being contracted to the league for six months at a time.
McCracken makes a good point in that the current World League format is too complicated.
“We want to clear the decks of events which are just confusing. We have a really capable team driving this and I feel empowered by what is a clear strategy. We are well into it,” he says.
It’s about creating superstars. It won’t be perfect and scheduling is a curly one but the series will be launched in London in June
Influential: Jason McCracken
High risk: New FIH chief executive Jason McCracken has hit the ground running