FIH chief: World­wide league ‘a huge test’

Claire Mid­dle­ton meets the new FIH chief ex­ec­u­tive who be­lieves hockey is herald­ing a new era

The Hockey Paper - - FRONT PAGE - By Claire Mid­dle­ton

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

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