This could just be Indian hockey's chance to break out from the obscurity of the past two decades. Nimbus Sport's partnership with the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) to launch World Series Hockey (WSH) league is one more attempt to bring back to centre stage a game that has brought India eight Olympic golds and much glory.
Thirty-six top players have signed up to play in the league, which is fashioned around the IPL model to bring in the crowds: Franchisees will own the teams and matches will be played in various centres.
But success will depend on untangling the mess between the two national hockey bodies, IHF and Hockey India. Hockey India claims to be the official governing body for the sport in the country and is indignant that Nimbus has partnered with IHF. It has not ruled out launching a rival league. The IHF, on the sidelines since 2008, is on a vengeful comeback and is trying to make sure the league takes off.
It does not help matters that backers of the two bodies — KPS Gill (IHF) and Suresh Kalmadi (Hockey India) — are titans of sport-bureaucracy in India.
To understand the rivalry, we have to go back to 2008 when a news channel’s sting operation showed IHF Secretary K Jothikumaran accepting money to include a player in the national team. The Indian Olympic Association (IOA) under Kalmadi de-recognised the IHF and Kalmadi set up Hockey India, planned as a temporary body to govern hockey.
Hockey India then began to deal with the world governing body for the sport, the International Hockey Federation (FIH), and gained credibility. The FIH had awarded the 2010 Hockey World Cup to India, insisting that Hockey India conduct it (FIH too had de-recognised IHF in 2000). It also chose India as the host nation for the Champions Trophy (October-November 2011), Olympic Qualifiers (February 2012) and the Women’s Champions Trophy in 2014.
IHF fought Hockey India in court to be recognised as the official body. The Delhi High Court gave a decision in favour of IHF and told the IOA that it could not de-recognise IHF. Hockey India appealed to the Supreme Court; the case is pending.
At a global level, FIH is adamant that it will deal only with Hockey India, which conducted a great World Cup. A lot of sponsors were signed on and the matches attracted a full house. Not surprising then that Hockey India got the right to choose the Indian teams for the Commonwealth and the Asian Games.
FIH may trust Hockey India, but it is clear that the players do not. Just before the World Cup, they went on strike, complaining about the facilities and poor pay. However, IHF has not been without fault either: The blame for the decline in Indian hockey over the past two decades lies squarely at its door.
IHF now says it is trying to set things right. Newly elected president R.K. Shetty says, "Nimbus Sport came to us with a business plan for a hockey league. We saw what they had done for cricket and signed up with them. They will turn hockey around."
For Nimbus, choosing IHF was a no-brainer. Yannick Colaco, COO, Nimbus Sport, says, "Most state associations in the country owe allegiance to the IHF. That means we have access to stadiums and infrastructure. Hockey India gives us nothing."
IHF has driven a hard bargain: Nimbus will guarantee an annual fee of Rs. 30 crore over 10 years for IHF or give it a percent of the profits, whichever is higher. It will also underwrite the entire cost of the tournament, estimated to be around Rs 100 crore. One state association will be given a budget every year to improve its infrastructure (Colaco didn't say how much).
However, the most important reason for the formation of the league could be that even if the Supreme Court awards a decision in favour of IHF, FIH may still refuse to recognise it. That would mean all the tournaments that were awarded to India could be taken away. The league would ensure that Indian players would still play.
Nimbus didn’t share its business model with Forbes India but there are a lot of gaps to be filled. Lessons need to be learned from the failure of the Premier Hockey League (PHL), which was set up five years ago with sports channel ESPN, and which played to empty stands. Colaco says he is clear about the difference between the two models.
"All PHL matches involving the seven teams were held in one stadium. There was no concept of home and away matches and that is why the fans could not identify with any team. The WSH will bring multiple ownership into the league and the franchisee owners will market and promote their teams." The league will follow the IPL route, where companies from 10 different cities will be invited to own franchisees.
The other big question is, how will the league balance its matches during international tournaments? Narinder Batra, secretary general and treasurer, Hockey India, says, "The national team will have to train for the big international matches and will have to attend camps. If they play for the WSH and are called up for training, they will have to choose between the two."
Colaco doesn’t see this as a problem. "We have made it very clear to the players that country comes first. If they have to report for national duty, they will. We are ready to move our dates." Colaco says they plan to work around the national team’s commitments. "Out of four months, I will need 55-60 days to stage this event."
But hockey observers say this sounds like a long-drawn affair. "If Hockey India wins the legal battle, you can be sure that camp dates will change and players could be called up randomly," says a former Olympian hockey player who does not wish to go on record. In an agitated moment, Batra told Forbes India over the phone, "We will come out with our own league." That should certainly make for a great match.