Hockey Ireland chief executive Jerome Pels says the current infrastructure, primarily the lack of a suitable stadium, meant that it was not financially viable to take part in the first wave of the Hockey Pro League.
The FIH’s new competition was launched last Sunday, naming nine men’s and women’s nations who will take part in the first four seasons of the League which gets underway in January 2019.
The competition will see the nine selected nations play each other on a home and away basis, “following the sun” with the first half of the season designed to be played mainly in the southern hemisphere between January and March before moving north from April to June.
Based on the world ranking list, Ireland’s men might have hoped to be part of the list. But 13th ranked Pakistan were chosen ahead of them with their proposal to host games in Glasgow – due to security issues in their homeland – proving more attractive to the selection body.
Speaking to the Hook, Pels said he was disappointed with the Pro League press release that pitched the event as involving “the nine best men’s and women’s teams from around the world”.
Reflecting on that line, Pels said: “It read that the Irish team wasn’t good enough, that our ranking wasn’t good enough and that others ‘qualified’ for the league.
“We want to reiterate for us that Irish hockey is not good enough is absolutely not the case. It’s the commercial side of things where the issues are.”
The FIH’s Jason McCracken confirmed as much to The Hook, saying: “Unfortunately Hockey Ireland do not currently have a suitable venue in which to host their home games and that is where their bid fell short this time around.
“We are sure that with some more time to work on the infrastructure of the sport in Ireland they will able to submit a stronger bid next time. Bidding for the 2023 League onwards will open in 2021.”
Expanding on this, Pels told The Hook: “You need to quite a bit of financial support to be able to go to seven or eight away matches. The main driver of income to participate is through your home games.
“If you don’t have your own stadium, it's very hard to make a business case to make it work. It’s important that we will have the ability to host games and attract a large audience, creating what the FIH now call ‘a show’, a good product for television.
So where will the new stadium be? The impasse with UCD has been well publicised in recent months and Pels says this is not the preferred destination.
“Ideally, we have a plot of land reserved in our name in Abbotstown with planning permission attached at the National Sports Campus. That is still the way we want to go. It will be a huge effort to develop it.”
“This introduction of the Pro League, for us, makes it a good moment for us to go to the government and Sport Ireland to explain the need for having a place where we can host if we want to develop hockey to the next level.
“Our ambition is to be a top eight country so we need to have the possibility to host big matches. The issue is now how to find the funding for it.”
What plans are there in place to find that finance to build the new venue? Currently, Pels is speaking with designers to establish what the actual cost would be for such a venture but does admit “the [financial] position of Hockey Ireland is pretty weak so quite a bit needs to happen”.
In addition to the cost of building a purpose-built stadium, Pels says that is not the end of the costs with eight away trips each year requiring a huge outlay, one which government funding is unlikely to cover.
“From experience, to play outside of Ireland in Europe is normally about €40,000 to 50,000; going to South America or Australia, it's €60,000 or 70,000.
“You get the scale of the costs. Our current funding is based on the events that have ranking points, have qualification for the World Cup or Olympic events or a medal event like the Europeans. Competing in this league, we would need to have an additional budget.”
For players, this will likely mean six months in close to a full-time environment with the national team. The aspiration of the league is to offer hockey as a career choice, leaving students and workers in a difficult position if they wish to take part.
While the FIH envisages large revenues – cited in some quarters as approaching $150 million – national federations will be required to cover their costs.
“If you sign up for the league, you sign up your players for at least four months commitment to actually play those games,” Pels adds. “We don’t know how we could provide financial help for those players for the time they do this for Ireland [and not for the club].”
For example, had Ireland been selected for inclusion, a player could have to make a choice between playing for his professional club in the Netherlands or linking up with Ireland and incurring a loss of income unless Hockey Ireland could make up the shortfall.
“It is Hockey Ireland’s policy to support club hockey, whether it’s the national league or players in a European league. This is in our strategic plan – we believe it is good to have players in leagues that provide professional hockey, where Irish players can make money from playing the game.
“That’s important for us. We don’t how this will understand how this works with the new league. We put in a good bid based on our level of playing. But we were also very realistic on the commercial side that it's very difficult for us to undertake now, to put these players under contract and pay them to do this.”
Ernst Baart's be-hockey.com blog has flagged some of the issues for the club game. In response to this, McCracken says that the FIH will be meeting with national associations in July regarding this but did not directly answer about potential conflicts for contracted players.
“Scheduling will be a key part of this,” he said. “We are clear that there will be as much flexibility as possible to ensure we find a workable solution for all clubs and players.
“The aim will be for each athlete to be able to play at both international and club level throughout the season, and we will be factoring travel and recovery times into this.
“We understand the importance of club hockey, especially with regards to the development of grassroots hockey, and as the world governing body, this is something we are incredibly passionate about. The needs of the clubs within each national association will, therefore, be a key component of the scheduling jigsaw.”
This could perhaps open new opportunities for Irish players. The likelihood is that Argentinean, Australian and New Zealand internationals may prove a less attractive option to bring in for Dutch and Belgian clubs with Irish players potentially filling in the gaps.
Another concern was that Ireland would not get to play the top teams as frequently as now. One of the rules, though, of the Pro League is that those involved cannot play each other outside of this time.
As such, Pels says Ireland will look to, say, play New Zealand or Australia when they are on the northern leg of their Pro League campaign in England or Belgium in test matches.
McCracken, meanwhile, is keen to see that the Pro League will not stretch the level of quality between the haves and have-nots.
“We will be working hard with all national associations to ensure this is not the case. Teams like Ireland who missed out on the Hockey Pro League will still have multiple opportunities to play the top teams, whether against Hockey Pro League teams in test matches, continental events or invitational tournaments.
“In addition, there will, of course, be the Hockey World Cup, the Olympic Games and the new events which will replace Hockey World League Round 1 and 2.
“Our ambition is to ensure revenue generated by the Hockey Pro League will be reinvested in hockey at all levels, therefore also benefitting nations outside the League.”
Should Ireland be included at a later date, the question remains, with a stadium in place, is there a market in Ireland to make it financially sustainable to support hockey at this level?
“I don’t know. It’s only when we try [that we will see]. There are lots of indications that it will be the case. The strategy for us is to be the Irish ‘team game’ in the Olympic Games.
“For the road to Tokyo, we have to build up that hype and support. We have a place in the market because of that. With our growing success, that is possible.”
The Hook also asked for Jerome Pels’ personal views on the Hockey Pro League: “In theory, it can change the game. The good points are the television format and how to create hockey as a product that is attractive to television.
“In practice, there are many questions around how it will go. My personal view is I would rather a competition structure which is linked to a clear ranking.
“This is kind of a closed shop event that stands on its own. It’s not linked to a World Cup or Olympic qualification or a competition structure which I would have preferred. It’s a scheme under which a group of nations play each other.
“This could be a weak point for the viewer who may wonder ‘what am I actually watching?’”
He draws a similarity from his sailing background: “You can see parallels with the Americas Cup which is an interesting competition. It is a challenge, not a competition you qualify for.
“It stands on its own, is high level and is a very good television product but is not necessarily a worldwide competition.”