Hockey – a global pariah
Hockey is our national sport. It is a team game which involves skill, poise and mental intelligence, not to mention quick reflexes and prime physical conditioning.
When the recent match-fixing controversy concerning the Pakistani cricket team broke a few days ago, a death-knell was sounded for the coverage of other, lesser mortals vying for some attention on the sports pages. This situation has me wondering about why other sports, which presumably have better commercial attributes and potential in this country have never been as popular as cricket.
Take the example of our national sport, hockey. It is a team game which involves skill, poise and mental intelligence, not to mention quick reflexes and prime physical conditioning. A game of hockey usually takes 70 minutes while 70 minutes into a game of one-day cricket does not even complete the ‘exciting first Powerplay’. Given the comparative cost of equipment and the time consumed, hockey is as, if not more, affordable than cricket. Usually the number of goals scored is quite high and has been since the abolition of the off-side rule. Add in a surfeit of penalty corners, acrobatic leaps by goal-tenders and a generally high tempo of passing and dribbling, and you have the essential ingredients of what could and should be a lucrative and watchable sporting event.
Reality is slightly different, not just in Pakistan but the world over. Hockey has never captivated a large audience. The pinnacle of the sport, at least in the mens’ game is the World Cup, the Champions Trophy or in some cases, the Olympics. The club game does not have a huge following, within South Asia or even in European powerhouses like the Netherlands. The only overtly commercial initiative undertaken outside of international hockey was the Premier Hockey League (PHL) tournament which has been played every year since 2005 right up to 2008 with teams structured along the lines of the cash-rich IPL (Indian Premier League) cricket tournament. The PHL had 17.5 minute quarters instead of 35 minute halves to incorporate greater advertising opportunities for revenue generation and games tied at the end of normal time would be continued with players reduced on each side periodically until a victor emerged.
I am not supporting a Major League Soccer or NASL-style trivialization of the rules of hockey but it is quite evident that the International Hockey Federation (FIH) could definitely do better when it comes to promoting the sport along the lines of international football. Better-funded domestic leagues and UEFA Champions League style competitions, along with the free flow of talented players between clubs can possibly improve the profile of the game. In short, what I am suggesting is something along the lines of the way club football is organized world wide.
Pakistan hockey has a lot to gain if it takes the lead in such a move from the FIH, after all the International Hockey Federation has 127 member countries, and a huge commercial potential exists in the game if marketed accordingly. If that happens, at least our hockey players will not be reduced to fighting for media space by making controversial statements of their own.
Don’t believe me? Check out Pakistan hockey captain Zeeshan Ashraf’s surprising objection to the inclusion of two 17-year olds from the team that competed in the Junior Olympics where they beat Chile 15-1 and Ghana 6-3 amongst others.