Free Hits: The Fight Over Indian Hockey

A disgraced national hockey body and its wannabe replacement are fighting it over for the rights to host an IPL-like league for India's national game

Published: Jan 20, 2011
Free Hits: The Fight Over Indian Hockey
Image: Abhijeet Kini for Forbes India

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 — K.P.S. 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.

(This story appears in the 28 January, 2011 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Sundeep Misra

    Abhishek Ragunath and Deepak Ajwani would have done well if they had bothered to research their story. Quotes and a google searched background are not the ideal methods of modern day journalists or are they? PHL was never played before empty stands. In temperatures that reached 4-5 degrees in winters, there were around 15,000 spectators at the sector 42 stadium in chandigarh watching bangalore take on hyderabad...or any other match played after 6.30pm....PHL failed because of Gill's reluctance to make it into a league. WSH is a concept on paper. Hockey doesn't have 100 crores to be pumped in for a league and neither does the market have that kind of money yet. Punjab is yet to think of a team....and neither does Orissa have a team (maximum players come from there).... It's easy to sign on the Indian players...for a lakh even Forbes India can form a league...what happens later when the players are not paid...and what is the payment structure...Before a league is formed in any part of the world, these are questions that are answered straightaway. Unfortunately, none of these questions have been answered. For the record, Punjab in 2011 is spending 100 crores on sports infrastructure including having around 12 hockey pitches with lights....football grounds and kabaddi pitches... Someone should have spoken about the maths of the League...IHF, HI, Nimbus should have been grilled more on actual questions not on fairytale stuff. This is not a fantasy league. It's supposed to be real. If the league makes no money...what happens to the players...IHF will get 30 crores/annum, players will get a hug from Gill. The issue with the story is you haven't even bothered to check why hockey has failed, not as a spectator sport, but as a sport that couldn't make money or get Modi-made crazy valuations like the IPL. By the way, a Ranji Trophy Final has approximately 1000 fans watching. The final of the last PHL had 20,000 spectators. Dig a little deeper and you will get the REAl hockey story.

    on Jan 21, 2011
  • Mohit Bhalotia

    Only this way can the Indian hockey improve and reach it's old days of glory. I think there are many corporate houses in India like hero honda, sahara etc. who will purchase the teams and take the Indian hockey and its' players into limelight. Craze of this type of leagues will only increase in the future with the economic growth.

    on Jan 21, 2011
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