Hockey Ireland chief executive Jerome Pels says the lack of a viable international stadium and the organisation’s financial history – rather than performance levels – scuppered Ireland’s hopes of being part of the Pro League.
The new competition, which begins in January 2019, is part of the International Hockey Federation’s ambitious plans to drive the sport into the full-time, professional realm.
With television deals struck with BT Sport and Star Sports in India, the FIH is projecting revenues of up to $150 million over the initial four years of the competition. The event sees nine men’s and women’s teams from around the world facing each other on a home and away basis with 144 games broadcast over a six-month period.
Based on the world ranking list, Ireland’s ninth-rated men might have hoped to be part of the first wave based on current ability. But free-falling Pakistan were chosen ahead of them with their proposal to host games in Glasgow – due to security issues – proving more attractive to the selection body.
Indeed, their ability to draw over 80 million television viewers for last Sunday’s 7-1 drubbing at the hands of arch-rivals India indicates the IHF’s reasoning.
“We want to reiterate for us that Irish hockey is not good enough is absolutely not the case,” Pels said when asked about Ireland’s omission in favour of Pakistan. “It’s the commercial side of things where the issues are.”
It is the latest frustration for the Irish men as they attempt to maintain a place in the world’s elite tier. Currently ninth-ranked, they are the only side in the top 15 who are not in full-time, funded programmes.
To get there, they twice had to go to the hockey public for dig-outs. In 2012, they required a €60,000 bail-out to allow them to travel to the Champions Challenge in Argentina; in the lead-up to the Rio Olympics, they required €225,000 to fund their Rio preparations.
Now, they are faced with being outside the loop with a possible dearth of regular matches against the world’s top sides.
Captain David Harte is worried it will stymie their progress. The two-time world goalkeeper of the year said: “What has worked for us over the last few years is playing against those teams, testing ourselves against the best and getting results against them. That, in essence, led to our qualification for Rio. You constantly want to play these teams.”
But with commercial viability listed second on the list of the FIH criteria for competing – eight lines above performance – it is clear to see where the bid fell down.
“The [financial] position of Hockey Ireland is pretty weak so quite a bit needs to happen,” Pels adds.
Financing trips to New Zealand, Argentina, India and Australia and a couple of trips to Europe in quick succession could cost close to €500,000.
“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 European Championships. Competing in this league, we would need to have an additional budget [specifically for the Pro League].”
The aspiration of the league is to offer hockey as a career choice, leaving the current batch of students and workers in a difficult position if they wish to take part.
“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].”
To meet those costs, the chief executive adds that there is no means of raising that extra capital currently barring a large new sponsor.
When Ireland can offer a home venue, though, is another matter. The National Hockey Stadium in UCD has been deemed unfit for international matches for the last two years with a stand-off currently between Hockey Ireland and the college over who will fund the replacement pitch.
Even if UCD replaces the turf, however, numerous modifications would need to be made to make it fit for hosting fully televised events with previous tournaments building temporary, improvised broadcast towers.
“Ideally, we have a plot of land reserved in our name in Abbotstown with planning permission attached at the National Sports Campus. That is the way we want to go. It will be a huge effort to develop it,” says Pel.
“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.”
Pels is currently speaking to designers to cost such a project. But with the Pro League closed for applications until 2023, the fear is that the damage may be done with the lack of top level games creating a chasm between Ireland and the elite nations.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved