Friday, January 14, 2005

A New Era?

The Premier Hockey League has played its first game of the season. The Hyderabad Sultans edged out the favoured Sher-e-Jallandhar 1-0 in the opening game. Next up are the Maratha Warriors against the Chennai Veerans. And then there are the Bangalore Hi-Fliers to come. Sohail Abbas and Waseem Ahmed will play for the Sultans, and Juan Escarre, the Spanish veteran, is turning out for the Veerans. Wow...have I been dreaming? Apparently not. The IHF, in collaboration with ESPN-Star and its own marketing partner, Lesiure Sports Management (LSM), have launched with a certain amount of style India's first professional hockey league. There are teams with exotic names, colourful attire and young blokes as captains, something that was desperately needed in the country's sporting landscape. There are even the pom-pom girls! The traditionalists will scoff at the marketing gimmicks as will (even) some of the players involved. But hey, if all of that manages to get a few butts on the seats in the Gachibowli stadium, it's all worth it. For this is a sport that currently needs mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, in the face of the onslaught from cricket, other forms of entertainment and the continued under performance of the national team! Dreaming Hockey Fan: Ah...all's well. La la la...

DHF: (whistling cheerfully...) Cynic: (Distant voice shouting) Hey hold on...! DHF: Grrr....these cynics! Never ones to let a good thing going! Cynic: Sorry to throw in a spanner in your party, sir, but it's not all hunky-dory. Let me explain.

You see this is a league that is not really a league. It comprises of teams that have been artificially created, a motely crew, one might say. So are all pro teams, aren't they? Not quite. Usually, there is a club that has an owner or patron, a business model (even if it is not on PowerPoint presentations) and a fan base. I won't give you the cliched, oft-cited examples of NBA or EPL clubs. Look closer home, and you will find that these hold true for own NFL (albeit a poor distant cousin of the more famous NFL) teams. The problem is not new or unique to hockey - no sport in India has ever had a professional league with a fan base and an ownership that gives a damn about the team - except for football (soccer, to be clear). Even given our cricket crazy populace, no Ranji team has had any real following in the state or region that it is attached to. And only Mumbai can claim to have some sort of history, tradition and pride. Otherwise, it is just an amateur show with a place in the national team being the only incentive. All of the blame lies with the administrators, who are trapped in the bronze ages, except of course, when it comes to money. That's not the only issue. The players in the league don't earn their livelihoods from the league, given that it lasts only a month! The other scary thing is that this is the IHF's baby...this is the IHF's show. Passionate followers of Indian hockey will have very little to say about the IHF that is complimentary. Mr. K P S Gill has managed to squander every last ounce of goodwill that he enjoyed when he took over the reigns. Despite all that, however, one wishes the league all the success. Hopefully, the paying fans (God knows there aren't many for hockey) will get their money's worth. Even if I'm not convinced this is the answer to Indian hockey's problems, I pray that it is. And I promise not to be a party pooper.... ....till end of the season. - NK

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