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Hockey India is sitting on an untapped goldmine – fans who want more of the sport

The success of Indian women’s and men’s hockey teams at Tokyo Olympics will likely bring new set of fans into the sport, something that SRK’s Chak De! India did.

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For those even remotely interested in the prospects of field hockey in India, the past ten days have brought nothing short of a whirlwind of emotions from the drama of last-minute goals, saves, interceptions, drag flicks and penalty corners at the Tokyo Olympics.

Or at least it has for me, even before our women’s team’s defiant displays in victory and defeat, or our men’s team’s quickfire comeback from 3-1 down to 5-4 up against Germany to bring home an Olympics bronze, in one of the best hockey games I have seen since I started following the sport.

Also read: Indian hockey teams’ Olympic wins are a sign that a deeper, positive nationalism exists

11 years of getting into the sport

I was never a massive fan of Chak De! India, the critically acclaimed 2007 Bollywood film directed by Shimit Amin. But I cannot deny the cultural impact that the fictional Indian women’s team, coached by Shah Rukh Khan’s character Kabir Khan to a World Cup victory, had on inspiring a generation of Indians.

Instead of Amin’s film, my gateway to loving Indian hockey was the 2010 Men’s Hockey World Cup, which was hosted in New Delhi’s Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium.

Prior to this, my knowledge of hockey was limited to the short-lived men’s Premier Hockey League (PHL), which I never bothered to watch, and the names Dhanraj Pillay and Viren Rasquinha.

You don’t need to be a committed hockey fan to know that the current iterations of the men’s and women’s hockey teams are India’s best ever in the astroturf era of the sport, even a cursory look at the results will tell you that.

In sports fandom, 11 years isn’t an especially long time, but the feeling of tasting even a little bit of success this year is new for me. With all due respect to Prabhjot Singh, Sandeep Singh, Sardar Singh and Adrian D’Souza, the team was painful to watch from 2010-15.

Regularly outclassed in major tournaments against even similarly ranked teams, let alone the best, the national men’s side was a constant source of frustration and disappointment before finally turning a corner through respectable quarter final performances in the 2016 Rio Olympics and 2018 World Cup.

I recall the women’s side performing even worse during this period, but they remained an afterthought in my mind compared to the men, and the TV broadcasters and national media seemed to share my ignorance/disinterest.

Women’s qualifiers were never high on their list of priorities, so I often went into the tournaments blind, knowing next to nothing about the team except for the information available on Wikipedia about the squad lists and recent match results.

In some sense, that has remained unchanged 11 years later, making both teams’ achievements all the more remarkable. But they could go toe to toe with the likes of Australia, Belgium, Argentina, Netherlands, etc. far more regularly now, if just a few basic things are put in place.

Also read: Caste, ethnicity, religion – United colours of Indian hockey prove the game thrives in inclusivity

Lack of domestic league, regular game time

The Odisha government has deservedly received credit for its investments in Indian hockey in the last few years, as have institutions like the Jalandhar-based Surjit Hockey Academy for creating a pipeline of young talent.

But such investments alone cannot be a substitute for consistent game time. Unlike cricket, field hockey’s international calendar is more comparable to football, rugby union and basketball, in its infrequency.

As a result, consistent game time is only possible by filling these scheduling gaps with a full-fledged domestic league. Every top-tier nation that qualified in 2020 Tokyo Olympics, men and women, either has a domestic league or its players play for clubs in domestic leagues outside their nation. Save for India.

We have no men’s or women’s domestic hockey league or club culture to speak of, leaving our players to rely on the national team camps and government organisations like the Petroleum Sports Promotion Board and the Railway Sports Promotion Board, to stay fit and earn a reliable stream of income.

Furthermore, the two biggest attempts of this century to launch a domestic hockey league in the country – the PHL and the Hockey India League – crashed and burned. Perhaps because the organisers appeared more concerned with splashing cash and adding all the glitz and glamour usually associated with the Twenty20 cricket Indian Premier League (IPL), as opposed to creating a sustainable product for the long-term development of the sport.

It is a testament to the work done by Graham Reid (men’s hockey coach), Sjoerd Marijne (women’s hockey coach) and to the talent and nous of the players at our disposal that they performed so well despite playing far fewer matches than their opponents.

But this is not a sustainable strategy if we want to win gold or the World Cup. A full-fledged domestic league each for men and women is the need of the hour.

Also read: With Tokyo Olympics, Indian hockey has gone back to the ‘bronze age’ with golden era in sight

Building a fanbase

Once the domestic leagues are in place, they are going to need a broadcaster. Star Sports, and its predecessor ESPNStar, were the broadcasters for the PHL and the HIL, but in today’s era of online streaming, other avenues should be considered.

I have always been uncomfortable with the popularity of fantasy sports platforms like Dream11, MyTeam11, My11Circle, Mobile Premier League (MPL) and so on, because for a long time, they existed as unregulated gambling apps in every which way except in name.

Undeniably, however, such apps have played an important role in driving popularity and awareness of lesser-known teams and niche sports, as users get emotionally invested in random matches played in far-flung corners of the world.

The premier platform, Dream11, takes this to the next level through its sister app FanCode, a streaming service that charges less than Rs 40 to watch an entire tournament in standard definition.

In recent years, FanCode app has not only fed off the scraps of all the cricket series that aren’t picked up by the big networks, but also obtained streaming rights for most of the sports that don’t otherwise catch the attention of the mainstream in India.

This broadcasting serves to funnel further user engagement into the main Dream11 platform and compete for the top prizes.

I was pleasantly surprised to see hockey integrated into Dream11 for India’s knockout matches in the Olympics and had a go myself in the free contests.

The engagement numbers I saw in the hockey matches were higher than most other sports on Dream11, so there is clearly an audience interested in the sport – it just needs to be tapped into.

If Hockey India truly believes the country can replicate its successes of the pre-astroturf era, the process to launch sustainable domestic leagues and open conversations with platforms like FanCode should have begun a long time ago.

The facilities and playing pool are already in place, as is the world-class coaching. They just need the increased game time and viewership they deserve.

Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant Dixit)

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