Some time back, at a training camp for the national women's hockey team in New Delhi, a television channel wanted to do a photo-shoot with a few players. The Indian Women's Hockey Federation (IWHF) was contacted, the proposal submitted and assurances given that there would be no individual interviews on the game per se. All the players had to do was wear glamorous clothes and appear to be enjoying a day out. The venue was also decided — Dilli Haat, in the heart of the Capital.
The proposal was shot down. By way of explanation, IWHF secretary Amrit Bose had then said such "opportunities" would "spoil" the players and create disciplinary problems in the team.
<b1>Going further back, in 2003, things were equally bad with the men's national team. The then chief coach, Rajinder Singh Sr, felt players lose interest in the game once they become stars. He even enforced a media gag on players and prevented media from meeting them.
These incidents are not the exception but norm in Indian hockey. While anyone would agree that discipline is sacrosanct for a player - no person can be bigger than the sport or any publicity dearer than performance on field - how correct is it to prevent them from interacting with the media or force them to avoid the limelight, especially at a time when the sport here is fighting for survival?
Desperately needed: A few heroes
People associated with marketing sport in India are unanimous in the need for heroes to make that discipline popular. S.S. Dasgupta, Chairman and Managing Director of Leisure Sport Management, which looks after the marketing aspects of the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF), says as much.
"Heroes are very important and we are working on it. The Premier Hockey League (PHL) is an attempt in this direction and we even have brand ambassadors for various teams now. So, the effort is there."
PHL may have done its bit in bringing some excitement into the game, but things haven't changed when it comes to the national team. Sunil Yash Kalra, who used to look after marketing of hockey for event management company Percept Profile before setting up his own company called Score, refers to Viswanathan Anand to make his point.
"After his success, chess suddenly became the in thing for Indians. David Beckham is more a product of brilliant marketing than anything else. Every game needs heroes — either you have one or create one."
Unfortunately, the federation appears to be wary of any such attempt. A marketing executive who has worked with the IHF blames it for the lack of support in the game.
"Hockey has a very negative image with corporates which makes it very difficult for us to bring in money or sponsors. Every time we approach a potential sponsor for an event or a team, the inevitable question is asked: 'What's positive in hockey that we should associate with it? The players are ill-treated and doesn't the team keep losing?'" the executive who did not wish to be named said.
"The federation becomes insecure the moment a player even appears to be become a hero. But then, everyone wants their heroes to be achievers. How can a national player become a hero if he is seen haggling for change outside a stadium?" he said.
He has a point. A senior manager with a multinational company said: "The IHF doesn't have a planned calendar of events. There is no fixed schedule of international matches, no marketing team to handle promotion, no one to manage the media properly. There is no certainty about players or coaches… how can any company afford to risk association with the game under such circumstances?"
Another marketing professional refers to domestic football. "Take Indian football. India is not even in the top 100 but one always gets the impression that they do manage to achieve something consistently. In comparison hockey, despite considerable success in recent times, continues to have a loser's image," he said.
Play for pride, & little else
At a time when central contracts and regular payment for players are the norm, it is surprising that the national sport pays nothing to its players for representing the country.
Surprised? It’s true. The national team players only get a daily allowance during major tournaments, which is a pittance. Besides this, there is nomonetary benefit for players who sweat it out for hours, in the lone hope of winning an elusive medal. IHF president KPS Gill famously said some time back, “paying match fees to players is akin to paying bribe.” One wonders what the players would like to say on that!
The petty-mindedness and underhand dealings by people within the federation are also a huge corporate put-off. Iodex and Castrol were team sponsors for some time, but pulled out midway due to lack of transparency.
Some time back, a multinational sports company wanted to promote its products among Indian players.
They even gave away a few kits free. Soon after, a member of the team management — with no fixed duties but more powerful than even the coach — contacted the company and demanded a "cut" for himself and some other officials. The company never returned. Need we say anything else?
Field wide open
Despite all this, however, there is near-unanimity that India is too big to remain a single-sport nation. "Cricket no doubt is huge. But there is space for other sports also. And hockey, given its emotional connect, can become bigger than most other sports.
Managing Director of ESPN, RC Venkateish, said: "The question is not whether hockey can be marketed. The question is, how well can we do the job. Our plans for the PHL are on track and television ratings are steadily climbing." Dasgupta took that thought forward, saying: "Re-starting the Indo-Pak series was a good idea. Sponsors are interested in such events."
Ray of hope
Amid all this gloom, though, there have been some positives. Like the proposed games between Bollywood stars and the cast of Chak De! movie, and one between India and Pakistan, on September 11. It may not have much sporting value but is a great marketing gimmick. The release of Chak De!, it seems, has brought fresh life into a sport that was on the verge of being forgotten.
A six-a-side tournament was conducted some time back among elite schools in Delhi and the response was positive from children and their parents. As Kalra put it: "After all, a movie on hockey has become a smash hit in a country that is supposed to be cricket-fanatic. But how many movies on cricket have become successful?