Indian hockey’s quest for its IPL moment
In spite of being hockey’s spiritual home, India have not won the World Cup since 1975, and have alternated been existing on the fringes and making emotional medal runs.
When the 15th edition of the men’s hockey World Cup began in Odisha on January 13, it meant that India had hosted three of the last four editions of the most prized event in men’s hockey, dating back to 2010. It’s an unusual hosting rate for a country that, in spite of being the sport’s spiritual home, has not won the World Cup since 1975, and has alternated been existing on the fringes and making emotional medal runs.
It reflects the money and interest being channelled into Indian hockey, notably with the support of the government of Odisha. This is intended to create a breakout moment for Indian hockey, and unlock that self-perpetuating cycle of viewer interest, corporate sponsorship and player rewards, a bit like what Indian cricket has progressively done with scale and imagination since the mid-1980s.
World Cup hoodoo
While cricket pushed on in India, men’s hockey was plumbing to new depths. The nadir was failure to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the first time ever, and a last-place finish in the 2012 London Olympics. There began a decade-long effort to resurrect hockey in India, with more funds being infused for the development of the game through infrastructure and quality tournaments, backed by coaching and financial support.
These investments have shaped recent on-field successes: podium finishes at the 2018 Asian Games, 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and 2022 Asia Cup. The medal at the Olympics, where the competition matches that at the World Cup, was especially sweet, coming after 40 years. The hoodoo of the World Cup still lingers. India has won it only once, in 1975 in Kuala Lumpur, which was also the last time India made the medal rounds.
Retreats and advances
India has momentum on its side, but it comes with pressure. The Indian team are currently ranked sixth in the world. International rankings were introduced by the global body administering hockey only in 2003. But India’s decline can be traced back to the Montreal Olympics in 1976, and the shift from grass to artificial turf. The ball travelled faster, blunting India’s biggest advantage — the ability of players to dribble the ball. Gradually, even the pool of countries playing hockey expanded.
In the last two decades, the India men’s team’s ranking has fluctuated. From being on the cusp of breaking into the draw of team teams, it drifted. Between 2008 and 2014, its year-end ranking ranged from 9 to 12. Since 2016, however, India have always been in the top six. In 2021, India’s achieved its best year-end ranking, of third, behind Belgium and Australia.
Sponsorships have increased income sources for Hockey India, the body in charge of running the sport. In 2009-10, Hockey India’s total income was a paltry ₹3.4 crore. In 2016-17 and 2018-19, it crossed ₹100 crore. But it is also prone to fluctuation. In 2021-22, it was about ₹60 crore. Through these ebbs and flows, sponsorships — a revenue stream of autonomy and growth — have increased their share. From about 50%, the share of sponsorships in Hockey India’s income routinely crosses 80%.
A decade ago, Hockey India was spending less than ₹2 crore for tournament and hockey promotion. Now, it spends 17 times that amount. That means more matches, even abroad, and better facilities and conditions for players. Yet, matching cricket’s Indian Premier League even on a small scale in commercial value and public imagination will take some doing. For context, the total income of the body running cricket in India in 2021-22 was about ₹4,360 crore — about 73 times that of Hockey India.
World needs India
On-field success is a big key for Hockey India to unlock commercial value, and that’s what makes international tournaments like these important. Even world hockey has reason to be invested in the sport thriving in India. The Fédération Internationale de Hockey (FIH), the international governing body for hockey, has seen its reliance on funds provided by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) under the Olympic Solidarity Program increase — from 37% of revenues in 2013 to about 60% in 2019. A dependence on IOC funds can limit FIH’s autonomy and flexibility in fund usage.
FIH needs alternate sources of funding, which the growth of hockey in individual countries can enable. An increase in hockey’s popularity in the subcontinent can lead to greater viewership, and bigger broadcasting deals and sponsorships. There are scattered initiatives — for example, 21 astro turf fields reportedly being built in Sundargarh district in Odisha to encourage youth participation. Commendable as that is, for the sport to be self-sustaining and growing, nothing like a national lift of epic and emotive proportions.
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