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I’ve recently renewed my BT Sport subscription so that I can watch some international hockey on the gogglebox. It’s been fun, as I also enjoy watching some of the other sports on offer from the broadcaster. It’s also been good to enjoy the highlights packages for hockey at my own leisure, as well as watching games live on a bigger screen than that of my laptop. Having live sport readily available is always useful as a method for promoting a sport and, hopefully, reaching a broader audience. 

The Netherlands Hockey Badge

As I sit here writing this, I am watching England Ladies versus the Netherlands, in a Pro-League match at Lee Valley. The tag-line for this competition is ‘Hockey at its Best’. I’ve just seen it on an advertisement hoarding on the side of the pitch. However, the English and the Dutch are both teams who find themselves in transition, as they have recently replaced their Head Coaches. The Netherlands have also brought a team that consists mainly of their junior side, albeit a recently successful one. This seems to be an ever increasing practice, as national teams across both he men’s and women’s tournaments use the matches in order to experiment with lineups and offer younger players much needed experience. This is important, but is far from being the best of the sport as the promotional materials suggest. The youthfulness of squads sometimes is also an issue that has been forced due to scheduling. Pro-League matches have been scheduled at the same time as national league finals and playoffs. Some clubs release the players, many do not and this has a knock on affect on the standard of the respective national teams. 

The England Hockey Team Badge

This seems to have been borne out by the level of excitement from hockey fans. Even a cursory look at the empty seats around the stadiums of the host teams shows that people are not getting excited enough to go to the games (although there is a slim chance that a minority of potential spectators have become lost on the long journey from the local Tube station and Lee Valley, ending up at a West Ham United football match instead). Recently, England Hockey were intending on making use of a local Rugby stadium, with a temporary surface laid down, in order to have a larger crowd. They had to change their plans due to a lack of demand at the ticket office. Additionally, the Pro-League TV show has been besieged with production and technical issues. Over the years I’ve seen time lineups that have shown 12 players, instead of eleven, some players with head shots, others without, some in their team’s traditional colours with teammates in the alternate shirt. There has been a lack of consistency in style of imagery and presentation between the men’s and women’s matches, even on the same day. In the match that I’m currently watching, the England team line-up showed Shona McCallin as the reserve goalkeeper, when, in fact, it is Sabbie Heesh. McCallin isn’t even a goalkeeper. England are the home team and, presumably have a Communications Officer talking to the production team. As somebody who is also concerned about the environment and the current climate emergency, I am curious about the need to have teams and support staff jetting about around the world for just a couple of games over a weekend.

The Pro-League consists of nine teams, who are supposedly the top teams in the world, remember this is ‘Hockey at its Best’. However, this is not the case. Let’s go through each team and look at their FIH World Ranking. In the men’s tournament we have Belgium (#2), Netherlands (#3), India (#4), Germany (#5), England (#6), Argetina (#7), Spain (#9), France (#11) and South Africa (#14). On the women’s side we have Netherlands (#1), Argentina (#2), England (#4), Germany (#5), India (#6), Spain (#7), Belgium (#8), China (#13) and the USA (#15). There is no promotion, or relegation, making this a purely invitational tournament which provides world ranking points, allowing the teams competing here the chance to cement higher world rankings above their possible ability in order to secure positive seeding positions in future tournaments, at the expense of those who have not been invited. This begs the questions of why were these teams picked and not others. Yes, Australia and New Zealand have opted not to travel due to their respective Covid-19 concerns, but there are a variety of other teams that might feel that they deserve a chance here as well. What about Ireland? Why not Japan, Korea, or Malaysia (who are always worth a watch)? The Canadians and the Scots might feel that they could do as well as the Americans, South Africans, or Chinese. The FIH hasn’t invited the top teams in the world, they have invited those who they think might bring in the most sponsorship revenue and increase television ratings; it’s a superficial mindset. This is not hockey at its best, it is hockey at its most elitist. 

The Pro-League was developed at the expense of the Champions Trophy. This was a fine tournament that was played bi-annually and by its final edition had eight teams competing in a round-robin format. These included the host (it was played in a centralised location over a short period of time), the previous winner, as well as the World Champion. The rest of the tournament would be made up from the next highest ranking teams from either the previous year’s World Cup, or Olympic Games. This was a fun and much loved hockey festival, missed by players and fans alike. The hosting of the tournament would reduce the carbon emissions spent in constant travel back and forth around the world. It would allow fans to see the best teams and players in one location (with the venue moving across the continents on a rotation basis). Qualification could even be adapted to include continental championship winners in order to provide a greater degree of relevance regarding achievement and prestige. The Half Court Press would like to see a return to the Champions Trophy as soon as possible. If anybody is interested England beat the Netherlands by three goals to one, in the match that I was watching. 

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