ESS notches up 10 year deal with IHF

NEW DELHI: ESPN Star Sports, along with the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) and Leisure Sports Management, is not only trying to do a Kerry Packer with hockey, but by signing a 10-year telecast deal, is also attempting to muscle its way into a realm that has been dominated in recent times by Ten Sports and, to some extent, India's pubcaster Doordarshan.

The proposed annual domestic hockey league, announced today at a joint press conference by IHF, will kick off from September, complete with a new format partly played under floodlights , more breaks in between a 70-minute game, participation by foreign players, a whopping (by Indian hockey standards) Rs 7.1 million as prize money and, hopefully, backed by more corporate sponsors.

A presentation on the current status of hockey in India said it all. The formula for rejuvenating hockey in India: create a 'made-for-TV' hockey tournament with international TV production standards that holds viewer appeal.

Though ESPN India managing director RC Venkateish did not spell out the financial details and the investments being made by the sports broadcaster, TV industry sources said that whole project could be worth between Rs 40 to Rs 50 million.

"Suffice it to say that we would be pumping in adequate money in building the infrastructure and the property (hockey league)," Venkateish.

Speaking at the press conference, IHF president KPS Gill said, "The domestic hockey league will bring in an era of professionalism in hockey. Many innovations and format changes have also been made to the game to ensure viewer interest. The final form of the tournament, which has emerged is a truly sleek, unique league to be played in a world-class format with a promise of attracting blue chip companies, ticket sales, viewership and players alike."

The proposed domestic league, being modeled on the lines of NBA and the English Premier League, would have teams divided into two tiers of five teams each. In all 40 matches will be played in the first season and ESPN and Star Sports would telecast live the tier 1 matches. Tier I will be called the Premier Division and tier II will be called the Second Division.

Each team will have its own identity, individual image and personality. Pointing out that part of the details are still being worked out, Gill said, "We are also looking at branding the hockey league itself with a logo and a unique identity."

There would be city-based teams and the league tiers would be played in a round-robin format. Not only top Indian players would participate, but a team can augment its forces by including a maximum of five foreign players.

According to Gill, the necessary permissions and clearances are being sought by the IHF from the Federation of International Hockey (FIH). Though, the number of breaks would increase from one to four, the total duration of the game would remain the same.

Kolkata-based Leisure Sports Management, which would handle all on-ground work, mooted the idea of a hockey league, made TV friendly, almost two years back. "When I first expressed the innovative concept of the league to Mr KPS Gill two years back, he not only encouraged me but also stood behind me," said LSM managing director SS Dasgupta.

The winner of the Tier I will take home Rs 3 million, while the runners up will carry Rs 1 million. The winner of Tier II will get Rs 400,000, while the runner up will receive Rs 250,000. Allocation of above prizes between players and the respective associations shall be specified by IHF. Many innovations have been introduced to make the league a viewing spectacle. For instance, each game will have four quarters of 17 minutes and 30 seconds each instead of standard two halves.

Concepts of time-outs have also been introduced in order to liven up the game and also create time for advertisements. The winner within the stipulated time will get 3 points for each victory while the team winning in the extra time will share the points 2:1.

All Tier I matches will be played on Fridays and Saturdays. In the inaugural year, the premier division matches would be played in the floodlit stadiums across India including Hyderabad. Tier I teams will have an option of bringing in a maximum of five foreign players. Considering that the broadcaster of hockey matches would get about 10 minutes per game as commercial time, if properly marketed, the property has the prospect of turning into a big revenue earner for ESS.

However, with Gill and IHF one does not know what long term future may hold. In the mid to late 1990s, Star Sports (before the joint venture with ESPN came through) had a five-year telecast deal with IHF, which was terminated mid-way by IHF without citing any reasons.

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