The scene is in Brussels, less than 24 hours after Belgium’s Red Lions, the men’s field hockey team had secured the country’s first ever World Cup title.
The live auction for the fourth edition of the prestigious Hockey India League (HIL) is set to take place on September 17 in downtown New Delhi, India.
Now hockey rates fairly lowly in the Australian sporting landscape outside the Olympics and Commonwealth Games, but this year’s auction is again likely to see some of Australia’s least known, but most successful sportsmen reap big paydays.
The Australian men’s hockey team, otherwise known as the Kookaburras, have flooded the league since its inception in 2013, with practically the side’s entire national squad participating in the six-week league each year between January and February.
Australian stars Mark Knowles, Jamie Dwyer and Eddie Ockenden have been among the highest earners over the first three seasons, pocketing upwards of $75,000 per year in the league.
The HIL is a groundbreaking concept. Six teams from Delhi, Mumbai, Lucknow, Mohali, Bhubaneswar and Ranchi battle it out in a home-and-away style format filled with high octane, highlight reel hockey.
It’s promoted as “the way hockey should be played”. Loud music. Big, noisy, passionate crowds. DJ’s at every field blasting dance music. Television cameras capturing all the action from every angle. And most importantly, world class talent on the pitch.
Players from world hockey powerhouses Germany, Holland, Spain, Argentina, Belgium, New Zealand and England all take part, and with each successful year, the hype spreads to players from other countries who hope to take part in future instalments.
This year’s auction will also see players from Scotland, Ireland, Malaysia, South Africa, Japan, Korea, Canada and the US throw their hats in the ring.
The league itself has a similar setup to the lucrative India Premier League cricket competition. Each player nominated for the tournament is put under the hammer and prices range from as low as $3,000 to last year’s record high price of $147,000 for Belgian striker Tom Boon.
To put that all in perspective, an Australian men’s hockey player would earn somewhere between $30-40,000 per year for being a part of the national program.
The HIL allows Australian hockey players to earn more money over six weeks of competition than they do for an entire year of training and playing with the national program.
And it’s about time. The Kookaburras are Australia’s most successful Olympic sporting team, having medalled at six successive Olympic Games dating back to Barcelona in 1992.
So yes, the money is welcome relief, but what else can the HIL do for hockey in this country, a sport that is fast becoming irrelevant to many Australians?
Losing national players for long periods of time to chase money overseas has always been a problem for the Australian hockey program. The program would lose its best and brightest players every couple of years to rich European leagues, much like what happens in rugby union now.
Players would go for about eight months at a time, generally in between Olympics and World Cups when the squad would go through a phase of regeneration or rest.
This was especially significant as new players would enter the Perth training environment at the beginning of each year and would enter a program devoid of a lot of its top end talent, thus stifling development.
Some kids wouldn’t meet or get to train with several of their more experienced teammates until they had returned from Europe halfway through a year. It disconnected the playing group and caused friction between players and coaches. But it seems the HIL model works much better for players, coaches and perhaps most significantly, Hockey Australia.
Just last year Hockey Australia and Hockey India announced a landmark bilateral agreement that will see the Indian men’s national hockey team tour Australia in each of the next three years, from 2016 to 2018.
In return, Hockey Australia will release its senior men’s national squad athletes for the Hockey India League for the next three seasons, including 2016, six months before the Olympic Games in Rio.
This is a great result for all involved. It allows the players the confidence and freedom to seek opportunities in the HIL with the backing of their national body.
The agreement also sees one of the most exciting hockey teams in the world head to Australia for a series that could bring unprecedented coverage to the sport in this country.
Having more financial security also helps Australia’s best players base themselves at the national training centre in Perth for more of the year; meaning they can train more often as a national squad and stay involved and present in the local community.
The Kookaburras are an institution in Western Australia. The team has been based in Perth for so long that many kids have grown up watching the team train and play around the area for years. This relationship definitely inspires potential Kookaburras of tomorrow.
Finally, earning so much money (in hockey terms) over such a short period of time allows players to put more effort and energy into their endeavors away from the field as well, be that work or study.
Hockey doesn’t seem to pay the bills for these guys, or hasn’t until the HIL kicked off. But just because they’ve come into some money doesn’t mean they should stop developing their lives off the field. For many, the next chapter of their lives isn’t that far away.
So whichever way you look at it, the HIL is clearly a huge game changer. The first three seasons have been a raging success and with talk of new teams, new players and new innovations, it looks like it will continue to thrive for many years to come.