Why money should be a topic of discussion at this week’s FIH congress
A recent interview with Brian Chesky, co-founder of International Olympic Committee (IOC) sponsor Airbnb, used this quote as the headline: “The trick is to be optimistic”.
Having read both Narinder Batra’s lackluster manifesto and the last two annual financial statements of one of the organizations he heads, the International Hockey Federation (FIH), I am forced to conclude that the Indian IOC member 64-year-old must share Chesky’s leadership philosophy. .
The FIH lost over CHF 313,000 (£ 246,000 / $ 349,000 / € 285,000) in 2018; it doubled that figure to over CHF 633,000 (£ 497,000 / $ 705,000 / € 577,000) in 2019.
By the end of this year, the Federation’s assets had fallen to CHF 7.34 million (£ 5.8 million / $ 8.2 million / € 6.7 million) and shareholders’ equity and reserves less than CHF 5 million (£ 3.9 million / $ 5.6 million / € 4.6 million).
For now, we have no idea how he fared in COVID-ravaged 2020, although we do know a) he took out a loan of a size still unknown to the IOC and b) that, as CEO Thierry Weil said, the organization was in “total savings mode” last May.
In this context, some might find the limited references to finances in this Batra manifesto for the delayed presidential election of the FIH on Saturday 22 May quite surprising.
There is an isolated injunction to “explore new resources to generate income”.
A commitment to “improve financial sustainability” is included as the third of what he rather ridiculously calls his “11 players”.
He specifies: “I think it is very important for us to develop media rights (digital + broadcasting) as a strong source of income.
“This added to the income of the sponsors is able to lead us on the path of healthy and sustainable financial stability.
“If we invest our efforts in developing the overall consumer experience, all stakeholders will find the right kind of long-term support for sport.”
And there is an important commitment on the last page to, among other things, “seize every opportunity to grow hockey, both in terms of participants and fans, because this is so crucial in generating the resources we need. to make our sport prosper ”.
Now, I can understand that “We are going to cut our costume according to our fabric” might not be considered the sexiest vote winner.
But if the growth spurts out of money, who will suffer?
Consider that of the 11 million Swiss francs (8.6 million pounds sterling / 12.3 million dollars / 10 million euros) operating income in 2019 6.25 million Swiss francs (4.9 million sterling / $ 7 million / € 5.7 million) – 56.6% – came from the IOC.
Also consider that if the Tokyo 2020 Olympics were to be canceled, even now, it could well call into question the $ 15million (£ 10.6million / € 12.3million) or the payment of the contribution to hockey that the FIH should normally have expected to receive.
On the other side of the coin, all other sports – including world juggernaut football – have their own ambitions for growth.
Some will be disappointed.
I thought this shrewd American Sports business journal journalist Ben Fischer expressed it very well in a recent Tweet.
“No one invented the 25-hour day,” Fischer wrote, “and this is where niche sports always run into problems – competition for people’s time.”
In such a competitive market, it makes a lot of sense to make sure that you can at least break even with the income you currently have.
Oh and besides, if the pandemic did nothing else, she stressed the necessity of an adequate fund for the rainy days.
I have to say, for some reason it seems to me that Batra’s only challenger, Marc Coudron from Belgium, is giving the President of the Indian Olympic Association an easy turn on this key issue for the Federation and the future of the sport.
He acknowledges – in an interview with Liam Morgan, my inside the games colleague, that the FIH has “big financial problems”.
He also proposed at least one practical measure to help remedy this: Nations participating in the very young World Pro League must fully cover their participation costs.
But he has repeatedly insisted that the current situation is not Batra’s or the Board’s fault.
I get that COVID-19 is hitting at a particularly unfortunate time for the FIH, with the second season of the Pro League about a third from the end.
However, if it is not their fault, it is difficult to understand who is to blame.
After all, many International Federations (and not just the larger ones) had built up well-stocked reserve cushions – even in some cases positively overloaded – to enable them to weather unexpected disasters.
While his campaign may be a gentleman’s fault, Coudron has other imaginative and specific ideas that make it clear how entrenched the well-capped Belgium international is in his sport.
The need to water synthetic pitches is clearly a scarecrow, for reasons of cost and the environment – “If it is expensive in Belgium, I can tell you that it is no longer the case in Malawi”, he exclaimed in a recent interview.
He suggests teaming up with other sports, including American football and baseball, to pressure manufacturers to find a way to deliver the same quality of product without the need for water.
He is also a proponent, perhaps unsurprisingly, of greater use of languages other than English to improve communication.
Not that I met him, or even Batra, and not that he was a sine qua non for an FI president, but Coudron also seems to have a pleasantly dry sense of humor.
“If I am elected, even if some tell me that from now on I should say ‘when I am elected'”, he exclaims during an interview.
Whoever wins, I hope this week’s Virtual Congress will provide a forum for frank debate on the Federation’s business plan.
While much of the talk of increasing sponsorship and exposure / media revenue seems extremely familiar to anyone who has taken a look at a range of fringe sports, it seems to me that hockey has a potential advantage. over most of its peers and, in business terms, rivals: the depth of its roots in an extremely populous and increasingly powerful and prosperous India.
The country was once the hockey superpower, winning seven of the eight men’s Olympic tournaments held between 1928 and 1964, including beating Germany 8-1 in the 1936 final.
If her men’s or women’s team wins Olympic gold again, you think it just might spark something for the sports business rainmakers to get their teeth into.