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India’s recently launched Premier Hockey League introduces radical entertainment concepts.

Sandeep Nakai, South Asian Sports Editor of The Associated Press and who is based in New Delhi gives the background on the league which holds its finals on 13 February.


Basketball style time-outs compelling coaches to think on their feet, four quarters of 17-1/2 minutes each and shrinking the number of players during extra-time to facilitate a result are the radical concepts being introduced in India’s new Premier Hockey League which seeks to revolutionise the sport into an entertaining television package.


The Premier Hockey League (PHL) , conceptualised by the Indian Hockey Federation’s commercial partners Leisure Sports Management and Pan-Asian satellite TV channel ESPN-STAR Sports, is set to blows winds of change for the traditional sport.


Indian hockey is bracing for a paradigm shift. City-linked teams named with the aim of evoking pride and loyalty of fans, designer uniforms and cheerleaders are seeking to transform the Indian league into a memorable experience for TV audiences.


The league’s inaugural edition, offering 7.1 million Indian rupees (US$155,000) in prize money will be played over a four-week period in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad’s state-of-the-art Gachibowli Stadium, which was built for the inaugural Afro-Asian Games in 2003.


The league offers 3 million rupees as prize money to the champions. The funding is coming through a 10-year deal with ESPN-STAR Sports, the Pan-Asian sports broadcasting collaboration between ESPN Inc. and Rupert Murdoch’s STAR network.


“This is the beginning of a landmark journey,” says K.P.S. Gill, President of the Indian Hockey Federation, who grabbed an idea floated by Leisure Sports Management’s S.S. Dasgupta three years ago.


'The league will bring in an era of professionalism in hockey,” says Gill. “Many innovations and format changes have also been made to attract audience interest.”


“The interesting changes have been made in the format of the game to ensure that the league is able to keep viewers involved,” says Gill.


“What emerged as the final format is a truly sleek, unique league promising to attract players and viewers,” he says.


It took three years for the idea of a national league to materalise from the moment Dasgupta, Managing Director of the Kolkata-based Leisure Sports Management, mooted it to Gill.


“It’s been three years of hard work involving the IHF and our television partners to give a proper shape to the hockey league,” says Dasgupta, whose brainchild seems set to grow into an exciting hockey property.


“The methodical and professional approach of our TV partners played a key role in building this mega event,” he says.


R.C. Venkatesh, Managing Director of ESPN’s Software India Ltd, the Pan-Asian broadcasting partner’s Indian arm, says extensive research was conducted in planning the PHL.


“We studied successful international hockey tournaments, analysed successful leagues in sports like football and basketball, and incorporated the most innovative ideas into the Premier Hockey League’s format,” says Venkatesh.


“We’ve micro-analysed each minute detail to ensure that the league gets delivered to consumers as a sporting spectacle … A league that all Indian fans will look forward to each year,” says Venkatesh.  “We’re confident that in years to come, the PHL will become one of the most important events in India’s sports calendar.”


The league will produce no draws, keeping the players on their toes. In case the teams are tied at the end of regulation period, every match will extend into extra period, and the number of players will be reduced.


The innovations injected into the made for TV hockey league will see only nine players take the field for the first period of extra-time in case a result is not produced during regulation period. If the scores still remain tied, teams for the next period of extra-time will be reduced to seven players on each side.


The basketball style time outs will vary between one and two minutes, while breaks between the first and third quarter will be of 2-1/2 minutes, but will increase for five minutes at half-time.


Marketing research indicated formatting the league into a city-centric competition. The PHL seeks enduring fan support with team names depicting lifestyles and attitudes of the respective cities.


The PHL’s format has 10 teams divided into two tiers comprising five teams each. The top tier has been dubbed the Premier division and the second tier called the First Division.

Teams will have its own anthem and the players will don uniforms which were unveiled by the Premier Division captains during a fashion show.


All the teams have been given interesting city-linked names, which the marketing survey indicated would attract attention and invoke the ego of hockey fans.


The five teams in the Premier division are Sher-e-Jalandhar representing Punjab’s Jalandhar city, Maratha Warriors from Mumbai, Chennai Veerans from the southern Chennai metropolis, Hyderabad Sultans of southern Andhra Pradesh’s capital and Bangalore Hi-Fliers from India’s premier cyber city. These teams will be captained by Gagan Ajit Singh, Viren Rasquinha, Ignace Tirkey, Dilip Tirkey and Arjun Halappa, respectively.


Each team is allowed five foreign players, of which only four may be on field at any time.


The inaugural event will feature 13 foreign players, a majority of them from Pakistan whose crack penalty corner drag flicker Sohail Abbas and skipper Waseem Ahmed lead the star-studded pack that has been split among several teams.


The foreign players are being paid US$2,000 for playing in the novel month-long event. The IHF took the initiative of inviting foreign players and disbursing them among the top squads, but teams will gradually start recruiting their own foreign players.


The organizers went shopping for foreign players and even brought on board, as consultant, former Dutch Olympic gold winning coach, Maurits Hendriks, who has just masterminded Spain’s maiden triumph in the Champions Trophy. But the only European player signing up for India’s maiden PHL is Spanish captain Juan Pablo Escarre.

“Increased popularity of the PHL will attract foreign players,” says Venkatesh.

The second-tier teams for the launching year are Delhi Dazzlers, Lucknow Nawabs, Imphal Rangers, Bengal Tigers and Chandigarh Dynamos.


Both divisions will feature a double-leg round-robin league competition, where the winner during regulation period will secure three points. In a team wins in extra-time, the winners will earn two points and the losers get one point.


The organisers realise the entire hockey world will be keenly watching the impact of the innovations, which increase time for telecasting commercials during time-outs and intervals between the four quarters.


Celebrity promotions,  including one featuring India’s ultimate sports icon Sachin Tendulkar,  have already ensured the league captured non-hockey audiences. A 12-camera production team will ensure quality telecasts during the competition.


The strong television component and the innovations are sure to bring a dramatic shift in the way hockey is perceived in India, which won all eight of it’s Olympic gold medals before it was pushed out of the frame by cricket.


“We’re seeking to develop a distinct identity for the league,” says K. Jothikumaran, the IHF’s General Secretary. “A Herculean task has already been achieved in creating the PHL.”


The organizers are aware that the PHL is a big challenge.


'This is the first time in the history of Indian sports that an event of such a large scale has been created to launch a domestic championship,' says Gill.


“Hockey,” says Gill, “merits this attention”.




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