BARCELONA – Day One of the first-ever Hockey Forum opened in Barcelona with a flurry of excellent presentations from different sports which focused on several key tenets that might well be the key to future growth and success of hockey in Europe.
Primarily among these was the clear need for international competition between club teams in Europe. Basketball has a European league program; football has its highly successful Champions League; handball has its champions league. Only hockey is without this key element in the sports calendar, a fact pointed out by every speaker on this day.
IIHF President René Fasel opened the Forum with a speech which gave the attendees a clear and open mandate: improve the game.
“Welcome to the first-ever Hockey Forum, where we hope to address issues and challenges, foremost in Europe,” Fasel began. “We have an almost unlimited potential, but we can only achieve this potential if we work together. Let this Hockey Forum be a stepping stone to a new chapter in our sport.”
Fasel was followed by IIHF General Secretary Horst Lichtner, who used cake as a metaphor for the game’s growth and development. “We need to grow the cake, and we need to create more cakes,” he rationalized. “If you grow the cake, you bring ice hockey to another level.
But these goals must be achieved without cannibalizing the game by simply taking success from one event and moving it somewhere else.
Lichtner identified the hockey calendar of events and described how each could be improved. The Olympics, he suggested, could be even bigger if the NHL was an assured participant not one Games at a time but for years and decades to come. The World Championship, he continued, was about “quality, not quantity,” while the U20, such a success in Canada, had so much to learn from that country that it could grow by leaps and bounds in Europe.
Lichtner proposed growth of the U18 through NHL involvement on some level, and also pointed to the North American pro league for consistent hosting of the World Cup of Hockey, last held in 2004 and previously only in 1996.
He then pointed to growth through new tournaments such as a European Championship, a revitalized Victoria Cup, and development of the game in Asia leading up to the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang.
“National team breaks could be utilized to provide more meaningful games, for example a World Championship Qualification, or a European Championship with a European Championship Qualification,” Lichtner said about a topic that will be discussed on Thursday.
Next up was Jordi Bertomeu representing Euroleague Basketball. The Barcelona native gave a detailed explanation of how the league expanded from so little in 2000 to the colossal juggernaut that it is today.
The league is owned and operated by the clubs themselves with national leagues as additional shareholders, and what started as a 16-team operation is now 56 teams from 23 countries playing in two tiers. When the league took control of television broadcasts in the summer of 2005, the number of countries broadcasting games went from 21 to 120 in one season.
The preliminary round of the league includes 24 teams. “From our side, 24 teams is the maximum in Europe when it comes to aspects such as calendar and the level of play,” Bertomeu said.
Michael Wiederer, the Secretary General of European Handball Federation, was up next, and he echoed much of what Bertomeu said, but from a more European-centric perspective.
Basketball, after all, has a far more global influence and popularity than handball, as Wiederer acknowledged, but that hasn’t adversely affected the EHF, which now claims 50 national federations in Europe. The Champions League includes 24 clubs from 15 countries.
“The teams are selected purely by sporting criteria,” Wiederer explained. “It makes the national leagues more attractive. Both the leagues and clubs profit.”
Founded in 1991 to start European competitions, the organization had to go through difficult times with stakeholders, but managed to overcome them with a restructuring at the sport-political level in 2010.
“It was a phase we had a very intensive dialog and finally we managed to be in one boat,” Wiederer said. “Being united was a very important factor for the development of the Champions League.”
Frank Leenders then spoke about the marketing of European Football and the success of UEFA Champions League of which he was a key player working for its agency TEAM Marketing. He pointed out the success of the UEFA Champions League and the problems hockey faces in trying to replicate that success.
Since its first season 1992/1993 with eight teams and a turnover of 100 million Swiss Francs, the competition grew to 32 participants and 1.6 billion Swiss Francs revenue.
The UEFA Champions League, he noted, succeeds because of four key elements: (1) clear simple competition; (2) credible sports concept with the best teams and the best players; (3) use an authentic European system of openness for qualification and participation; (4) use of a format that includes both scheduled games in a group stage and a knockout system; (5) rights centralization and continuity.
Leenders recommended going with the football model also in ice hockey.
“I would maintain a mix of national and international competitions with an authentic European model and a simple and consistent format fans understand,” Leenders said. “Invest in the product and be patient. Partnerships must be sustainable win-win situations.”
As Leenders notes, though, hockey is a different beast because the level of quality of play changes greatly from country to country and the sport isn’t as global as football. Too, the best players and teams are not in Europe but rather the NHL. The IIHF and Europe has not such a big and consistent tradition of club competition, and other sports pose a serious threat to hockey’s place in the calendar, both on TV and in the personal schedules of fans.
“Competitors are not people within ice hockey, competitors are all the sports around. If they’re doing things smarter than you, they’re going to take your markets if you’re not clever enough,” Leenders warned the hockey stakeholders.
“Co-operate as much as you can with your different stakeholders and find synergies. Winners have a plan, and losers don’t have a plan, only an excuse.”
Michele Centenaro, the General Secretary of the European Club Association, followed Leenders and gave a club perspective to the success of football and its Champions League. The ECA was established in 2008 to represent clubs in discussions of club competitions, the impetus being partnership and working together as partners, not adversaries with individual agendas.
The ECA acts as an agent, in some respects, between UEFA/FIFA and the clubs and players. It has high-level involvement in the decision-making process of European football governing bodies through UEFA’s committees and working groups.
Together with the players association FIFPro and the EPFL representing national leagues, the football landscape has become more complex in the last few years – but all organizations are integrated in the football family, as Centenaro noted. “It’s a modern way of looking at practical solutions.”
The ECA includes 203 clubs from 53 national associations that regularly compete in European club competitions.
“You have to be challenging, not confrontational,” he said about the partnership with UEFA under the roof of European football. “You have to be good, well-prepared and reasonable. You have to claim things that make sense. Today we have gone to a sentiment of reciprocal trust. With such trust a contract is done quickly.”
One achievement was an insurance deal with UEFA for all players from the time they leave their European club team for national team events to the time they return, so any injury incurred while representing their national teams will be covered in centralized contracts. This September, FIFA will extend that coverage to all players, from all teams, and all countries.
After criticism in the ‘90s from some clubs, they now appreciate the success of the UEFA Champions League. A permanent European league has gone out of discussion.
“The European competitions are the icing on the cake. Clubs want to retain their national and local identity,” Centenaro said.
An anecdote he shared with the represented hockey organizations, leagues and clubs was when the change of the Champions League format was discussed a few years ago and broadcasters and sponsors were asked what the most important thing was for them.
“They didn’t talk about more opportunities for them, they said: ‘We need the competition to be credible and integral.’” Centenaro remembered before adding: “Competitions have to be authentic. We are born with promotion and relegation in Europe. We are born with sporting qualifications. We shouldn’t change that.”
Thursday’s agenda switches the focus – and the pressure – to hockey leagues and teams and national associations. From the theoretical observations and practical successes of non-hockey leagues, the presenters will focus on how to make European hockey better, how to expand it while keeping it simple and grow the game.