Money Talks: Should Hockey Clubs Pay Their Players?

Money Talks - Hockey

After dragging their bodies through another exhausting year on the tour, Federer, Djokovic, Sharapova and Serena are off to earn some extra pocket money at the “IPL of Tennis” in the Philippines this week. By pocket money, I do of course mean millions of dollars. The franchises spent around £14 million on procuring the services of the 28 players involved in the inaugural 2014 edition.

A number of these players have previously complained about the demands placed on them during the tour season. This has led to criticism from some quarters that they are being motivated by money, that they can’t say they are put under too much pressure to play during the regular season if they’re going to swan off and play extra matches at the end of it. This argument probably does have some legs, although there are other factors such as encouraging innovation and promotion of the sport that may also be significant. What I’m interested in, though, are more generic arguments about money in sport. How do you put a price on performance? Is it fair that some sportspeople are paid so much when others aren’t?

One of the ironies here is that many of those who get upset about sports stars getting paid so highly are the very same people who choose to pay for it. They complain about Premier League footballers getting paid thousands of pounds a week and then subscribe to Sky Sports to make sure they are able to watch them. They scoff at the extortionate transfer fee paid for a footballer, then buy a shirt with his name on it, filling the club’s coffers and contributing to the brand value of that player.

I don’t always talk about hockey on my blog but I think it’s a valid thing to apply this discussion to. The last couple of years have seen a couple of things happen to club hockey in this country. Firstly, a few more English hockey clubs have begun to invest more heavily in attracting and supporting top players. Secondly, this has gained momentum as an area for discussion – both in the hockey press and on social media. Journalists, players, ‘hockey people’, all have an opinion on the matter. One club in particular – Holcombe – has drawn the most attention (and I think it’s fair to say the most criticism!) about its level of investment and some of the players who are now contracted there. I ought to mention a couple of things at this point. Firstly, I will talk predominantly about Holcombe here, but don’t be fooled into thinking it is the only club spending money – plenty of others provide financial support, free accommodation and other incentives to their players. I am also conscious that people who know me well also know that someone rather close to me benefits from Holcombe’s strategy… and therefore so do I! You can decide whether you think that has coloured my opinion. I’d like to think it hasn’t and that I am approaching this from a reasonably objective viewpoint, because ultimately I want hockey to grow, improve and succeed as a sport. I think this is a consensus that would be shared among most people in the hockey community.

Of course, money in itself doesn’t magically create better players. Paying somebody doesn’t automatically improve their skills, make them score goals or ensure a team will win. The point is, money may help to create an environment more geared towards success: this may mean better facilities, full-time coaches and players who can dedicate themselves entirely to consistently performing at their best. In essence, money may help a sport and its top players to become more professional in their approach and performance.

In general, I believe hockey people want our sport to become more professional. Most Brits want Great Britain to do well at the Olympics. When we have the opportunity to support our national team, we want to be entertained by players who are at least as good as their international counterparts. The thing is, though, we want all this whilst maintaining a level playing field. We can’t have it all. Professional sports across the world are run on a wide range of budgets and it’s unrealistic to expect this not to be reflected in hockey too. Manchester United spent £59.7 million on Angel Di Maria in August 2014. That month, they played Burnley who have spent £45 million on transfer fees in their entire 132-year history… Sport, like life, is financially unfair.

Some have labeled Holcombe’s financial strategy as unsustainable and short-term minded. It seems to have shocked people that an English club is in a position to pay top players to play. Let’s pop across to the continent briefly. It’s true that there is more money available in Dutch hockey owing to factors such as sponsorship and the size and reach of the sport in the Netherlands. However, the Dutch Hoofdklasse has paid players as professionals for a number of years and I have no doubt that there is no club system in the world that can match it. I have played over there for two seasons; we trained four to five times a week and whilst never ‘megabucks’, I was paid enough to enable me to concentrate solely on playing hockey. Now let’s travel over from the Netherlands to India: the Hockey India League will take place for a third time in January 2015. Tom Boon, a Belgian international, has achieved a price tag of $103,000 to play in the month-long tournament. We might need to consider what is going on elsewhere in the hockey world before getting too upset about rumours and press-generated gossip about what is going on at Holcombe.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not a perfect situation. There are other factors that undoubtedly warrant further discussion as this develops. As with most sports, female hockey players generally lose out to their male counterparts. Many of the clubs who are investing in players do support both genders, which is brilliant, although it is a fact that top women players simply do not have the same opportunities to earn money from hockey as the top men. I believe that this is a separate issue, but many clubs away from the South-East of England also feel they are negatively affected by Great Britain Hockey’s Centralised Programme. This has definitely affected the dynamic and balance of strength in the English leagues, but as an example, Holcombe is not “down the road” from where GB train: players who travel there are likely to spend just as long in the car as anyone who drives to Bristol or the East Midlands for training and home games. There are also examples of centralised players who have been tempted to transfer to or remain with clubs in the North and Midlands. Club hockey may have taken on a slightly different meaning for those players lucky enough to play in the centralised squad, but I don’t think it’s fair to criticise players – or the programme – for choosing to follow up opportunities to earn money from playing. Hockey isn’t a lucrative career option and earning potential doesn’t last forever.

Ultimately, it is a player’s choice as to what club they decide to play for. As to how much sportspeople should be paid, to my mind this is difficult to quantify in any job. I’m obviously not trying to start a debate about bank bonuses or how much teachers get paid or whether the minimum wage is at the right level. But I think it’s fair to say that, within reason, we probably wouldn’t criticise somebody for taking the financial returns they will receive into account when applying for a particular job. Professional sports people are doing something they generally enjoy and are passionate about, which often translates to it apparently being fine to criticise them with much less hesitation. I am not denying the fact that it is a privilege to make a living running around a track or hitting a ball, but I don’t think this should mean sportspeople are judged negatively because they happen to have this privilege. And newsflash!! – it’s not easy. Honestly. I’ve done it. Blood, sweat and tears doesn’t even come close at times. And whilst I was extremely grateful for the Lottery Funding I used to receive to support my training and performance, I always felt it necessary to supplement it through coaching and other work.

In case you were wondering, I pay to play my club hockey at Surbiton – we are the current English national champions. At Leicester, we funded trips to represent English club hockey at European competitions with cake sales, quiz nights and supermarket bag packing. This was and is the reality of top-level club hockey in England. Don’t we want our sport to move away from this where possible?

Do I think it’s ‘fair’ that some clubs can pay players and others can’t? Not really. Do I want it to stop? Not really.

This process needs progress and management and I think it’s something we should discuss. But if we want sports to be professionally run and if we want sportspeople to play better and entertain us more, this is the direction in which things have to move. As players, coaches, club people and supporters, we also need to face up to the fact that this will take time and it won’t always seem fair. I absolutely believe we should be aiming for a level playing field, but we probably also need to accept that in sport, that’s generally an idealistic goal rather than a realistic one.

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13 thoughts on “Money Talks: Should Hockey Clubs Pay Their Players?

  1. What is more important, the spectators (or lack of) or the players? If it’s the spectators then paying players is probably a good idea. However if you think it’s the players then keep money out of it. With money the 1sts become even more important than they currently are to the detriment of the lower teams. Who’s ever heard of Man U 7ths? They don’t exist. In a reasonable size hockey club they do.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. In this post I was obviously focusing predominantly on the perspective of the top players who represent 1X1 teams in our hockey clubs. I totally understand that it can have an impact on other teams in a club (who are of course also important!) and that this impact isn’t always beneficial. That said, if well managed as part of a bigger picture, the presence of the best players can provide positive effects elsewhere in a club in the form of role models and coaching to club juniors. One of the challenges for clubs who have a large number of teams – often in men’s, women’s and junior sections – is providing appropriate opportunity and experience to players of all levels. This is a really difficult thing to tick boxes on simultaneously and there’s no doubt that some clubs manage this better than others. However, I don’t think it is a surprise that the top teams will often get the most attention – which as we have seen with Holcombe can also be good and bad!

  3. I don’t think it’s about the money producing better players Herbie, it’s about the money securing better players. The money factor tips the balance and the clubs that are best at nurturing talent are nudged aside by those with a cheque book and a sugar daddy. You are right to mention the centralised programme as a major factor in altering the chemistry of club hockey. Your Surbiton team is great to watch but would it be where it is (and Reading before it) had England Hockey not opted to base the cream of English (and British) players at Bisham?
    I am becoming much more philosophical about this as the season progresses but think it will be hard for a club that still relies on cake sales and raffles to compete on a level playing field. What grieves me most is that England Hockey is sticking fingers in its ears and ignoring the impact. Will Investec do that I wonder?

    • Hi Gaynor, thanks for your comment. I know this is a controversial subject for many people and I think it’s natural that there will be some differences of opinion and perspective; I appreciated you expressing your views respectfully, as I am always very aware of trying to do this myself.

      I think I alluded to money securing players as opposed to producing them in saying, “…money in itself doesn’t magically create better players… In essence, money may help a sport and its top players to become more professional in their approach and performance.” Ultimately there is no rule book about how teams can achieve success, and whether or not people support it, money is one factor (amongst others, including nurturing talent) that can impact upon it. The difficulty is that change and progress occur at different rates and in different ways. Although it might seem unfair, I still believe that it’s better that some clubs are able to fund their flagship teams without having to rely on fundraising initiatives than no clubs at all! You may feel differently, which you are entitled to – this may just be something we have to respectfully disagree on!

      If we want English clubs to compete at European level, we have to acknowledge that we are challenging top Dutch sides who are about as professional as it is currently possible to be in club hockey. I remember with immense pride playing in two European finals with Leicester – but I also know that I was part of a team containing several international players (more than any one English team now has), and a group of excellent club players and coaching staff. GB Hockey’s policy probably had no impact on it, but it is a fact that a large proportion of Leicester’s successes in the last decade occurred with the input of the league’s largest ratio of international players at the time, regardless of why they chose to play at Leicester.
      At Surbiton, there is an excellent youth system, a good coaching set up and all female players pay to play their hockey. I fully appreciate that the GB squad becoming centralised has impacted on the geographical spread of players across the National League… At Surbiton, we are blessed with the presence of 4 talented current female international players, but I think it would be disrespectful to the other players in our 1X1 to suggest that the current position of the club is solely down to those 4 players.

      I am aware that some people who have read this entry don’t think I have acknowledged all the factors involved – What about the other people who play hockey at clubs – juniors and players from teams outside the 1X1? What about making our sport accessible to all? How important are the traditions of our club system in the context of the sport’s development and progression on a wider scale?
      BUT… I can’t speak for England Hockey or Investec, I can only speak for myself. My blog entry was written from the perspective of a player who has played at international level and 1X1 club level in the top leagues in this country and in Holland – where I have paid to play, and I have been paid to play. It is supposed to represent my perspective on the decision-making processes faced by top players choosing clubs, some of whom can offer them financial opportunities as well as the other rewards and challenges of club hockey. It is supposed to suggest that club hockey becoming more professional is a positive move – even if this happens on a scale which doesn’t always create a level playing field.

      I hope this comes across in the right way. As I have said previously, I think this is a valuable topic of discussion. It’s always going to be difficult to create a situation where everybody is happy. I hope our sport can continue to progress positively and for me, a positive future does include the possibility of players being paid to represent their clubs.

  4. Yours is a unique perspective Herbie. I don’t think any other top player has had the background you’ve had with Leicester and two top Hoofdklasse sides.
    I was in no way being disrespectful to those of your Surbiton squad not currently in Mendoza, (especially as you and Jo Hunter are ex-Leicester players). Surbiton’s success is not down to just four players – but they must have an impact. You definitely have a few ‘bubbling under’ players who may well come through and, for what it’s worth, I would still like to see you in an England shirt.
    I think it would be great if all our Investec League clubs could pay players and compete in Europe with wealthy Dutch and German clubs but I am not sure that you arrive at that by leaving it to the market. That’s a world that creates haves and have nots. England Hockey has a role here but it isn’t going to bite the bullet and perhaps hasn’t got the commercial acumen anyway.
    Thanks for opening up a good debate.

  5. I’d have to ask on what basis will hockey clubs develop an income stream to fund paying players?

    Some might have a junior section so large that it makes a “profit” that can be used to pay elite players to coach them, but not all are lucky enough to have such a large catchment area. Other could fund a range of commercial sponsors happy to pool funds that allow players to be paid. Some like Holcombe can run thanks to the money of a single benefactor. But one model does not seem to work on a National basis.

    If you are paying players, how about also paying the coaches, physio, ball patrol, Umpires and Photographers who give up their time and invest in allowing the game to be played?

    What level of payment are we looking at? Do you want those that are playing in the first team to do so so that they are not out of pocket or do you want them to have an income capable of providing a living that pays for a house, car, medical insurance? Very few of those playing at the top level are over 30 and so it can be assumed once they stop playing they will have 40+ years to make a living.

    I played in the very first year of the National League, it was sponsored by PoundStretcher and the expenses paid by the Hockey Association were very good. However players paid to play rather than received money from clubs, most of my team mates were young man starting out in the Professions and so paid more than the average wage. Very few of those founding members of the National League are still playing at that level. Some have not just fallen down the league, they have folded. A system that sees only those playing at the top level paid could see teams locked into the National League until they fail financially, thus players will have to move if they are to play at the top level.

    Post 2016 hockey in England faces major changes as UK Sport funding is likely to be reduced, we could see the loss of Investec as a Sponsor and a EuroNationsCup without sponsorship would see England Hockey go bust again. Paying players could be the least of the sports problems.

    • Thanks for your comment. It is interesting to hear the viewpoint of someone who played in the early years of the National League – clearly the way things are organised and funded have both since changed and this is illustrative of the way the structure of our sport has adapted and altered over time. It is sad when any club drops away from the top flight, but this is also a natural course of things when we have a system that includes promotion and relegation: somebody has to make way in order for other aspiring teams to progress to higher levels. I think this is a good thing – sport is by its very nature competitive and I believe our league competition should reflect this.

      It wasn’t my intention as such to attempt to address the issue of how club hockey could or should be funded. Therefore I won’t try to go into this in any detail here. Whether through sponsorship, a benefactor or funds being generated elsewhere in a club, there are obviously decisions that must subsequently be made about how this money is invested: is it in players, facilities, coaching, supporting other people (physios, ball patrol etc etc) or just into a club in the wider sense? I do think it is worth mentioning that this can be a bit of a catch-22: it is notoriously difficult for clubs in this country to find lucrative sponsorship deals as it is and having a successful 1X1 is often a pre-requisite for gaining (and keeping) sponsors on board. This is probably a simple case of business principles being applied in a sporting environment. Again, it may not seem fair, but this is a reality!

      I would like to reiterate the perspective I wrote this entry from. Essentially, I believe it is a positive thing for hockey in England that players are beginning to have more opportunity to earn money from playing. I also believe that whilst it is hopefully not the only factor in a top player’s decision to sign for a club, I don’t think a player should be criticised for taking financial opportunity into consideration, regardless of how many years of earning potential they have left after the age of 30. I’m not in any way disregarding other people who are a huge and important part of our club hockey, I am simply trying to suggest that professional players and the clubs who pay them are labeled too readily and criticised too easily.

      • Believe it or not but I am a big supporter of Dave South having known him since the 1980s when Holcs “Clubhouse” was a room above a grim pub in Gillingham. I am not a critic of his drive and vision to take “his” club forward.

        The sport is not as large as it once was and its decline in the State Schools means it is already hamstrung in terms of tallent. So if some clubs can pay players good.

        But if we were to go down the root of Franchised teams given the infrastructure in place here then we can look at accelerated extinction!

        On a National level funding is only possible thanks to National Lottery money via Sport England and UK Sport grants, what little sponsorship money entering Hockey is not given because a return can be had but rather because up until now coverage can be had very cheaply. As someone close to the Centralised Programme you know NONE of Investec/NOW:Pensions money goes towards supporting the players.

        Whilst it has to be right that those that represent the elite end of the sport should not be left out of pocket expect every player to draw a wage is not realistic given the current situation. Cricket and Rugby seems better funded at present as both sports at club level seem to be capable of playing players not just at National Level but quite some way down the league system. What are they doing that hockey is not? How can Hockey catch them up because just 30 years ago them seemed a lot closer to one another in terms of paying to play?

      • Agreed – I am not saying it’s realistic currently, but I would rather there is some opportunity than none at all.
        Your final point is significant. Cricket and rugby seem to have succeeded better than hockey in this area and maybe to a degree we can learn something from their models, alongside other examples abroad in hockey. Progress may just have to happen in small steps in order for us to follow.

  6. As someone on the very fringe of the sport (supporter in several senses) I obviously do not have the perspective or insight of others. Or indeed the right to comment! But I think that the blog courageously, and from a standpoint of experience at first hand, tackles a topic on which there seems to have been a lot of ilI-informed comment. I cannot blame anyone for taking the opportunities afforded them. They have paid to play themselves in their time, I am sure, and guess that in any case they give plenty back to the sport by acting as great role models and heroines/heroes to many. Those few I know personally have always impressed me greatly by their approachability and how they deal with fans young and older alike.

    As for funding. I have supported club ventures into Europe financially in a small way, through the type of fundraising described. It does not really seem to me like the way forward on a permanent basis. The current system must place a lot of strain on them financially. That said, the trip I went on supporting a team was truly memorable.

    • Hi Nick. Thanks for your comments. I think you’ve understood the viewpoint I have aimed to represent and as will be clear from the blog and my comments since, I endorse your positive points wholeheartedly. It’s good to hear from someone else who is considering things from the viewpoint of the players involved and English clubs’ European campaigns to keep the discussion balanced. Whilst I know you also have significant consideration for the bigger picture, I think it’s important that both perspectives are represented so I really value your input alongside the opinions others have also taken the time and effort to put forward.

  7. I think the professional model in no way guarantees the continual development of world class players. We only have to look at the English premier leagues both football and rugby to realise that professional sporting clubs will generally seek to take the immediate option of recruiting a proven player (usually from wherever they can get them, so long as the work permit arrives from the home office) than backing a prospect from within their own ranks or a lower league club. It’s fair to say that the premier league is just about the worst model for youth development you could possibly imagine, with clubs and coaches, after years of speculating in the transfer markets for immediate stop gaps and solutions to their on field issues, seemingly totally unable to bring the promising youngsters up to elite level.

  8. Pingback: Holcombe, value for money? | The Fry-Up

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