Pro League 101 for Indian hockey fans

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With the International Hockey Federation (FIH) announcing India's inclusion into the Pro League from 2020, what does it mean for the fans, the players and Indian hockey at large?

Here's all that you can look forward to, starting January next year.

A series of quality games coming to a turf near you

The first benefit of being a part of the Pro League -- something former India coach Michael Nobbs says they "should never have not been in, to begin with" -- will be in getting to see at least four of the top nine teams in world hockey coming and playing a series of two games between January and June next year.

The competition that India joins comprises some of the best in the world -- Olympic champions Argentina, Australia, world champions Belgium, Germany, Great Britain, Netherlands, New Zealand and Spain. It's also an Olympic year, and playing these teams in both home and away conditions should make for some cracking contests.

India has some outstanding facilities to host the matches, as New Delhi, Raipur and Bhubaneswar alone have hosted some of the top events in world hockey in the last decade or so. Spreading the games across the venues would also help fans get engaged in a more meaningful way in an Olympic year.

Speaking of which...

India's inclusion in the Pro League shouldn't impact their Olympic qualification chances as they had originally feared in 2017, when the Pro League was first announced.

The apprehension then was that Olympic qualification would depend on finishing just inside the top four of the Pro League. While that still holds, there are Olympic qualifiers that teams can still be eligible for, based on Series finals, world rankings and continental events.

In a nutshell, a country won't lose anything by participating in the Pro League. Finish near the top, and you will get first right of way on the route to the next big global event, but even if you don't, there will be adequate pathways to make it later on.

How about the players themselves?

The Pro League is good news for the players. Playing the top teams in the world in a six-month period, India are assured of 16 games where they can get into some kind of rhythm going into the Tokyo Olympics. There will also be semis and a final to play should they make the top four, but these matches would be better preparation for the pressure of a big tournament.

As of now, Hockey India (HI) organises tours and multi-nation tournaments where the Indian team plays and keeps itself in touch with the game. However, deprived of the best teams in the world, all of whom are part of the Pro League, they dominated the recent Azlan Shah Cup in Malaysia, only to fall to a moment of magic from Korean captain Lee Nam Yong in the shootout.

There won't be any immediate monetary benefit for the players, barring their daily allowances, but stretching the calendar by a minimum of 16 matches should help more youngsters get a chance to push for places in the first eleven.

What's in it for the federation?

FIH says that the global sponsorships go straight to the international federation, but the revenue from national partners goes to the respective national association. This could make HI exploit the commercial value of all of India's home games. Television broadcast rights go to FIH, but the local ticketing revenues also go to the national association.

In other words, HI can simply go to town with a two-match series against a Germany or an Australia.

Could it get any better?

Of course it can, but that is beyond HI's control at the moment.

The pullout in 2017 was primarily to protect the interests of the women's team, who were then ranked outside the top 10 in the world, but have improved both their performances as well as their ranking since, logging in at ninth now.

The women need more quality matches round the year to keep themselves sharp. They are terrific when playing lower-ranked teams, but need the exposure of playing top teams to cut it with the bigger nations in global events on a more regular basis. When the women get to be a part of the Pro League, India's journey in FIH's newest product would become most meaningful.