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With the resolution of the NHL lockout on Sunday, hockey's next big issue on the agenda is the question of whether the NHL will take a two-week break to allow its players to participate in the Olympic hockey tournament at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. Asked about this issue, Int'l Ice Hockey Federation President René Fasel said: "I have not spoken with the NHL or the NHLPA yet, but these talks are to take place in the near future. I don’t know if they will participate or not, but our doors are wide open, and if they decide to take part, it will certainly add to the tournament" (HJ Mai, SBD GLOBAL). ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun noted the NHL and NHLPA agreed to "leave the Olympics out of the CBA," and plan to negotiate "a separate agreement outside of the CBA relating to the Olympics." That agreement would come about if the two sides "can agree to terms" with the IIHF and IOC. Sources said that the four parties "plan to meet over the next month or so to begin discussions." LeBrun: "If I had to venture a guess, I would say NHL players will again be Olympic-bound." But it is "not a slam dunk" (ESPN.com, 1/8). The CANADIAN PRESS' Chris Johnston noted the NHL is expected to "continue making a big international push over the course of its new CBA, as evidenced by an article devoted to that topic in the document." Not only does it "include a clause saying every team in the league has to make at least one international trip before the deal expires in 2022, but there is also a section covering 'new international business ventures.'" Sources said that the changes the NHL is "expected to seek range from smaller issues such as access to tickets, hotels and better hospitality for team owners to larger things like sponsor recognition and a loosening of the IOC's notoriously strict guidelines on images, video and media." This is where it could "get tricky for Fasel," who is "rumoured to be interested in running" for IOC President (CP, 1/8).
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? RUSSIA TODAY reported New Jersey Devils player Ilya Kovalchuk "will entertain the Chelyabinsk crowd at this weekend's KHL All-Star game." The forward "has decided to stay in Russia at least until Sunday despite an unofficial end to the NHL lockout." Kovalchuk "was supposed to appear in the Russian Urals city of Chelyabinsk together with other prominent NHLers" including Zdeno Chara, Pavel Datsyuk, Evgeny Malkin and Alex Ovechkin. However, all of them "headed to North America for preseason training soon after Sunday's talks breakthrough between the NHL and the players' association." Meanwhile, Kovalchuk "is taking his time." He said, "Will I stay in Russia? We'll see. Time will tell. We shouldn't rule it out" (RT, 1/9).
Read more about the future of hockey in a Q&A with IIHF President René Fasel.
The popularity of hockey around the globe is on the rise. Int'l Ice Hockey Federation President RENÉ FASEL is well aware of this. An IIHF survey showed a 3.4% increase in participation last year alone. SBD Global recently spoke with Fasel about the rise in the sport's participation, the NHL lockout, the state of sponsorship and TV deals and the future of the game. (Editor's note: The Q&A was conducted prior to the NHL lockout's resolution on Sunday).
Q: What’s the current state of hockey in regard to its participation numbers, sponsorship appeal, TV rights and profitability of leagues? What can the IIHF do to improve in those areas?
René Fasel: Hockey is on the rise around the world. Our recent participation survey clearly confirms that. The number of registered hockey players grew by 52,892 to 1,602,876 compared to last year, which is an increase of 3.4%. What makes me personally very happy is that growth is spread out over all categories: men, women and junior players, especially in emerging hockey countries with smaller participation such as Austria, Australia, Croatia, Hungary, Mexico and Poland. But we do have challenges with decreasing registration and retention of youth in some of the most powerful hockey countries. In terms of sponsorship, I do know is that hockey is a very appealing sport for sponsors, just think of the many advertisements that you see in the various club arenas would answer your question. In fact, statistics show that sponsors (e.g. on the boards) receive on average 20 minutes of visibility per hour of broadcast, which is much better than in many other sports. In regards to profitability of leagues, you would have to speak with the leagues themselves. However, what we do consider a common goal is a joint European Club Competition. With the Champions Hockey Leagues, we have had a very successful and promising model in place in the '08-09 season. Unfortunately, it had to be called off after the first season due to the global financial crisis. We still believe in the concept and have been working jointly with national associations, leagues and clubs on a relaunch ever since '09.
Q: Hockey is a very popular sport in Europe/Eastern Europe including Russia and North America. What does the IIHF do to increase the sport’s popularity in areas such as Africa, Asia, Australia and South America?
Fasel: We do aim to grow into a truly global sport, but it’s also important to set realistic goals. I think there is a natural limitation to hockey, which -- compared to football or maybe volleyball -- just isn’t possible to operate in all parts of the world (cost and climate factor). But we do have areas that provide opportunity for significant growth, just like Asia. Especially now, with the 2018 Winter Games being held in South Korea, we place an emphasis in growing our game in the Far East. Three years ago, we opened the IIHF Asian Office and we hired a full-time staff member to work with our Asian member association on a long-term development plan. But it must be remembered -- sustainable growth must come from within, development starts at home.
Q: The world’s best hockey league, the NHL, is in the midst of a lockout (which was resolved after this interview was conducted). How does this affect global hockey?
Fasel: The lockout impacts primarily the European leagues. Currently, more than 200 NHL players have moved to European club teams. As the move is only temporary and of undefined length, it means big uncertainty for the clubs and -- to some -- a financial gamble, considering the NHL players’ salaries and on top of that the insurance of their current NHL contracts. (Fasel hopes NHL players will get OK to participate in 2014 Sochi Games.)
Q: Is the fact that NHL players leave North America to play in the top European leagues something the IIHF welcomes?
Fasel: I think the situation has its pros and cons. On the one hand, it brings more spectators to the game in Europe, people who may not have attended without the big stars being on the roster of their home team. On the other hand, as previously mentioned, in many cases recruiting an NHL player can create organizational and financial challenges for clubs.
Q: Do you think the NHL’s lockout will hurt hockey in North America? And if so, will this maybe provide a boost for other leagues such as the KHL, DEL, NLA and Elitserien?
Fasel: Fact is that after the last lockout in '04-05, the fans came in even larger numbers than before. But as opposed to eight years ago, it is my feeling that now the fans have a more difficult time understanding what the conflict was all about, and I sense that there is a bigger frustration this time around. But I don’t want to predict whether this will hurt the league or not. And I don’t think that any European league should count on growing through someone else's misery. Real growth can only happen through your own strength.
Q: I imagine that hockey, like many other sports, struggles to attract children and teenagers to participate in organized competition. What does the IIHF do to increase the worldwide youth participation in hockey?
Fasel: Our role is to support our member associations in their recruiting initiatives. We have recently started a new campaign called “Ice Hockey Is For Me” with materials that showcase the benefits children get from playing ice hockey: coordination, agility, strength, speed, discipline and teamwork. Also, in '11 we launched the World Girls Hockey Day that was hosted around the world by numerous national associations. They did a great job organizing many fun hockey activities for girls and the event was hugely successful. This year we had to extend it to a World Girls Hockey Weekend.
Q: Sweden and Finland will host the 2013 IIHF World Championships. What are your expectations, on and off the ice, for the tournament?
Fasel: My expectation is always that we stage our best World Championship yet. Such an event has many legacies, but most important legacy should always be to organize a great tournament, that has a positive and meaningful impact on fans, sponsors and all our stakeholders.
Q: What does the IIHF do to increase the safety of players? How concerned is the IIHF with recent findings that link concussions to permanent brain damage in the case of NFL players?
Fasel: The one most important thing in the game is the safety of our most important asset, our players. Subsequently, this matter is on top of our agenda. We have recently created an IIHF athletes committee and a player safety working group, together with the NHL and the NHLPA. Their mandate is to find a common path on how to make the game safer -- through changes to equipment, rules or even the playing field.
Q: What’s the biggest challenge for your organization and the sport of hockey?
Fasel: I think it’s the nature of the sport itself. While an incredibly fun and exciting sport to watch and play, hockey has its natural limitations. It will never reach the same worldwide popularity as football because hockey needs a cold climate (or a comparatively expensive hockey arena). Equipment is expensive as well and not everybody can afford it. Accordingly, we place an emphasis on educating our members on how cost-efficient rinks can be built and operated and we have created an equipment donation program to countries with limited resources.
Q: What innovations can hockey fans expect in the foreseeable future? Will hockey look the same in 15 years?
Fasel: A number one priority for me has always been and will always be maintaining the integrity of our game. I still vividly remember a situation many years ago in which our marketing partner tried to change the colors of the ice surface and the puck to enhance the viewing experience for the television audiences, especially for viewers new to the game. After long discussions, we decided not to go ahead with this initiative. That being said, I think it is important to stay open for any kind of changes, which would make the game safer for players, game officials and fans. For instance, over the past years we have successfully introduced video replay, the four-man system and tighter rules for goalie equipment -- all to the benefit of hockey.
The Australian Rugby Union has named multimillion-dollar businessman Bill Pulver CEO on Wednesday, following the resignation of John O'Neill in October. When asked about his top priority, Pulver explained that he wants to take the first month to learn about the organization and about the desires of Australia's rugby fans. He also promised "engaging with the sponsors will be one of my first priorities." Pulver, currently CEO of linguistic technology solutions company Appen Butler Hill, has also worked in Tokyo, as Group CEO of ACNielsen Japan and Korea; in London, as President of ACNielsen eRatings.com; and in N.Y., as President of NetRatings. He said the experience he brings to his new role comes from "a combination of all of the various roles I've had around the world." Pulver spoke with SBD Global Staff Writer Kristen Heimstead just hours after the press conference announcing his appointment.
Q: Outside of your career, you’re also known as a family man and coach of youth rugby. What from these experiences will carry over to your new role?
Pulver: I’m hoping rugby is going to continue to evolve as one of those games that brings families together. The values we have in rugby -- things like character, integrity, team first -- they’re the sort of values that carry everybody well in life in general. I think rugby is the sort of game that is consistent with family values. And that will benefit the future of the game in greater attendance and more revenue.
Q: You listed expanding the participation of women in the game as one of your goals. How do you plan to accomplish this?
Pulver: I think women are very important to the future of rugby. Point one, mothers in particular carry a significant influence on the sports of their children. Point two, women pay the same entry price to a game as men, and more eyeballs on the TV are a very important part of the financial model. And more recently, and really exciting in my view, is the fact that Sevens Rugby is now available for women in the next two Olympic Games. There is truly a unique opportunity for women to represent their country with a Gold Medal at the Olympic Games playing Sevens Rugby.
Q: How do you plan to rally support and keep up the momentum for the debut of Rugby Sevens in the 2016 Games?
Pulver: There’s already terrific momentum in Rugby Sevens in Australia, but I want to up the ante even further. I think Sevens represents the terrific game for a starter environment for young kids. The first time a 7-year-old plays rugby, the 15-man’s game is quite difficult in terms of organizing the kids, but a 7-a-side game I think makes a lot more sense. And with the opportunity that the Olympics provide it’s a truly wonderful situation to bring elite athletes into the game who want to represent their county at the Olympic Games and potentially bring home a Gold Medal. So you’re going to see a continuation of the major focus on increasing the emphasis behind Sevens Rugby in Australia.
Q: Are you a social media guy? How can the sport better incorporate Twitter?
Pulver: Right now I work with a linguistic technology solutions business, which is investing in social media, and if you want to engage with the younger generation -- teenagers and 20-year-olds -- you need to be heavy weight in social media. So that will clearly be one of the major points of focus at ARU going forward (Kristen Heimstead, SBD GLOBAL).
GOOD OUT OF THE BAD: In Sydney, Jessica Halloran wrote a year ago, let alone two years ago, Pulver "never imagined he would be awarded this job." It was his neighbor and Wallabies great John Eales "who encouraged him to apply for the job." Pulver described how he felt, as the "luckiest man alive." (DAILY TELEGRAPH, 1/10). Also in Sydney, Wayne Smith reported Pulver, whose daughter was the victim of the fake collar bomb extortion attempt in Aug. '11, "somehow went through the whole selection process without reference once being made to his teenage daughter." Pulver said, "It's interesting, in the lead-up today, it's never been mentioned anywhere at any time" (THE AUSTRALIAN, 1/10).
F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone "has confirmed there will only be 19 races on the 2013 calendar and the Nürburgring will be one of the venues," according to PLANET F1. Motorsports governing body FIA announced late last year that this season "would consist of 20 races with an unconfirmed European Grand Prix on July 21 added to the schedule." The venue for the German GP at the time had "yet to be named." However, there will be no 20th race after Ecclestone said that the '13 calendar "will feature 19 races after Turkey's failed bid to return." Ecclestone "also confirmed that the Nürburgring will host this year's German Grand Prix, ruling Hockenheim out." Ecclestone said, "It should be the Nürburgring, and we are trying to make it happen. I'm talking with them today (Tuesday)" (PLANET F1, 1/9). Nürburgring spokesperson Karl-Heinz Steinkühler said, "We perceive it as very positive that Mr. Ecclestone enters the, from our viewpoint, final negotiations about an F1 Grand Prix at the Nürburgring so optimistically. The last talks will be held in the near future. There surely will be a result then" (AUTO MOTOR UND SPORT, 1/8).
TAKE CARE, TURKEY: HURRIYET DAILY NEWS reported Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan "chose not to approve the F1 deal" that would have landed the race in Istanbul in '13. The project, set to cost Turkey around $20M in total, "was supposed to receive" $13M of state funding. Erdoğan, however, "did not give his approval, and the project fell apart" (HURRIYET DAILY NEWS, 1/9).
In compensation for its players being away on int'l duty, football clubs will be compensated €2,180 ($2,843) per day and per player during the 2014 FIFA World Cup, according to PORTAL 2014. The news was confirmed by FIFA General Secretary Jérôme Valcke on Tuesday. The number "is almost twice" the €1,224 ($1,596) per day that was awarded to clubs during the 2010 South Africa World Cup. Valcke explained that the compensation "will begin two weeks before the opening match of the World Cup and will end on the last day of the competition." During the 2010 World Cup, FIFA paid out $40M to clubs (PORTAL 2014, 1/8).
Twenty former players of Italian second-division club AS Bari "are threatened to face charges due to their alleged involvement in a betting and manipulation scandal," according to the SID. Investigations by Bari prosecutors "accuse the players of sport fraud." Italian media outlets report that the players, including current Inter Milan defender Andrea Ranocchia, "manipulated a number of games" during the '07-08 and '08-09 seasons. Ranocchia, who played from '08-10 for Bari, "was accused by Vittorio Micolucci, who admitted the allegations." Micolucci also accused Juventus Manager Antonio Conte, who was suspended for four months at the start of the season for his involvement in another betting scandal (SID, 1/8). The AP reported Conte "has been cleared of more match-fixing, this time stemming from when he coached Bari" from '08-09. Italian media reports that Bari prosecutors "are wrapping up their inquiry and are in the process of notifying 20 people that they are under investigation -- and Conte is not one of them." Ranocchia also "reportedly has been cleared." Conte and Ranocchia "could still be called in for questioning" by the Italian Football Federation. Among those "named as being under investigation are current Torino and former Bari goalkeeper Jean Francois Gillet and Conte's former assistant, Cristian Stellini" (AP, 1/8).
Match-fixers in Russia "could face seven years in jail" under new legislation submitted to the state parliament by President Vladimir Putin, according to REUTERS. The new law bans officials and players from betting on sports events in which they are involved. Offenders also face fines of up to 1M roubles ($33,000). The global union for professional players, FIFPro, published a survey of nearly 3,400 players from Eastern Europe this year that revealed match-fixing in Russia was as high as 43.5%. Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko said that he hoped the new law "would help police to bring the criminal element to justice." Mutko said, "It's a very serious document which gets the law-enforcement officials involved in solving this problem first-hand" (REUTERS, 1/9).
Most Cubans next week "will have the right to travel without government permission for the first time in decades, but sports stars will still require permission to leave." High-ranking Migration and Foreign Nationals' Ministry official Lamberto Fraga said, "Professionals who are deemed essential, technicians, sports people, and [Communist Party] staff and leaders" have been informed that they still face curbs on foreign travel. They also "will need a special permit" (AFP, 1/9). ... French sports car legend Henri Pescarolo confirmed that his Le Mans Series team "has been liquidated." Recent seasons "have seen the team struggle financially, however, with the new Pescarolo 03 being beset by problems that meant it was an early retirement in the last year and didn't compete again" (CRASH, 1/9).