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?
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?
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.