From FIFA to field hockey, Weil takes on new event challenge

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              FILE - In this Sunday, Dec. 16, 2018 file photo, Belgium players celebrate with the winners trophy after their win over Netherlands in the Men's Hockey World Cup finals at Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar, India. On Saturday Jan. 19, 2019, Thierry Weil will be in Valencia as the International Hockey Federation’s CEO so see Spain host top-ranked world champion Belgium in the first men’s game of the FIH Pro League. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi, File)
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LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — Launching a new global competition into a packed sports calendar, field hockey’s governing body hired the former top salesman at FIFA to oversee it.

On Saturday, Thierry Weil will be in Valencia as the International Hockey Federation CEO to see Spain host top-ranked world champion Belgium in the first men’s game of the FIH Pro League.

Over six months, nine national teams in each of the men’s and women’s leagues will play home-and-away fixtures to qualify for finals tournaments in the Netherlands. The women start on Jan. 26 when Argentina hosts Belgium.

“That is where the beauty comes — every game is a home game,” Weil said in an interview with The Associated Press. “We expect every game to be packed and loud.”

Hockey joins a crowded field of sports trying to create and renew competitions, connect with viewers using new broadcasting options, and involve athletes more in decision-making.

It is not easy.

New management at FIFA which ousted Weil as marketing director has met European resistance to its Club World Cup plan; the International Tennis Federation has upset many players with Davis Cup changes that drops home-court advantage field hockey is embracing; top swimmers are defying their governing body FINA, including a class action suit in a Californian court.

Hockey’s Pro League should get a smoother start, though India — a powerhouse men’s team and major commercial market — opted out before Weil started work last April. India’s hockey federation cited dissatisfaction with the 2020 Tokyo Olympic qualifying path for its women. Pakistan men also will play no home games due to domestic security issues.

A Pro League goal is giving more players opportunities to earn a living from the sport. The fixture calendar was shaped to avoid clashing with club fixtures, and the FIH has advised the member federations to share profits with players.

“If you impose something on players and you don’t have the resources to compensate them from the beginning, you will dramatically fail,” said Weil of a competition which has equal prize money pools, $250,000, for men and women.

To connect better with players, the FIH collected personal email addresses of players at the four-yearly Women’s World Cup in London last year.

“We want to involve them, ask them questions,” said Weil, who plans fewer changes in the game’s rules.

To connect better with fans, the FIH will broadcast Pro League games on its own streaming platform, FIH.live.

“In the beginning we have to keep it free, we have to keep it simple,” Weil said. “It’s only geoblocked in the country where the broadcaster will show it live.”

Weil revived old FIFA contacts with soccer streaming platform mycujoo to work with the FIH. He cited this freedom in moving from a $6 billion organization with tight World Cup broadcast restrictions, to a $40 million operation with space to innovate.

“If you then make it happen, and achieve something, it is even more rewarding than selling a partner package at FIFA,” said Weil, who spent 10 years in Zurich after 25 years with Adidas. He is a rare example of a former executive in Sepp Blatter’s FIFA being hired by an international sports body.

Weil was recommended to FIH by corporate headhunters, and won a six-candidate process.

“They were quite a bit surprised that I would accept their offer,” said Weil, who acknowledges having been a “typical French guy” knowing little about the sport.

“I was frank from the beginning — I had no clue about hockey,” he said, adding an expletive for emphasis. “It’s a team sport, that was the most crucial one for me. It’s more the challenge than the financial offer. I want now to share something with people.”