Charting a Way Forward for USA Team Handball: Option 7: The All the Eggs in One Basket “Iceland Strategy” (Part 2)

The Greater Boston metropolitan area has the population equivalent of 14.5 Iceland’s.  Boston also has a pretty decent chance of hosting the 2024 Olympics which would result in substantial opportunities for local sponsorship.  The Auburn-Opelika metro area is the equivalent of less than half an Iceland.  Which location would be a better candidate for focusing limited resources in the hopes of creating a “home for handball” in the U.S.?

The Greater Boston metropolitan area has the population equivalent of 14.5 Iceland’s. Boston also has a pretty decent chance of hosting the 2024 Olympics which would result in substantial opportunities for local sponsorship. The Auburn-Opelika metro area is the equivalent of less than half an Iceland. Which location would be a better candidate for focusing limited resources in the hopes of creating a “home for handball” in the U.S.?

Part 1 of this option highlighted the potential benefits of focusing resources in one geographical area and the historical limited success the U.S. has had in doing so. This part explores how the U.S. might learn from the past should it decide to try and create a “Home for Handball” in the U.S.

Building a Better Mousetrap

One could infer from the lack of success highlighted in part 1 that you simply can’t artificially create a Little Iceland. But, maybe the lesson is just that it wasn’t done the right way.   That to execute such a strategy successfully, better planning, more resources and more patience are needed. It’s certainly debatable. One thing is for sure, though: The potential benefits of creating a Little Iceland or Home for Handball in the U.S. merits a further investigation. An investigation that would first take a long hard look at what’s worked and what hasn’t. A full assessment of the failures of the past and some real thought into how it might conceivably work in the future. I haven’t fully assessed those failures, but have a fairly solid understanding of what happened and what could be done differently. Here are some thoughts on building a better mousetrap:

  1. Very Carefully Select your Location. Ask any real estate professional what the 3 key issues are for selling a house and they’ll tell you: Location, location, location. It’s no different in assessing where best to focus limited resources. Here are some key factors that should go into making the all important location decision.
    • Population: In general, the more people living in the location that’s selected, the better chance you are going to have in reaching critical mass. It’s simply a numbers game with the acknowledgment that your conversion rate (i.e. converting someone who doesn’t care about handball to a truly devoted participant/fan) could be really, really small.  After all, a good portion of the population at-large doesn’t care about any sports, let alone one they’ve never heard of. Converting 1 out of every 100 people would be a pretty darn good conversion rate. 1 out of 500 or 1,000 might be more realistic. This reality means that choosing a large metropolitan area will greatly improve your chances of creating converts.

      For example take a metro area like Boston with a population of 4,684,300 people. To create 5,000 handball fans/participants you would need a conversion rate of .11% or roughly 1 out of every 1,000 people. Now contrast that to the Auburn-Opelika metro area and its population of 135,800 people. To create 5,000 handball fans/participants you would need a conversion rate of 3.68% or roughly 37 out of every 1,000 people. Ouch. Those are some tough numbers. I’m not saying that it’s impossible to reach critical mass at a college town in rural Alabama. But, I will say that without a doubt the smaller population base means it will be way more challenging there than in a major metropolitan area.

    • Job opportunities: Athletes are far more likely to move to a location where there are varied job opportunities including professional positions for recent college graduates
    • Education Opportunities: Athletes for both the residency program and collegiate league would be interested in quality education opportunities.
    • College League Possibilities: The potential to develop a collegiate league in the regional area should be an important factor. And a league with reasonable driving distances for competition.
    • School District Pilot Program Possibilities: The potential to engage local high schools and middle schools to adopt team handball as a sanctioned sport
    • Cost: The costs of setting up a handball academy and supporting leagues and other development initiatives will be substantial. Some locales will be more suitable and cheaper for a number of reasons.
    • Sponsorship Opportunities: The likelihood of obtaining local community support for a handball academy and other development initiatives.
    • Existing local handball support: Ideally, there would already be at least some dedicated supporters of the sport in the local area. Having a ready group of dedicated volunteers will facilitate implementation of several development initiatives.
  2. Fully integrate all aspects of regional development: It’s important to highlight that focusing resources in one location would be a lot more than simply establishing a residency program/development academy. Such a high performance training environment would be a key part, but just one part in a true regional development effort. And, all those parts (youth development, a high school league, college league, club league, development academy) would need to work closely in tandem to maximize the success of this initiative. This would mean maximizing staffing to support all these elements. In particular, athletes could be justifiably compensated for their support to youth and high school league support.
  3. Fully commit and prioritize this regional development effort: Make no mistake, this would be a major effort and for it to work it might well be required to substantially decrease support to many other Federation activities. Doing a regional effort, “on the cheap” with only partial commitment/funding support also lessens the potential synergy possible with a multi-pronged effort.
  4. Give the effort time to blossom and mature. This effort could very well take several years to fully bear fruit. Pulling the plug or lessening support prematurely due to the lack of immediate results will defeat the purpose of such a concentrated effort.

Pros

Establishment of a recognized “Home for Handball”: Having a recognized home for the sport will help in a number of tangible and somewhat intangible ways. Name recognition and identity in one concentrated geographical area has value. With it comes media exposure, sponsorship opportunities, greater public awareness and “buzz”. All of those could even mean real crowds and eventual TV broadcasts.

Improved Recruiting Prospects:  Co-locating youth, high school, college and a Residency Program/Development Academy efforts together will create a pathway/pipeline that athletes can see and join. Critically, this will make it far more feasible to recruit athletes from ages 10-18. An age group that has been very difficult to recruit for a variety of reasons.

Cons

Lessens the possibility of broad based nationwide growth:  A very strong focus on one regional area will by default result in less support to other regions. Correspondingly, there will likely be less chance for growth on a broad coast to coast basis. Rather than taking advantage of it’s huge population, the U.S. will be restricting itself due to a de facto self-imposed restriction.

Shows favoritism to one “blessed” region:  Handball supporters in other parts of the country getting less support will likely voice their disfavor with an intentional and pronounced unequal sharing of resources. For sure, historically there has been grumbling at even minor appearances of favoritism towards a club or region. And this time the grumbling would be somewhat justified because their efforts will indeed be getting fewer resources.

Risks

If the basket breaks, so will all the eggs.   It’s important to remember the cautionary basis for the “all the eggs in one basket” saying. Namely, that is a warning not to do it, because you won’t have any eggs if you drop that basket. And, just like that basket of eggs if the region you choose to focus on fails to pan out then you will have nothing to show for. This could be a spectacular failure. But, then again there have been far too many failures with many of the other piecemeal strategies that have been tried in the past.

Costs

In theory, a regionally focused strategy will save significant money and resources. This is because staff, athletes and volunteers would be concentrated in one location and could readily focus on multiple, integrated development efforts without significant travel costs. Keep in mind, however, that this only works if the effort is truly focused on a particular region. If you spread efforts such as a residency program, High School Pilot Program and collegiate league to different regions of the country it will be less feasible to share staff and funding to support multiple efforts.

Creating a Little Iceland or Home for Handball in the U.S. is certainly an enticing prospect, but also a risky one. In part 3, I’ll tackle the timing for implementing such a strategy should USA Team Handball decides that it’s a risk worth taking.

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