Why a Residency Program at Auburn?: Reason #2: The U.S. Had its Greatest Success with Residency Programs… True Statement, but Perhaps Some Key Decision Makers Don’t Fully Appreciate the Professional Aspects of Today’s Handball

Finland’s Mikael Kallman was the best player I ever tried to defend against. A Finn? Where did he become such a good player? It turns out it was this thing called the Bundesliga. Boy, was I clueless back 93. I’ve since been educated. Could key players in the USA Team Handball community also be in dire need of such an education?

Finland’s Mikael Kallman was the best player I ever tried to defend against. A Finn? Where did he become such a good player? It turns out it was this thing called the Bundesliga. Boy, was I clueless back in 93. I’ve since been educated. Could key players in the USA Team Handball community also be in dire need of such an education?

No one has volunteered to explain why a Residency Program at Auburn is the best way forward for USA Team Handball.   One reason touted, though, is that our greatest success occurred with residency programs and ergo, that’s what we should do now.  I agree with the first half of that statement, but not the second half.  In this commentary I highlight how many in the U.S. have a narrow view of the sport and don’t fully understand how the sport is professionalized in Europe

What’s the Bundesliga?

Time for another war story that might give you further insight as to why some folks in the U.S. actually believe a Residency Program can develop a national team capable of competing on the world stage.

The scene:  February, 1993.  The USA Men’s National Team is reviewing the tape of their match played the day before against Finland.  The U.S. was conducting a training camp in Finland in preparation for the upcoming World Championships in Sweden.  Finland has only ever qualified for one World Championship, back in 1958 and is considered a 2nd or 3rd tier nation.  (i.e., in theory, a team the U.S. should be able to beat.  U.S. National Team coach, Vojtech Mares, a former all-world player from the Czech Republic is savaging the team’s performance, a 30-22 loss.

Personally, I hadn’t played very well and that’s because I had to play defense against, Finland’s best player, Mikael Kallman.  As we watched the film I got to relive him beating me and the rest of my teammates leftwards, backwards and forwards for 11 goals.  Quite simply he had a combination of speed and power that I had never seen before.

In the 2nd half we were making a bit of a comeback and Finland needed a goal to stifle our momentum.  Kallman, who had been playing left back, moved to center back and spoke to the backs on either side of him.  I don’t know the Finnish words for “clear out”, but they had clearly been said as both backs shaded to the side to give him a bit more room to work against the slow American.

And, as Kallman started his move from 12 meters or so, I crouched down as probably as determined as I’ve ever been to stop someone 1 on 1 defensively.  No swim move on me this time.  I’m staying in front of him and by God, he’s going to get hit hard.  But, this time Kallman did something I’d never seen before.  He came toward me as usual, but instead of picking a direction to beat the slow American, he stopped at about 10 meters, jumped straight up off of both feet, cocked his throwing arm and threw a bee-bee into the upper corner of the net.

At which point, Coach stopped the tape and rewound to the point where he released the ball.  There right in front of Kallman was me, crouched ready to stop him in either direction only now just realizing Kallman was instead going to shoot.  My lanky arms were only just starting to rise for a shot block.  Coach continued the sequence in slow motion and my reaction speed was comical.  It was if a high school baseball player was batting against a 100 mph fast baller and started swinging the bat only after the ball was already in the catcher’s glove.

Coach looked at me and said, “John, what were you thinking?”

I started to respond, “Coach, that guy is really good and I wasn’t going to…”

Coach Mares, exasperated, cut me off, “Of course he’s good.  He’s the MVP of the Bundesliga.”

To which, I replied, “What’s the Bundesliga?”

Coach, then just through his hands up in the air as if to say, “What I’m doing here with these Americans” and “Oh, this is just hopeless.”

Really, I’m sure to Coach Mares I pretty much sounded like Libertarian Presidential Candidate, Gary Johnson, when he asked, “What is Aleppo?”

Ignorance is Bliss

So, I’ll defend my ignorance a bit.  This was 1993, pre-wide spread use of the internet.  There was no handball on TV.  Heck, there was no European sport of any kind being shown on TV.  I had never ever heard the word, “Bundesliga” before, let alone did I even know it was a German word.  We were playing in Finland after all.  I had no concept of how sports were organized in Europe.  Handball wise, I had some vague notion that there were handball clubs in Europe, but simply thought that they were just more organized versions of what we had in the U.S.  Heck, I even assumed that European national teams had residency programs similar to ours.  All really bad assumptions, that, but understandable given my total lack of exposure to any handball outside of an American context.

Of course, I can look back now and laugh at how totally clueless I was.  Kallman was the best player ever for Finland and had indeed been the MVP of the Bundesliga the year before.  The first non-German to win that award and only one of three Non-Germans to ever win it (the others are Nikola Karabatic and Filip Jicha).  I’d say he was in good company.  (For a pretty good example of his effectiveness check out this video from the 1993 EHF Club cup:  Link.  He’s number 3 in blue.  At the 22:40 minute mark on the tape you can see him draw a two minute after he goes by 2 defenders.  And, then at 23:25 mark is the jump stop shot that made me look foolish.  At least I made him shoot a little further out. I don’t feel so bad now…)

Regarding the Bundesliga, I’m now such a fan that I relish watching that league more than the Champions League, which really only gets interesting in the knock out stages.  Heck, I’ll go further.  A good HBL match, in my opinion beats an Olympic match.  Much the same way an NBA playoff game beats Olympic basketball.

But, all of my greater understanding and appreciation for professional club handball can mostly be attributed to the happenstance of living in Europe for five years and following the sport very closely ever since.  In fact, I suspect if that hadn’t ever lived overseas, I would be more supportive of a residency program because quite frankly, I wouldn’t know any better.  Ignorance is bliss…

Ignorance is also Dangerous to Long Term Strategic Planning

Flash forward to today and the internet abounds with lots of information regarding professional club handball.  EHF Champions League matches can be watched at ehfTV.com and it’s fairly easy to research your would be competition.  One would think that it would be nearly impossible for an American to be as clueless as I was 23 years ago.  But, trust me the average American is pretty clueless when it comes to professional club handball in Europe and the impact it has on today’s game.  How big it is.  How professionalized it has become.  How, it is the principle training ground for virtually all of the world’s top handball players. And, this might seem shocking, but it’s even largely true for the few Americans that actually care about the sport in this country.  Their context is the clubs in the U.S., the U.S. national team and the Olympics every four years.

But, what will really having you scratching your head is this:  It’s even true of some USA Team Handball Board Members, National Team players and other key players in the USA Team Handball community.  I guarantee you that some if asked could not name one of the top clubs in Europe.  Couldn’t tell you which nations have the top leagues or when the club season begins and ends in Europe.  Couldn’t even begin to tell you what the relative strengths are between national leagues or what it means to play in the 2nd division in Germany vs the 2nd division in Poland.  For sure, in some respects, such information could be considered trivial.   (Here’s a primer on European Club Handball: Link)

But, this overall lack of knowledge or full appreciation of European professional club handball has real consequences in that it enables smart people to think that a Residency Program is a feasible strategy.  Because if you think that handball in Europe is amateur or perhaps just somewhat professionalized it is somewhat reasonable to think that a group of determined and athletic Americans can rise up from rural Alabama and shock the world.

Of course, I can’t say for sure what the key decision makers know as it relates to the professionalism of the sport in Europe.  These decision makers have varied backgrounds and experiences.  Something tells me, though, that these decision makers have an impression that handball is just “somewhat professionalized” and nothing on par with American professional leagues.  I’m thinking a bit of education and exposure to what’s going on in Europe at the club level would result in some fresh perspectives and a change in direction.

“Somewhat professionalized?”  What does that phrase mean or imply?  In the next part of this series I’ll elaborate and explain how since the 80s and 90s the professionalization of the sport has resulted in amateur teams falling further behind.

 

Podcast (Throw Back Thursday):  August 2012 Interview with 1972 Olympians

72 Team Handball Olympians (From left to right: Vinny Dicalogero, Rick Abrahamson, Dennis Berkholtz, Jim Rogers and Joel Voelkert

72 Team Handball Olympians (From left to right: Vinny Dicalogero, Rick Abrahamson, Dennis Berkholtz, Jim Rogers and Joel Voelkert

While I’m on the topic of “Glory Days” there’s not better way to continue the discussion then a re-listen of my interview with members of the 1972 Men’s Olympic Handball squad.  Back in 2012 the team had gathered in Las Vegas for their 40 year reunion.  I sat down with Vinny Dicalogero, Rick Abrahamson, Dennis Berkholtz, Jim Rogers and Joel Voelkert and we discussed how the team was formed, how they prepared for the games, their qualification tournament in front of a packed house in Elkhart, Indiana, their experiences in Munich and their thoughts about what had happened with Team Handball in the U.S. the past 40 years.

As many of you know, since this interview Dennis Berkholtz has re-engaged with the sport as the new chair of USA Beach Handball.

1972 Results

Group Play (0-3)
USA vs. Hungary 15:28 (8:16)
USA vs. Yugoslavia  15:25 (9:11)
USA vs. Japan 16:20 (9:9)

Placement 13-16th place
Semi: USA vs. Spain 22:20 (8:11)
Final: USA vs. Denmark 18:19 (6:12)

Overall Placement: 14th out of 16 teams

Why a Residency Program at Auburn?: Reason #2: The U.S. Had its Greatest Success with Residency Program… True Statement, but How Glorious were our Glory Days?

The night I shut down Staffan Olsson… Glory Days, Glory Days…

The night I shut down Staffan Olsson.  I was his worst nightmare.  The Swedes thought they would have an easy time against the American.  We showed them…   “Glory Days, In the wink of a young girl’s eyes, Glory Days, Glory Days…”

No one has volunteered to explain why a Residency Program at Auburn is the best way forward for USA Team Handball.   One reason touted, though, is that our greatest success occurred with residency programs and ergo, that’s what we should do now.  I agree with the first half of that statement, but not the second half.  In this commentary I highlight the need for thoughtful retrospection on our past performances.

The classic Bruce Springsteen song, “Glory Days” tells the story of a couple of old friends running into each other a at bar and reminiscing about their “glory days” in high school.  This song is apropos to the discussion you might have with me on a bar stool talking about my handball career.  Here’s how I might sound after “I get my fill…”

 John Ryan “Glory Days” Talk: Oh, yeah, the 93 World Championships were great.  I will never forget how we went toe to toe with Sweden, in Sweden, no less.  They weren’t expecting the Americans to do that.  You should have heard their crowd gasp when Darrick Heath leaped in the air on a 9 meter throw and fired a bullet well over the Swedish wall for a goal.  I’m not kidding, you could hear the collective gasp.  Oh, and the home crowd was not happy about how close we were playing them.   Even heard a few boos.  Why if Robert Mayfield hadn’t gotten stopped by a lucky save on a fast break we would have been down just 2 goals at the half.  Oh, and I probably played my best game.  I shut down Staffan Olsson.  You know the coach for Sweden.  I don’t think he had any goals and the Swedish newspaper gave him a 1 Underkand (failing) out of 10 for his performance.

At which point, you might ask me what the final score was and at which point I’ll ask for another round…

And, here’s how some discussion regarding the 1984 Olympics, arguably the high water mark in terms of USA Team Handball performance might sound:

84 Olympics “Glory Days” Talk:  The U.S. Men were great.  Probably, the best team we ever had.  Did you know they were competitive in every single game?  They didn’t lose any match by more than 3 goals.  In fact, the four matches they lost were by a total of only 9 goals.  Against the Germans, the eventual silver medalists the U.S. lost by just 2 goals.  And, I’ve heard the refs screwed em.  As good as the Men were, the Women were even better.  We finished in 4th place.  So close to a medal.  Leora “Sam” Jones was unstoppable.  If only the U.S. team had had a bit more experience they would have surely medaled.  Why, with the home crowd behind us it’s not too crazy to think that Gold was out of the question.  If only we could give our national teams today a similar environment to train in.  With some decent recruiting and hard work we could put together some similar quality sides.

But does the “glory days” talk on the bar stool pass muster in the cold light of day?  Well, here’s a more analytical (some would say critical) assessment of those performances of yesteryear.

93 World Championships Analytical Assessment:  Just another typical lackluster performance by Team USA.  6 games played, 6 games all lost by an average of 16 goals.  The great game against Sweden? Well, we really did have a decent first half against Bengan’s Boys.  But, that World Class side was just going through the motions on their “off day” against the weak team of the group. That U.S. team did have some top notch talent like Darrick Heath who parlayed his performance on the World stage into a professional contract.  And, by golly I really did hear the crowd gasp on that jump shot, but that might have been because the Scandinavium was half empty since most of the locals stayed home for this meaningless pool play match.  That second half was downright ugly as the Swedes woke up and ran us out of the building.  They only beat us by 16 though, so that wasn’t so bad.  I don’t even want to talk about the embarrassing 26 goal loss we had against a very mediocre Norway team in consolation play.  Probably the ugliest handball performance I’ve ever been a party to.

1993 World Championship Results

Preliminary Group Play
USA vs Hungary 18-33 (8-16)
USA vs Sweden 16-32 (9-13)
USA vs Iceland 19-34 (7-14)

Consolation Play
USA vs Austria 19-31 (12-14)
USA vs Norway 15-41 (6-22)
USA vs S. Korea 28-35 (16-18)

1984 Olympics Analytical Assessment.  Overall, I think it’s pretty easy to assess that this was the best performance by the USA Men and Women at a World Championship or Olympic tournament. For the women there is no debate whatsoever:  1 goal from a bronze medal.  No other women’s team has even come close to such an achievement.  The men placed 9th as did the 96 Olympians, but no other team has played so many teams closely.

All this being said, it’s important to keep in mind that the 84 Olympics were also the Warsaw Pact boycotted Olympics.   Every American sports team did well.  There was no better time to be a McDonald’s fan:  Why you couldn’t even go to a McDonald’s without walking out with a free Big Mac or Quarter Pounder w/Cheese for all the crazy medals the U.S. won in sports that we never did well in.  While the U.S. didn’t medal in handball, at least part of their “success” can be attributed to a weaker field with the likes of the USSR, Poland, East Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia not participating.  And, while competitive the U.S. couldn’t quite knock of the European sides they played.  The men finished 9th out of 12 teams, a 1-4-1 record with a draw against 11th place South Korea and a victory over 10th place Japan.  In that bottom line context it sure doesn’t sound so great.

1984 Olympic Results (Men)

Group Play
USA vs W. Germany 19-21 (8-12)
USA vs Sweden 18-21 (6-10)
USA vs Denmark 16-19 (7-8)
USA vs Spain 16-17 (9-10)
USA vs S. Korea 22-22 (12-12)

9th Place Match
USA vs Japan 24-16 (9-5)

The women finished 5th out of 6 teams.  Yes, only 6 teams participated back in 1984 and a round robin format was used.  The U.S. beat China and Austria, and lost to Yugoslavia, S. Korea and W. Germany.  It has been often quoted that the women finished 4th, and this probably can be attributed to their last match which they narrowly lost to West Germany.  A win would have resulted in a bronze medal, but alas we lost a close match and actually finished 5th.  As with the Men, the Warsaw Pact boycott resulted in a significantly weaker field.   And, as Women’s handball was somewhat in its infancy the overall technical level of play was lower, providing an opportunity to the generally athletically superior USA team.

Arguably, it was a near perfect set of circumstances: A weak field, a smaller gap in technical skills and a home court advantage.  And, one that the U.S. came so close to capitalizing on.  But, we didn’t and barring a crazy European wide boycott at a 2024 LA Olympic Games it’s a set of circumstances that will never be repeated.

1984 Olympic Results (Women)
USA vs China 25-22 (9-12)
USA vs Yugoslavia 20-33 (10-14)
USA vs Austria 25-21 (11-9)
USA vs S. Korea 27-29 (16-11)
USA vs W. Germany 17-18 (7-10)

Final Ranking
Yugoslavia 5-0-0 10 pts
Korea 3-1-1 7 pts
China 2-2-1 5 pts
W Germany 2-3-0 4 pts
USA 2-3-0 4 pts
Austria 0-5-0 0 pts

Analytically, an Epic Pile of Losses

So, what’s the point of these comparisons?  Well, one of the arguments often put forward is that U.S. National Teams had their best performances by teams that were the product of residency programs.  Yup:  That’s a true statement.

What’s left unsaid, quietly forgotten or not looked at closely enough, however, is that those “best performances” were to put it mildly, not very good.  In fact, if you take a cold hearted analytical, composite look at historical U.S. performances you’ll quickly conclude that it’s essentially an epic pile of losses.   Here are the composite results for the U.S. Men and Women in Olympic and World Championship competition.

Men’s Olympic record: 4-24-1
Men’s World Championship record: 0-16-0
Women’s Olympic record: 4-19-0
Women’s World Championship record 4-24-0

On the world stage Team USA has a combined 12-83-1 record or a .13 win percentage. Of those 12 wins only two are against European sides.  The men beat Spain 22-20 in consolation play at the 1972 Olympics and the women beat Austria 25-21 at the 84 Olympics.  And, suffice to say neither of those European sides are anywhere near the quality of a top tier European side today.

A Time and Place for Glory Days Reflection

Does this mean that all of the athletes that participated in a residency program, put in countless hours of training and made enormous sacrifices shouldn’t be proud of what they achieved?  No, of course not.  Success is not always measured with wins and losses.  In many respects, if you take the handicaps those teams had in terms of experience and regular competition, the fact that competitive teams were fielded is somewhat remarkable.  It’s no wonder that these athletes many years later look back with pride and that the bonds between teammates are still strong decades later.  They are more than entitled to some glory days talk regardless of the results.

But, there’s a time and place for “Glory Days” reflection.  And, one of those places it doesn’t belong is when it comes time to strategic planning for USA Team Handball.  No, that’s when you got to get analytical, not nostalgic for achievements that simply don’t pass muster.  In short, you’ve got to take that critical eye and ask yourself:  Do we really want to try and recreate a residency program model if it never really worked very well in the first place?

Compounding the reality that the U.S. was never very successful under the residency program model is that the competition is also better today.  The next part of this series will tackle how the increased professionalization of handball makes it even more challenging for a residency program model to succeed today.

Podcast: Interview with USA Beach Handball’s Ebiye Udo-Udoma

Ebiye Udo-Udoma

Team USA’s Ebiye Udo-Udoma

Ebiye Udo-Udoma is a member of Team USA’s Beach Handball side.  With just a few month’s training the U.S. Men were able to win a Pan American Beach Handball title and qualify for the World Championships this past summer.

The interview covers Ebiye’s journey from regular handball to the beach version and how the U.S. team was able to quickly put together a competitive “sandlot” team with a little help from Brazil.  Later we discuss some of the advantages the beach game has over the court game and vice versa.  We close with a discussion of the future and the sports potential inclusion in the Olympics.

USA Beach Team Handball Facebook Page: Link

Video: Ebiye’s viral 720 degree handball shot and highlights from the Pan American Championship: Link

Why a Residency Program at Auburn?: Reason #1: Auburn is a great financial deal… Really? How Much “Value” is there really in Value In Kind (VIK) Funding?

Sunday newspaper coupons: It’s always a good idea to read and take into account the fine print associated with little asterisks. Here’s the fine print for this seemingly enticing coupon: “Does not include fees associated with athlete recruiting, room/board, stipends, scholarships and overseas trips for competition. Beard-Eaves Coliseum slated for eventual demolition. Offer valid only in rural Alabama.”

Sunday newspaper coupons: It’s always a good idea to read and take into account the fine print associated with little asterisks. Here’s the fine print for this seemingly enticing coupon: “Does not include fees associated with athlete recruiting, room/board, stipends, scholarships and overseas trips for competition. Beard-Eaves Coliseum slated for eventual demolition. Offer valid only in rural Alabama.”  Hmm.  You might want to think long and hard about cashing in that coupon if you don’t have the resources for what else is needed.

No one has volunteered to explain why a Residency Program at Auburn is the best way forward for USA Team Handball.   One reason touted, though, is the great financial benefit.  Here’s why that supposed financial benefit is in reality a negative.

The Premise:  Auburn University is reportedly providing very valuable “Value In Kind” (VIK) funding for the use of their facilities for practice as well as athletic training and some degree of medical support.  Anybody who has participated in a Residency Program knows exactly how important it is to have a legitimate practice facility and athletic trainers available to help athletes prepare for and recuperate from training.  These are big ticket items and they are critical to running a successful Residency Program.  The actual value of these items can be debated.  In USA Team Handball 2015 High Performance Plan Auburn’s support this VIK was listed at $400K and a recent recruiting notice on USA Team Handball’s webpage trumpeted a value of over $1,000,000.  (I’m thinking both numbers are a bit on the high side, but I’d have to price out gym rentals and medical options to be sure.)

And, USA Team Handball has not only obtained these services for “free” they have done so at a major college institution that’s part of the one of the most prestigious NCAA conferences.  Better yet, in October, 2015 Auburn was designated by the USOC as an official Olympic Training Site for Team Handball.  As one USA Team Handball Board Member put it, Auburn, “is a big value in kind and costs almost nothing for USATH.

This isn’t the first time that I’ve heard or read similar sentiments.  On the face of it, it seems like a proverbial no brainer, but let’s take a critical look at the “Value” associated with this Value in Kind (VIK) funding.  Or to put it another way:

How much is $1,000,000/yearly Value In Kind (VIK) funding really worth?

ANSWER:  $1,000,000?:  Perhaps you are thinking, “Is this a trick question? Duh, $1M is worth $1M.”  Well, this is really only true if the $1M is actual cash that can be spent anyway USATH wants to.  Or, alternatively, the $1M VIK provides something that USATH would unquestionably be paying $1M for anyway.

As I’ve elaborated on in numerous commentaries, though, it’s highly questionable to simply declare that a Residency Program at Auburn is an automatic no brainer. Something that the USA should spend or would be spending on anyway, so that the $1M VIK is indeed worth exactly $1M.  For sure, if $1M in cash magically appeared at the Federation doorstep I’d like to think that money would not be blindly poured into the residency program.

An appropriate analogy here is that big fat section of coupons that come with the Sunday newspaper.  All full of discounts and bargains for things you don’t really need.  I suppose every once in a while there is a coupon for something you regularly buy, but it is the exception not the rule.  For sure, everyone prefers cold, hard cash to a coupon.

ANSWER:  $0.00:  Well, all right you’re thinking.  Maybe it’s not worth $1M, but a Residency Program is still a great thing and what’s being provided doesn’t cost anything.  Oh, if only that were true.

Now, another analogy is appropriate.  Ever read about somebody being “gifted” something they can’t afford?  A fancy car or house that they can’t maintain or pay the taxes on?  What happens?  They end up selling the house or in some cases even refusing the gift outright.  Either that or they spend every penny of their limited income trying to maintain a big house they can’t afford.

USA Team Handball is currently in a similar boat.  A place to practice and medical support are nice, but if you’re going to run a Residency Program properly you will also need funding for recruiting, coaching, athlete housing, athlete board, overseas trips, stipends and scholarships.  As the board minutes highlight some additional funding has been raised for coaching, but all of these other needs are still left wanting.  The Residency Programs unfortunately are way too austere and it will take a lot more funding before the “austere” description can be justifiably removed.

ANSWER:  Negative $150,000/yr:  OK. So perhaps now you’re reluctantly thinking, well Ryan has a point, but even if there is a cost, it’s small or “almost nothing.“  Oh, again, if only that were true.  Up until last year, $120,000/year was being paid out of the Federation budget for coaching.  This might seem like peanuts, but for a Federation with a budget of only around $500K/yearly that’s about 25% of the budget.  Throw in National Team travel costs and “almost nothing” keeps getting a bit higher and higher.

Apparently, I’m not the only one to recognize this and if you read past Board Meeting Minutes you’ll see a few comments regarding Auburn’s need to fund itself.   Further, the Oct 2015 Minutes even highlight an “Auburn Account” and a “Colorado Springs Account” as if they were or could/should be separate entities.  Perhaps some aspects can be walled off from each other, but they can’t help but bleed into each other.  Funding for travel has come from the National office in the past and will likely come from there again.  Surely, there are other items as well that at least in part can be attributable to Auburn.

Certainly management man-hours have to be directed towards Auburn. The CEO for USATH, by the title’s definition is responsible for all aspects of USATH Handball operations.  And, one can rightly assess that a CEO is going to do everything in ther power to ensure that the most visible part of USATH operations runs smoothly.  There’s a cost associated with ever hour that is spent assessing the program, checking in with coaches, fundraising, etc.  And, this also applies to volunteer hours from Board Members and others.  It’s hard to put a cash value on what all these costs have totaled up to, but don’t kid yourself that it’s “almost nothing.”  You would have to review the financial books closely, break down each line item and the man-hours being spent, but I’ll peg the book costs plus the overall hidden costs the past few years to be at least $150,000/year.  That would total up to around $450,000 for the past 3 years.  And, it could very well be more.  It all depends on you would do the accounting.

ANSWER:  Negative $300,000/yr:  And, unfortunately we haven’t even factored in opportunity costs yet.  In my opinion this is the biggest cost of all.  Every dollar and man-hour expended towards trying to make the Residency Programs at Auburn work is a dollar and man-hour that could have been spent on something else.  Funding to expand an already existing and successful youth program in suburban Chicago.  Funding to send the handful of legitimate prospects that USATH might actually have to Aarhus, Denmark where they could get training, weekly competition and exposure to potentially sign a professional contract.  Funding to beef up the Northeast Team Handball League and to better support leagues in other parts of the country. Man-hours that could be spent physically sitting down with beIN Sports to work out a sponsorship deal for their EHF Champions League TV broadcasts.  Man-hours that could have been spent developing and implementing a promotion plan to maximize the buzz associated with the 2016 Olympics.  These are just a few possibilities.  Yes, take the “almost nothing” whatever it is and you could maybe double the cost to account for the potential lost opportunities that haven’t been pursued.

ANSWER:  Negative (Even More $$?):  But, it doesn’t stop there.  Right now, USA Team Handball’s income from various sources is only around $500K/year.  That’s paltry and relatively insignificant in the big scheme of things.   But, what if Olympics buzz and sponsorships start to roll in.  What if the budget was a more respectable $1M or $2M year? Even more? Where would that additional money go?  Well, as I highlighted in this commentary if you have an austere Residency Program there is a huge moral obligation to the athletes to make that program less austere.  The Federation might want to spend elsewhere, but it will be tough to justify doing so.  And, while some might look at such a would be windfall as finally getting the resources to do a residency program right, I would simply look at it as turning a minor loss into a major loss.

Lessons from the Past

Now let’s sit back and reflect for a moment on the Residency Programs of the 80s and 90s.  How many millions of dollars were spent over several years narrowly focused on training around (I’ll be generous here) 200 total athletes (Men’s and Women’s National Team’s combined)?  Depends on how many years you want to figure, and what % of the overall federation budget was being devoted on a year by year basis but I’ll estimate the total cost as somewhere around $5M to $10M over a 20 year period.  Factor inflation in and that dollar value balloons up even more.

What was the Return on Investment?:  Kind of hard to quantify, but let’s acknowledge that in terms of sustainable grass roots development for the sport “Return” was pretty low.  Really, it’s practically nothing.  Whatever buzz respectable/competitive performances provided didn’t last very long and didn’t have much of a trickle down effect.  In terms of the 200 or so athletes perhaps 30 of them have gone on to spread the handball gospel in a variety of ways, but for the most part they punched their ticket and moved on.  Kind of to be expected, though, because the objective of the Residency Programs wasn’t sustainable grass roots, it was to develop and prepare National Teams for competition.

Now, obviously the Federation had to field National Teams, particularly when our nation was hosting an Olympics in 1984 and 1996.  But, what if those Residency Programs had been scaled back and a greater portion of the overall budget had been spent on Grass Roots?  Let’s say only half of the scores of overseas trips were taken or that less experienced, less expensive coaches were hired.  And, then all of that time and money had been instead focused on some effective and sustainable grass roots programs.

Maybe…

  • We would have 40 solid collegiate programs today instead of 3 or 4.
  • Maybe there would be a solid foothold in one geographical location of this nation where youth programs have been thriving for 20 years.
  • Maybe we’d already have a real club championship worthy of TV Broadcast.
  • Maybe we’d be developing 2 to 3 USA based athletes/yearly worthy of a significant pro contract instead of 1 (Gary Hines) in the past 20 years.
  • Maybe International investors would have already seen enough growth to provide more financial assistance.
  • Maybe ESPN would be broadcasting Champions League matches and showing Sports Center highlights that would be feeding grass roots interest.

For sure these are all “maybes.”  No one can say whether any of these possibilities would have ever come to fruition.

What I can unequivocally state, though, is we’ve got almost nothing to show for all the resources that were spent in the past on National Team Residency Programs.   For sure, we need to provide some level of support to our National Teams, but the decision of how much to spend has to factor in the opportunity costs of neglecting grass roots.  It would be nice to have Residency Programs that indeed cost almost nothing, but don’t kid yourself for a second, the real costs are significant.  And, if history is our guide the lost opportunity costs will be staggering.

Podcast (Throw Back Thursday): April 2006 Interview with Canada’s Alexis Bertrand

Team Canada's Alexis Bertrand

Team Canada’s Alexis Bertrand

Back in 2006, while I was still living in France, I interviewed Canadian handball player, Alexis Bertrand, who was then playing for OC Cesson in the 2nd Division.  Alexis and I discussed what it was like for him to play in France and we also discussed the Pan American Handball Team Handball Federation (PATHF) to not let Canada participate in that summer’s 2006 Pan American Championship.  Canada had actually secured the 3rd spot at the 2004 championship and participated in the 2005 World Championships, only to be denied an opportunity to qualify for 2007.

In the years following my interview, Alexis continued to play in France, even playing one season in the Ligue Nationale du Handball (LNH), France’s top professional league.  Following the 2015 PANAM Games, Alexis retired from international play and he is now the head coach of the Canadian Sr Men’s team.

Alexis Bertand Career in France

2003-04 AS Monaco (N2)
2004-05 Ivry (N1)
2005-06 OC Cesson (D2)
2006-07 OC Cesson (D2)
2007-08 US Saintes (D2)
2008-09 OC Cesson (D2)
2009-10 OC Cesson (LNH-D1)
2010-11 Chartres-Mainvilliers (N1)

Canada PANAM Games Web Bio: Link

Wikipedia Entry (French): Link

The Olympics are over.  Thanks for Watching.  See you in 2020?  How about sooner?

The Olympics are over and it was wonderful to feast on 16 days of Handball on TV; But, could this once every four year phenomena turn into a continuous a year round experience?

The Olympics are over and it was wonderful to feast on 16 days of Handball on TV; But, could this once every four year phenomena turn into a continuous a year round experience?  How about a digital handball channel with multiple viewing options.

NBC Does Handball TV Right

At times, I’ve been accused of being a cynical complainer always looking to find something wrong and to rain on people’s parade.  So, let me be unequivocal in stating that NBC did a phenomenal job broadcasting the sport of Team Handball at the Olympics.  Every single match was broadcast via live stream and was then made available for viewing on demand shortly after each match was over.  Every single match!  With a HD picture!  And, I could watch it on a Roku instead of lugging my laptop around with an HDMI cable.  I’ve never had a better TV viewing experience for a major Handball tournament.  Heck, I’m pretty sure no one in the world has ever had a better setup.  Whoaa, hold on a second:  Are you saying that we poor handball deprived Americans just had the best viewing experience, ever? Like better than what the Europeans get?

Yup, that’s what I’m saying.

And, that’s freaking almost impossible to believe.  Twenty years ago we got 2 minutes of TV highlights.  Now we get every second of every match whenever we want to watch it.  In High Def.  Holy crap!  What could I possibly complain about?

I’ll whine about a few things.

  1. The Olympic Broadcast Service (OBS) live feed that NBC streams had only one knowledgeable handball commentator: Paul Bray. The rest…  Like I said OBS has one knowledgeable handball commentator.
  2. The live stream dropped at times. Of course, there’s no way of knowing whose fault that is. My provider; my Roku, NBC, OBS, a glitch in the satellite, etc
  3. It takes a while for the stream to load up. More likely a fault on NBC’s end.
  4. There’s not much fidelity with my Roku remote when I rewind or fast forward. (OK. That’s not NBC’s fault, but it’s still annoying when you’re trying to replay a critical sequence)
  5. Soccer and Basketball get their own TV channel on Dish/Direct TV and other platforms. Handball should have one too. (OK, I’m really reaching here, but heck maybe we will get one someday)

What about the Actual NBC TV Broadcast?

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot about that.  In fact, I did forget about it for much of the Olympics.  Not because it wasn’t a quality produced broadcast.  The team of Chris Carrino and 96 Olympian Dawn Allinger Lewis did a solid job mixing standard commentary with the educational commentary that is necessary for most Americans.  Better than most of the OBS commentary for sure.  But, while I generally prefer regular TV over streaming I just got use to my NBC Roku feed.  Always there, usually reliable, no commercials interrupting the action, and no other sports to contend with.  Why bother with regular TV?

Why Bother with Regular TV?

Wow.  Think about that statement and the implications that go with it.  I know millennials are “cutting the cord” for their TV viewing, but, it’s not something that old timers like me are considering much.  For me, there are a couple of reasons.  First, I figured it would be a hassle dealing with an unreliable interface.  Rokus, Apple TV, Amazon Fire are OK , but it’s not as convenient as my Dish network TV interface.  Do I really want to figure out for every show I’m interested in whether it’s on Hulu, Netflix or Amazon. And, then there’s the sporting events which are mostly on the major networks and not always readily available for streaming although that’s changing.

And, my recent viewing habits during the Olympics are an indication of how it’s changing.  For 16 days I watched a lot of handball and I didn’t use old fashioned TV very much.  Certainly, didn’t need beIN Sports and honestly I didn’t really need NBC (in a traditional sense) all that much.  The times they are a changing…

Handball TV: Why Just During the Olympics?

So, now I’m wondering why does this awesome handball viewing experience only get to occur for 16 days every 4 years?  Why can’t it be a year round experience?  Wouldn’t it be awesome if there was a Handball Channel very much like the Olympic channels NBC provided?  But, instead of choosing between Judo, Rowing, Handball and other sports it was set up like the picture accompanying this article with multiple handball viewing options.

  • Click on the little HBL logo. Who is Rhein-Neckar playing in their first match as they look to defend their title in the German Bundesliga.
  • Click on the little LNH logo. When does Paris Saint Germain play Montpellier?  (Shouldn’t PSG go undefeated if they’ve got most of the best players from Gold and Silver Medalists?)
  • Click on the little EHF CL logo. Every Champions League match is available (I know I can already sort of do that with efhTV, but I want it on my Roku.)
  • Click on the 2017 IHF WC Logo. The World Championships are in January.
  • Click on the PATHF logo. That’s neat, they’ve got the matches from this past June’s Pan American Championships.  (I never saw Greenland’s upset win over Argentina.  That should be interesting)
  • Click on the USATH logo. What do you know; they’ve got last year’s collegiate championship match available.

I think you get the picture. Such a channel would be awesome and one that I would gladly pull my credit card out for. I’m a huge fan, though.  How many fans world-wide would be willing to pay for such a channel? How much could they be charged?

How Long Will the Old TV Rights Model Last?

And, so now we come to the dilemma that every sports entity is going to eventually face.  Right now TV rights fees are a major revenue source, if not the biggest revenue source for most sports entities.  These entities see the potential of web streaming, but fear that fully supporting this new revenue stream may kill their cash cow.  These fears stem around the pirating of video transmissions and the uncertainty as to whether viewers will be willing to pay prices to fully support this model.  And, when they do allow streaming, does it then cheapen the value of TV rights deals?

These fears, for sure, are legitimate where significant TV rights deals are to be had.  For U.S. sports it’s not clear how everything will shake out.  The NFL for instance is signing huge TV rights packages because traditional networks see the NFL as the one thing that viewers will watch live, commercials and all.  But, one can also see how the NFL could set up a Direct Ticket like package on Rokus and other devices that could be sold directly to consumers, cutting out the middle man entirely.

With handball, the situation is similar, but on a smaller scale.  And, with only a handful of nations having big TV rights contracts the practicality of a digital Over The Top (OTT) channel would seem to increase.  Why not go direct to the handball consumer if there is no big contract waiting?  Further, with handball struggling to get on a good TV network in markets like the U.S. a quality digital handball channel would immediately sidestep that problem.

The Future

Indeed some niche sports like pro wrestling and mixed martial arts are already doing this.  Although, if the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is being sold for $4 billion it’s hard to call it niche.  And, success like that makes me think that a high quality digital channel that consolidated handball telecasts and provided that product worldwide just might be a valuable property.  One that could take handball to another level.

THIS IS THE TRUE OLYMPIC SPIRIT

Play the Game 2009

By Christer Ahl

Six months ago, I used my Facebook and got the help of some friends to use their web pages to announce my need for an urgent kidney transplant.   So very many of you responded with best wishes and encouragement, and I thank all of your for this support which was invaluable in a difficult time.

But I was not so optimistic that my efforts would lead me to someone who would be willing to donate a kidney.  However, I am enormously happy to inform you that the miracle happened!  And it happened through my decades of involvement in sports, especially in handball.  An ex-player and now coach in PanAmerica, whom I met many years ago, when I was a referee and an instructor, saw my postings.  This fantastic man had already had in mind the idea of donating an organ, and when he now saw my name and photo, he decided to come forward.  Obviously, I am eternally grateful to him!

We are both doing well, and my kidney function is now very strong again.  And it was a special coincidence that our transplant surgery took place, precisely during the days of the handball competition in Rio.  This is to me a story about the meaning of the ‘true Olympic spirit’!

The Education of a New Handball Fan

Education

Joe Healy resides in Houston, Texas. By day, he is an instructional designer. By night, he is a freelance sportswriter. Below is his account of discovering the sport of handball and his growth as a fan.

The Olympics have a funny way of creating seminal memories in our lifetimes.

People of a certain age might remember where they were when a young Romanian gymnast named Nadia Comaneci scored a perfect ten in the 1976 games in Montreal, the first time that score had ever been awarded in Olympic history. Others may vividly remember the exploits of Carl Lewis in 1984 in Los Angeles. For basketball fans the world over, watching the Dream Team in 1992 dominate their competition and introduce NBA basketball to the rest of the globe likely stands out.

For a different generation, Michael Phelps’ incredible Olympics in 2008 or Usain Bolt’s electrifying sprints will be the Olympic memories that last a lifetime.

For me, I remember where I was standing in my living room as an eight-year-old during the 1996 Olympics when Michael Johnson, gold shoes and all, broke the world record in the 200-meters to win gold. For better or worse, I also remember my beloved Team USA basketball looking absolutely lost and overmatched for the first time on the world stage at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, leading to a bronze medal, which was downright unfathomable given their dominance in previous Olympics.

My most recent such memory, though, was in 2012, and it’s a little bit more unconventional. It’s not a memory of a particularly outstanding performance, or one of a great upset that caught the world by surprise, or even one that determined medalists in the given event.

No, this memory is of the first time I saw handball.

It was one evening during the London Olympics. The prime time coverage here in the US had ended for the night and I was dozing off on the couch before heading to bed. I fired up the nascent NBC Live Extra app (as it was known then) and specifically looked for replays of sports from that day that the networks here in the US don’t generally cover.

And there it was. Team handball.

I’ll be honest. I don’t remember which two countries were playing. I know for fact that it was a preliminary game, and I know that it was early enough in the Olympics that that single game didn’t mean a whole lot on its own. None of that mattered, though, because I was transfixed from the very start.

I loved the speed of the game. I loved the quick pace at which it was played, with very few play stoppages. Most of all, I loved that it combined skills from some of my favorite sports, such as baseball and basketball.

I felt like I had discovered hidden treasure. Why had I never heard of this wonderful game? Is this a dream sport that I had concocted in some kind of Olympics fever dream that I’m destined to eventually wake up from?

I distinctly recall going to work the next day, telling co-workers about handball, and getting nothing more than puzzled looks in return. Unsatisfied with the the lack of awareness of those in my immediate bubble, if you will, I turned to the internet, and was heartened to find that the American sports internet, particularly those mainstream media members covering the games in person, were buzzing about handball much in the same way I was.

Not only that, but they had many of the same questions I had. Where has this sport been all of our lives? Why doesn’t America compete in the sport at the highest level? Where can I get more of this? I read just about everything I could get my hands on about the sport, including all of those pieces suggesting changes to the game to make it better and what Americans can do to become instant players on the world stage.

I followed the sport for the rest of those Olympics, watching the odd game here and there until the closing ceremonies of the London games came and went, and then something happened that I’m ashamed to admit. I kind of moved on and didn’t give handball much thought for a while. I didn’t pursue information on any of the top domestic handball leagues in Europe, I didn’t look into the next big international competition, and I didn’t spend any time getting a better understanding of the rules of the game or learning about the best players in the game.

Perhaps I was just an “every four years” handball fan.

At least, on that part, I would have been far from alone. With few exceptions, all of the interest in the sport from American media outlets dried up soon after the events ended, and any momentum that might have been gained for the US to get involved in playing the game seemed to dissipate almost overnight.

Fast forward four years to these Rio Olympics, and I’m here to tell you a switch has been flipped for me personally. Sure, I could go back to not paying the sport any mind in the coming weeks, but that feels unlikely.

Four years ago, I just dipped my toe in the water that is the world of team handball, but this time around, I’ve gone in headfirst. I’ve found myself watching multiple handball matches each and every day of the games, and I’ve paid much more attention to trying to pick up subtle nuances and rhythms of the game.

On top of that, I’ve spent a lot time (often while watching the matches, mind you) researching the recent history of the game and of the best domestic leagues in the world. I was also heartened to learn that the next world championship is just around the corner, in January of 2017, giving me another chance, quickly, to take in high-level international competition.

Perhaps the best evidence that I’ve become one of you, a certified fan of the sport, however, is that, first and foremost, I feel compelled to spread the word about this game and help others to discover it.

Beyond that, I’ve also found myself with stronger opinions on the sport, and I’ve started to really learn what I like and don’t like in my coverage of handball. This time around, I’ve largely taken a pass on (or rolled my eyes after reading) the articles that provide short-sighted suggestions on how to improve the sport or make it more accessible for an American audience, and I’ve done much the same with the pieces that have posited the theory that all it would take is a few ex-college basketball players to decide they want to pursue handball rather than chase down NBA dreams.

Ask those who pushed to make soccer a big deal in America, both with the NASL in the 70s and 80s and then again with MLS in recent years about how difficult it is to get a sport that few know of to become a phenomenon in the saturated sports market that is the US. That sport still has a long way to go in this country to be sure, but it’s come a long way.

Those wanting to see a similar spread of handball in the US would do well to take a couple of lessons from those brave souls looking to bring a largely foreign sport to these shores. Soccer is seeing its biggest period of growth now that organizers are simply selling soccer rather than an Americanized version of the game.

You’ve also got to grow it from the ground up. Just like putting games from a brand-new soccer league in football stadiums right from the start might have been a bit foolhardy, expecting handball to sweep the nation in its first pass would be similarly so.

It’s going to take some time, and it’s going to take great effort, but handball can get there as well.

And I’m here to help.

USA Men Chances for 2020 Olympic Qualification: Can we get “there” from “here”?

Can the U.S. men qualify for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo?  I think the logo pretty much answers the question.

Can the U.S. men qualify for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo? I think the logo pretty much answers the question.

Yesterday, I took a look at the chances that the USA Women’s team could qualify for the 2020 Olympics.  Today, I assess the USA Men’s chances.

The Competition: Brazil and Argentina: Two sides now of European quality

This past Olympics was a little unique in that due to Brazil’s hosting, 2 slots available for Pan American sides.  Instead of an epic battle between Brazil and Argentina for one coveted slot, both teams were assured passage to Rio once they won their semifinal game.  And, I really mean it when I say epic because these two rivals have battled each other for the coveted Olympic Games bid since 2003.  Brazil won in 2003 and 2007, Argentina won in 2011, while Brazil won the relatively meaningless match in 2015.

And that’s just for the PANAM Games, Brazil and Argentina have also played each other in the final of the Pan American Championships held every two years, except for this year’s final which saw Chile sneak into the final by virtue of Argentina’s pool play upset loss to Greenland.  For the record, Argentina won in 2002, 2004, 2010, 2012 and 2014, while Brazil took the title in 2006, 2008 and 2016.

And, by virtue of those Pan American final showdowns, the Brazilians and Argentinians are regular fixtures at the World Championships where they’ve shown steady improvements in performance, to the point where I argued after the 2015 World Championship that they are now essentially European quality sides: Link

Their performance at the Olympics does nothing, but further validate that assessment.  Argentina was even missing their best player, Diego Simonet, (heck maybe the best player to ever come out of Pan America) was still able to keep games close, losing a heartbreaker to Croatia in the closing seconds.

The implications of Brazil and Argentina reaching this level of play are huge, because even the USA teams of the 80s never quite reached that level.  Yes, the men played some competitive games at the 1984 Olympics, but that performance on home soil against a boycott weakened field doesn’t match the resume of what these two teams have accomplished the past few years.

Professionals beat Amateurs almost every time

Further, and this can’t be underemphasized, the Brazilian and Argentina sides starting lineups now consist almost entirely of full time professional athletes.  It’s a mixture in terms of what level they are playing at, but many are playing for some top level clubs.  Meanwhile, the US has just a handful of players, mostly dual citizens, who are playing in Europe at lower levels.

At the 2016 Pan American Championships in June the U.S. fielded a side with just one professional, Gary Hines, who plays in the German 3rd Division.  The rest of the roster was composed of athletes training with the residency program at Auburn and veteran athletes living in the U.S., but not training on a regular basis. The men’s performance was typical of recent years, finishing 8th out of the 12 teams participating.  They beat weak, really inexperienced sides like Paraguay and Colombia, and lost relatively close games to comparable sides like Mexico and Puerto Rico.  Against eventual champion Brazil they lost 40-15.  I did not see this game, but this is without a doubt a real drubbing that probably could have been worse if Brazil was so inclined.  Team USA’s best match of the tournament was probably a 37-30 loss to Greenland.  And, while that may get a few snickers to the uniformed, Greenland actually has a few players playing for top clubs in Denmark.  They even beat Argentina 25-23 in Group Play.  The fact that the U.S. played Greenland close at least provides a glimmer of hope for better results in the future.

But, only a glimmer of hope because the reality is that Greenland is not Brazil or Argentina.  And, to qualify for the 2020 Olympics Team USA won’t just need one big upset, but two big upsets.  This is because Brazil and Argentina are both very likely to win their respective groups at the 2019 PANAM Games.  And, if the USA can qualify for the semis (a big if) they will need to first knock off one of those 2 sides in the semis and then turn around the next day and knock off the other in the final.  Of course, upsets are always possible and that could change the matchups, but this is the likely scenario.  And, while it’s possible to imagine amateurs beating pros in one big upset it’s really defying the odds to envision two such back to back upsets.

Yeah, but we’re Americans

So, to review the task at hand is putting together a team in 3 years time that can win the Gold Medal at the 2019 PANAM Games in Lima, Peru.  And, this team will likely need to beat both Brazil and Argentina, two sides that the U.S. hasn’t beaten in 20 years.  (And, I think those losses have all been double digit blowouts.)

I know what people are saying, particularly relative newcomers to the sport, “We’ve got the best athletes in the world. The game’s not that hard.  We put our mind to it, we can do it.”  You know, I actually see the logic somewhat.  Honestly, you look at Argentina’s team and they certainly don’t look physically imposing.  But, looks are deceiving and results are results.  We’ve got 20 years of negative data that says otherwise.

Maybe, there will be a tremendous recruiting surge courtesy of the Olympics and we’ll get around 20 high quality athletes that are willing to move to Auburn immediately and train full time in austere conditions.  Maybe, some billionaire will show up and change that austerity overnight into a full up residency program.  Anything can happen.  In all, likelihood though, we’ll get some decent athletes, but not quite as physically gifted as we need them to be, plus a little bit older than what we need.  And, maybe we’ll get some more sponsorship, but it will still fall short of what we need to run a residency program right.

And honestly even if we somehow recruited the athletes and received the necessary funding I still don’t think we can get there from here in just 3 years time.  Yes, as I highlighted with my earlier commentary regarding the Women’s team’s chances it’s time to focus on 2024 with some age appropriate recruiting and grass roots programs that might give us a decent chance of qualifying in 2023.  And, who knows, maybe if LA gets to host in 2024 we could even put together a team capable of some upsets on home soil.

 

 

USA Women Chances for 2020 Olympic Qualification: A couple of stories to highlight what we’re up against

Brazilian school girls training in Rio. Some ride the bus an hour and a half to practice. Can the U.S. field a team in 3 years time to beat Brazilian athletes that come up through their grass roots programs?

Brazilian school girls training in Rio. Some ride the bus an hour and a half to practice. Can the U.S. field a team in 3 years time to beat Brazilian athletes that come up through their grass roots programs?

Go on twitter during an Olympic broadcast and you’ll find plenty of tweets from viewers wanting to know how they can make the USA team and play in 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.  The USA coaches are also surely fielding a number of inquiries regarding tryouts: Link

Hopefully, among those queries are some high quality athletes that aren’t too old so that they will have some time to develop into quality handball players.  Thing is, though, these would be National Team members should realize what they are up against.  That’s because qualifying for Tokyo is a real long shot.

Can Team USA close the huge gap with Brazil?

The Pan American region gets 1 slot for the Olympics (For 2016, since Brazil was host the Pan American regions got 2 slots) and this is awarded to the winner of the PANAM Games handball competition, something the Men haven’t done since 1987 and the women haven’t done since 1995.

For the women it will mean beating Brazil, which had an up and down tournament at this Olympics.  In group play they beat the bronze medalists, Norway, and finished first.  But, in the quarterfinals they suffered a surprising and disappointing loss to the Netherlands which finished 4th.

Brazil will have a number of players retiring in the near future, but they have many up and coming players. In fact, an experimental B side, largely composed of new talent beat Team USA 28-14, the last time the 2 nations met in formal competition at the 2015 Pan American Championships.  It can’t be definitively assessed how the USA would have fared against the top Brazil team, but scorelines from 2013 (44-10) and 2011 (50-10) might not be a bad indication. Further, according to online competition records, it appears the USA women have not beaten Brazil (or Argentina for that matter) since the 1995 PANAM Games.

What has happened since 1995? Well, all appearances are that Brazil has developed a fairly decent grass roots program that is identifying and developing talent well before most Americans even touch a handball.  This New York Times article was written to highlight the shortcomings in Women’s Athletics, but for me, it instead highlights a pretty decent development program.  For sure the U.S. would love to have even a handful of committed female athletes riding the bus an hour and half to play handball instead of some other sport.  Handball even well enough, according to the article, to beat a boy’s team!

New York Times: In the Shadow of the Olympic Park, Women’s Sports Lag Behind: Link

So, Team USA would have to make up a considerable amount of ground between now and August 2019, when the PANAM Games will be held in Lima, Peru.  And, remember, the USA women didn’t even qualify for the 2015 PANAM Games, losing to Uruguay in a 2 game series prior to the games.  Next time around the qualification path should be a bit easier with Canada being the primary opponent.

Can we find the phenomenal talent needed? Can we train that talent in 3 years time?

Can it be done? Well, anything is possible, but 3 years is not much time to work with.  It would be one thing if the USA had some young up and coming talent already training at Auburn, but for the most part the players are in their mid to late 20s (some even 30s).  A roster overhaul is really needed.  Heck, it was really needed 3 years ago when I wrote this commentary:  Link

And, the prescription is roughly the same today.  The USA would have to do some phenomenal recruiting and hope they can improve quickly enough to field a team that can qualify for the December 2017 World Championships.  This means just 10 months to assemble a team that can snag the 3rd place slot at the Pan American Championships in Canada.  A challenge, for sure, but conceivable as the quality of teams drops off fairly sharp after Brazil and Argentina.  Then playing in a World Championships which is a huge opportunity for team growth and experience.  Maybe a few players could be seen and signed to play professionally in Europe. 2018 and 2019 would then see a progression in growth whereby the US would catch up to Brazil to the point where beating them in a one off gold medal in August 2019 might be at least conceivable.

But, recruiting that top talent isn’t easy.  Maybe in all the emails sent to USA Team Handball there are some real gems willing to put in the time and hard work necessary, but I suspect that the raw talent is a notch or two below what is needed.  Why? Well as I’ve highlighted previously Div 1 athletes have more options than they did in the 70s and 80s.

Feb 2012: Air Force Basketball (Lessons for USA Team Handball): Lesson #2) Blue Chip Athletes from other Div 1 Sports are harder to come by nowadays: Link

As a more recent example look no further, then 29 year old, Danielle Page, bronze medalist for the Serbian basketball team.  Serbia? Huh?  Well, Page grew up in Colorado and played collegiately for Nebraska, before embarking on a pro career in Europe that eventually led to a Serbian passport.  She is exactly the type of athlete that would have been a natural for the US Women’s National team after a middling NCAA career.  Unfortunately, as her success story illustrates, those players have some pretty good alternatives that will preclude such a choice.

Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph (July 2015):Lewis-Palmer grad Page realizes Olympic dream with Serbian basketball team: link

Time to focus on 2024

Again, can it be done? Yes, but it’s so very, very unlikely.  Even if we get the talent needed there’s just not enough time to catch Brazil.  In my opinion, the U.S. should go ahead and try to qualify for 2020, but with both eyes squarely focused on the 2024 Olympics, which might even mean automatic qualification if LA hosts.  And, if you are focused on the long term that means every single athlete being considered even for competitions in 2016 should be assessed as to how they might fit into a potential 2024 roster.  Translation:  Add 8 years to their current age and assess what the likelihood is that “life issues” will impact them between now and then.

And, seriously look at some alternative ways to spend resources on grass roots to create some talent similar to the Brazilian method.  One solution:  How about a high school girls handball league in the greater Los Angeles area, maybe even partially funded by LA 2024 sponsor? Link

The question, though, is whether USA Team Handball will take such a position or whether the US will continue to focus on near term goals that are likely unachievable.

Make Handball Great Again?

This might actually be a better goal for the Donald.

This might actually be a better goal for the Donald.

Bill Simmons of HBO’s “Any Given Wednesday” gave a shout out on his most recent show to USA Team Handball in his “I believe” segment saying:

“I believe we need to find a billionaire to save USA handball.  Some wacko who will bribe eight NBA players and bring us handball gold.  Is it you?”

The video contains a stock handball photo a cartoon scene in shadow of someone tall getting a briefcase of money and as Simmons asks, “Is it you,” a picture of the Donald.

Simmons has been a fan of handball since the 2012 Olympic games in London when he wrote this commentary after a day at the handball arena: Link

The billionaire bailout is not a new conceptual idea to save USA Team Handball:  This commentary from 2012 touches highlights this possibilty and Dieter Esch, the millionaire, who essentially took over USA Team Handball in 2008, but got frustrated and left in 2011.

Why Weren’t the U.S. National Teams at the London Olympics?: Part 4: A lack of funding: Where are the sponsors and donors? (September 2012): Link

USA Team Handball’s Esch – Pastorino era comes to a quiet end (Nov 2011): Link

Could LeBron James Really Become the Best Handball Player in Just 6 Months? Why, it’s just not going to happen; But what about LeBron Lite? (Part 2)

LeBron with a Gold Medal.  Why it's unlikely he could be convinced to take the handball challenge.  And more realistically, why it will be hard to convince and train the would be LeBron Lites

LeBron with a Gold Medal. Why it’s unlikely he could be convinced to take the handball challenge. And more realistically, why it will be hard to convince and train the would be LeBron Lites.

In part 1, I just assumed that LeBron decided that becoming the best handball player in the world was his new mission in life.  In this part, I address the impossibility of that ever happening for LeBron and the unlikelihood it will happen for the would be LeBron Lites out there.

Identifying and Recruiting the Cross-Over Athlete

Unsaid, but obvious in the hypothetical question of LeBron James becoming the best handball player ever is that convincing James to take on such a task is pretty much impossible for a number of reasons.

  1. Money. Fresh off an NBA title James resigned with the Cleveland Cavaliers for a 3 year, $100 million contract.  The entire USA Team Handball annual budget is currently around $500,000. Athletes training with the U.S. currently even have had to pay some of their own travel expenses.  That wouldn’t be a problem for James, but why would he walk away from $100M?
  2. Desire. James has been playing basketball all his life and it’s still his primary focus.  He surely wants to win some more NBA titles and he hasn’t even ruled out a return to Team USA for the 2020 Olympics.  Why would he give that up?
  3. Life Issues. The rigors of an NBA career are hard enough, but transitioning to handball would be pretty disruptive.  Right now that could mean a move to Auburn, AL to train with the U.S. National Team or a move to Europe.  Pretty disruptive on family life.  It would also probably get in the way of other career goals like his reported desire to own an NBA franchise.

It’s pretty hard to envision a scenario by which LeBron could be convinced to take up handball. But, if the U.S. can’t get LeBron, what about LeBron Lite?

Well, the answer to that question depends on how “lite” you want to get.  For those thinking that other NBA athletes or other professional athletes might be available, think again.  Money, desire and life issues will preclude just about any professional athlete from making such a leap.  And, we’re not just talking about U.S. based professionals, but Americans playing in Europe as well.  Just about any player with D1 basketball talent can play professionally in Europe at some level.  They aren’t making NBA money, but they are making a living.  Plus, as any professional athlete knows their sporting career can only last so long.  Many will be looking to cash in on their skills before they have to go get a “real job.”

What about other sports?  American football is a good candidate, but players have options like the Arena and Canadian Leagues. Baseball players have multiple minor league opportunities and will hold on to the dream of making the major leagues as long as possible.  There are other sports, of course: Lacrosse, volleyball, etc.  But, with those sports there’s a smaller athlete pool and accordingly you’re going to draw athletes that clearly won’t overwhelm those Euros athletically.  And the same can be said for the talent that will come out of the lower collegiate divisions in hoops and football.  You’ll find pretty good athletes, but a notch below are best pros.  That’s why they’re not pros.

What about the pro that had a decent career, made a little money and now wants to chase an Olympic dream?  All good in theory, but you’ll need to factor in desire and life issues.  If you’ve played on a big stage toiling away learning a new sport in obscurity might not be so appealing.  And if you’re a 20-something year old adult, life issues such as getting married, having kids and contemplating what you’re going to do work-wise the rest of your life will become more and more important as you start getting closer to being a 30-something.

Bottom line:  The LeBron lites will be decent athletes, but not NBA level.  Hopefully, not too much below, but recent recruiting suggests otherwise. Yeah, if we’re lucky we might get athletes comparable to the athleticism of the Croatian handball squad.  So much for overwhelming the opposition with superior athleticism.

For more on recruiting challenges in the US, read the “Moneyball Handball” commentaries at this page: Link

How exactly are you going to train the cross over athlete?

Another element left unsaid in the whole concept is just  how exactly LeBron would become the best player in 6 months.  The original quote is from the U.S. Men’s National Team Coach, Javier Garcia Cuesta, so one could imply that Coach Garcia Cuesta would take on the task.  Currently, he is running the U.S. Men’s residency team program at Auburn, AL so one could further imply that LeBron would head to Alabama for 6 months of intense handball training.  The team practices 5 days a week on the court and has additional strength and conditioning training.  The number of athletes currently training isn’t clear, but for the last couple of years it seems to have fluctuated between 7 to 20 athletes.  Most of these athletes are relatively new to handball and this past summer some didn’t even make the U.S. team that competed at the Pan American Championships.  Further, in the competition the key backcourt positions were primarily filled by non-residency athletes.

So, if LeBron was to head down to Auburn, there would really be no one for him to observe and play against to learn how to play at the highest level.  Now a lot can still be learned from a knowledgeable coach in a vacuum so to speak.  Just learning 3 steps and how to properly shoot a jump shot for instance.  But, becoming a world class player in essentially a vacuum?  Sorry, it’s just not going to happen.

No, the only way it would even begin to happen is if LeBron was added to a roster at one of the world’s top professional clubs, like Paris-SG.  In theory, he would be treated like an NBA “project player.”  He would have individual sessions with a top coach and also be allowed to practice with the team as he got up to speed.  With Hansen, Karabatic and Narcisse around he surely would pick up a lot and as I mentioned in part 1, I think he would become a pretty decent defender fairly quickly.  Learning how to play backcourt, though, that surely would take a while even in the perfect circumstances I describe.  This is pretty far fetched, but I bet if LeBron really wanted to pursue handball a top club would actually accommodate him.  The publicity for sure would be awesome.

But, again, it’s not going to happen so we need to talk about how the U.S. would train some LeBron Lites.  Right now, USA Team Handball seems to be locked into using the Residency Team model at Auburn University.  For the uninitiated the Residency Model seeks to find the best possible athletes, put them in a central location and then train them up with handball skills.  Further, the goal is to keep the national team together in preparation for national team competition.

For those new to handball or this website I’ve already spent quite a bit of time railing against the Residency Model. (Read the series of commentaries about the Residency Model and the Auburn Decision towards the bottom of the page: Link)  A model that I participated in and one that really helped me become a decent player.  Here’s the cliff notes version as to the major problems:

  1. It was only modestly successful under far better conditions. S. teams achieved a measure of respectability, but still couldn’t beat the top teams in WC or Olympic competitions
  2. European handball has become more professionalized. The Euros always had a technical skill advantage, but superior American athleticism could make up for that somewhat.  This is simply not true anymore.  Professional athletes will top amateurs almost every time.
  3. Pan American competitors have improved substantially. A team of athletic Americans with limited technical skills could at one time win the Pan American ticket without too much trouble.  Now Argentina and Brazil are pretty athletic, plus have good technical skills.
  4. Lack of resources. The USOC used to provide substantial support to residency programs.  Not true anymore.  The current programs are so austere that athletes are essentially provided nothing.  They are even asked to pay for travel to competition. Link
  5. Lack of competition: Training in the USA means that the USA athletes would lack meaningful competition. You can’t get better unless you play top competition on a regular basis.  This would mean more costs to travel to Europe, but even then the professional club season limits the windows for meaningful competition.
  6. The location (Auburn) is far from ideal. A college town in a rural Alabama really limits the opportunity to create a regional hub for the sport.
  7. Athletes have more options. European opportunities have resulted in fewer athletes seeking an outlet like team handball.

Bottom Line:  We don’t have the money to do it right, we don’t have the athletes to get us there and even if we did have the money and athletes about the best we can really hope for is a team that doesn’t embarrass at a potential LA 2024 Olympics.

Worse, when you focus most of your time, energy and resources on a residency program it also detracts from everything else, particularly grass roots efforts.  The opportunity costs are immense.  I fear that we will again look back and wonder why we sought a quick short term fix.  And, yet again wonder what might have been if different strategies for long term sustainable growth had been considered.

Three years into the program little has been accomplished.  Neither the Men’s or Women’s team have come close qualifying for an Olympics or even a World Championship.  Ironically, the U.S. actually did better in 2012 qualification when no residency program existed.  The athletes are hard working, but none have yet showed world class promise or significant interest from a 2nd tier pro team.

Honestly, it’s a bit frustrating to see newbies to the sport tweet that a bunch of D1 hoops players could win gold after a year of training.  Frustrating, but to be expected.  But, it is totally exasperating to hear our coach spout such nonsense, even if it is just to be a bit provocative to promote the sport.  To see Federation leadership march blindly down such a short sighted path.  I just don’t get it.

I keep thinking that a preponderance of evidence plus some thoughtful consideration of possible alternatives will inevitably result in a change of plans, but it hasn’t happened to date.  And really, I would be thrilled to eat my words; to watch Team USA march on the court in Tokyo and stampede through the tournament like a wrecking ball.  I really would.  But, I’m an analytical type guy and there’s just absolutely nothing to suggest such a miracle.  At least I’ve yet to read anything which made me stop and think that perhaps I’ve got it all wrong.  Again, the open invitation for someone to educate is out there for anyone willing to string a few words together:  Link