Charting a Way Forward for USA Team Handball: Option 7: The All the Eggs in One Basket “Iceland Strategy” (Part 3): Timing for Implementation

The decision by the USOC to withdraw Boston as a candidate city for the 2024 Olympics underscores the risks and importance of timing with any decision to go forward with a regionally focused strategy.  The good news is that if the USOC decide to go forward with L.A. it’s an even better location.

The decision by the USOC to withdraw Boston as a candidate city for the 2024 Olympics underscores the risks and importance of timing with any decision to go forward with a regionally focused strategy. The good news is that if the USOC does decide to go forward with L.A. it’s an even better location.

Part 1 highlighted the basic concept of a regional focused strategy and part 2 focused on implementation and pros and cons. This third part addresses potential locations and the timing for implementation should USA Team Handball decide this initiative is a risk worth taking.

A Decision Already Made?

Well, first off let’s take on the premise that USA Team Handball has already started this initiative in and around Auburn, Alabama.  To some extent this is indeed true as a Residency Program has been started there, but aside from some preliminary efforts to engage the local community it’s pretty much just a national team training location.

Further, the process (or more accurately, “lack of process”) related to this decision was very flawed for a number of reasons to include:

  • Validity under USA Team Handball’s bylaws. This major decision was essentially made by the CEO and two board members. It clearly could and should have waited for a fully constituted board. Link
  • No comparative assessment of other alternatives. In fact, no other locations were even contacted. At the very least a solicitation detailing what was desired should have been communicated through USOC channels. Perhaps it would have turned up no other offers, but it should have been done. Link
  • Failure to fully define the residency program requirements up front. USA Team Handball surely had a broad conceptual idea of what was desired, but those requirements were never fully defined. Instead the program requirements were defined during the discussions with Auburn.
  • Failure to fully take into account the current state of the USA National Team player pool, recruiting and grass roots challenges. It goes without saying it was anything but a no-brainer decision to focus such a large percentage of USA Team Handball’s resources on a residency program in 2013. For sure team results thus far do not support that decision.

To some extent what’s done is done, but it’s important to remember how it happened for a couple of reasons:

  • A flawed process provides top cover for rethinking a decision going forward. Just like the USOC bailed out of its Boston decision, USA Team Handball could probably bail out of its Auburn decision.
  • A flawed process can be improved upon. The decision to go forward with a regionally focused strategy is probably about the biggest decision that a federation can make. Some lessons can be learned to make sure that next time it’s done right.

With those thoughts in mind here’s some options regarding the timing for implement a regionally focused strategy.

Option 1) Double Down on Auburn, Alabama

Regardless of how it happened a Residency Program is already in place in Auburn Alabama. And, by default this reality makes Auburn worthy of consideration. While the current Residency Program is too austere the basic structure is there to upgrade the program should more funds become available. Athletes in residence could immediately be put on the payroll to work with the local schools in the area to establish High School and Middle School programs. In terms of a collegiate league, Auburn is a member of the South Eastern Conference (SEC), arguably the most prestigious and wealthiest conference in the NCAA. If even only a small portion of SEC football profits could be persuaded/directed toward a collegiate Team Handball League it would be a major game changer.

Advantages: Basic infrastructure exists to immediately implement. The potential tie in to the SEC is enticing.

Disadvantages: There’s no getting around Auburn’s small population base. Even a perfectly executed regionally focused effort there may fail simply because there’s not enough local population to make it work.

Option 2) Los Angeles

We’ll know in a few short weeks as to whether L.A. will replace Boston as the the U.S. candidate for 2024, but all signs appear to be pointing it that direction. As someone who lived in Southern California for 7 years I can personally attest as to what a great candidate location it would be even if there isn’t an Olympics in its future. And, count me as one of the folks surprised that either San Francisco or L.A. lost out to Boston in the first place.

Certainly population base wouldn’t be a problem. While Boston provided some population advantages with 4.7 million people in its metropolitan area, Los Angeles with its 18.5 million people is truly a mega city. 54 Iceland’s and roughly 100 times bigger than Auburn. Southern California also has a track record (water polo and volleyball) for being a good regional base to develop a niche sport.

An old timer like me also doesn’t forget that the Boy’s and Girl’s club had an extensive program there in the 80’s. In fact, that program produced 4 national team athletes and 1 Olympian. More importantly those athletes weren’t crossover athletes coming into the national team program at age 22, but teenagers who learned the game in high school. It’s not a stretch to think that program could be brought back to life and improved upon. But, if you’re still focused on older recruits convincing folks to move to L.A. will be a fairly easy task. The U.S. also has a vibrant club in L.A. to facilitate growth there. Combine their ongoing efforts with some likely substantial Olympic related sponsorship funding and grass roots development could take off quickly.

Option 2a) Head to L.A. immediately

Assuming that the USOC moves forward with L.A. as its candidate city a bold move would be to set up shop in L.A. as soon as possible. Starting quickly would mean 9 years to develop grass roots and plot out a strong performance in 2024. And USA Team Handball would have a leg up on some other sports in a race for sponsorship support. With strong competition for 2024 and the Boston fiasco surely on the minds of some IOC voters, however, it’s certainly no guarantee that L.A. will win the vote in the summer of 2017.

Advantages: Starting a program there right now avoids a two year delay and maximizes the grass roots development to support a run for 2024.

Disadvantages: The U.S. could very well lose out on the 2024 vote. Perhaps L.A. would also be a candidate for 2028, but it’s hard to predict the future. And a hasty move might preclude a better east coast option

Option 2b) Wait and See on Los Angeles

While L.A. has numerous advantages there’s no guarantee that it will become the Olympic Host City. The 2024 decision won’t be made until summer of 2017. Two whole years away. While it might be tempting to run straight to Los Angeles it might be better to stick a toe or foot in the water first. Perhaps L.A. could be selected for some grass roots development projects like a high school league for girl’s handball. And, some basic groundwork could be done to move there quickly based on the IOC’s 2017 decision.

Advantages: Waiting for certainty on the Olympic decision eliminates risk. It also provides ample time for a well thought out plan to hit the ground running in 2017.

Disadvantages: Waiting 2 years means missing out on 2 years of growth that could make a significant difference in performance on down the line.

Option 3) TBD Based on a Wide Open Competition

While Los Angeles and Auburn might seem to be the logical go to places opening up the search might result in some better alternatives. Nobody is banging on USA Team Handball’s door right now, but circumstances can change. In particular, the 2016 Olympic buzz could potentially open some eyes. Changes in NCAA rules could entice a school/conference to support a Title IX program. Maybe a Handball Mark Cuban will emerge.  Perhaps a campaign to select a residency program/regionally focused location could be publicized during the 2016 Olympics when the sports exposure will be at its highest.

Advantages: Competition generally results in getting the best possible deal. Systematically identifying what’s desired up front also helps to ensure that requirements are met.

Disadvantages: It could simply be wishful thinking that multiple locations might be interested in becoming the home for USA Team Handball. A lot of effort defining and soliciting competition could be a waste of time.

My Assessment

My gut tells me that L.A. is the way to go, but there are so many uncertainties the right move for now in my opinion is to wait and see. As, in wait and see as to whether the USOC does go forward with L.A. and then track how the IOC competition plays out. This probably means not fully moving forward until after the IOC vote in 2017. Should L.A. win the vote it’s practically a no brainer to set up shop in L.A. But, don’t just give it to L.A. Make them earn that designation through a fair and open competition. I’ve got my doubts about Auburn, but who’s to say they couldn’t put forward a better sponsorship that meets USA Team Handball’s requirements. Should L.A. lose the IOC vote the way ahead is more murky. Perhaps it will still make sense to proceed with a regionally focused effort, but minus the Olympic host opportunity it will be less clear as to when and where to start.

USA Team Handball’s Assessment

Of course, my assessment doesn’t really matter that much. If change is going to be enacted it will be done by the Board of Directors. For now, it appears that Auburn will continue to be the place where the U.S. spends the bulk of its limited resources. The latest Board Meeting Minutes highlight the designation of Auburn as an Olympic Training Site at a football game this fall and increasing outreach efforts in the local area. But, the minutes also imply that the Board would also like to see more local sponsorship funding. Perhaps this is putting down a marker that if that sponsorship funding doesn’t materialize plans could change. For, the time being, though it appears that USA Team Handball will stay the course.

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