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ehfTV: The Gift that Keeps on Giving: How Long Will this Incredibly Good Deal Last?

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ehfTV: The gift that keeps on giving? How long will this good deal last?

The past couple of weeks have been busy ones for me with end of semester grading and the start of the FIRST Robotics building season. Couple that with NFL playoff games and even this very devoted handball fan has a little trouble finding time for the European Handball Championships.

All, I can say is thank goodness for ehfTV. Every match from the Euros is available on demand and I’ve spent a good part of this weekend catching up on what I’ve missed. The web stream quality is outstanding now and it’s great to listen to Paul Bray with his insightful commentary.

So far, lots of storylines and questions. Iceland’s looking for a new coach following their disappointing exit. Can Poland keep using their home court advantage to good effect? Can the injury riddled and somewhat aging French side continue their domination of major competitions? Probably, as long as Karabatic is directing traffic and Omeyer is in the goal.

What a great tournament the European Championships is. Why, I would pay good money to see all these games and it’s being provided free of charge if you live in the U.S. and a number of other countries. For sure it’s a far cry from the IHF web streams that have been provided in the past or even one’s the EHF has charged fans for. The 2008 debacle is still fresh in my memory. Choppy video and American expats in Italy calling the action. Americans who clearly had never even seen the sport before and I paid 30 Euros for that package!

All is forgiven EHF. All is forgiven. My only question is just how much longer can such a good deal last. I don’t know what the business model is for ehfTV, but it’s hard to see it being very profitable. Yes there’s some advertisement, but it’s pretty low key. Just a commercial at the start of the video feed and a little banner at the bottom of the screen throughout the game. A minor annoyance, but not a major intrusion to my viewing experience.

My guess is that the EHF is being forward thinking and is seeking to develop more fans via this free platform. Get fans hooked and then start charging a subscription. Or get enough fans so that TV broadcasters will be willing to pay for the rights in select countries. With the U.S., that strategy is a bit puzzling since beIN Sports does buy the rights to the 2016 Euros, but has simply decided to not show any matches.

It would certainly be interesting to see the number of views and unique IP Addresses that are watching the Euros from different countries. My guess is that the U.S. has perhaps around 800 viewers with a good portion of those being European Expats. Which may be part of the problem with the free web stream marketing strategy. The vast majority of people watching are the already converted and at least some of those fans would actually pay for the stream. Meanwhile potential new fans aren’t likely to discover ehfTV by accident.

No, in order to acquire new fans some sort of partnership is probably needed with a traditional TV network that’s willing to help market the sport. With more TV networks developing and marketing streaming platforms this could very well be the next step. Case in point is the watch ESPN App and their streaming offerings linked to services like Roku. ESPN has dozens of cricket and rugby matches that can be viewed in this manner and they even have a Roku handball page now with a link to the EHF and the IHF. Alas, nothing is there yet and the only handball related offerings now are of the wall handball variety.

Still, it makes me think that something is afoot. That someday in the not too distant future just about every meaningful handball match played in the world will be available on your web connected TV. Some of the content will be free to draw in new viewers, but more content will come with a cost. The free ride will be over, but as long as it’s a quality product with a reasonable price, I’ll be happy to foot the bill.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to enjoy efhTV for free.

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Christer Ahl Seeks Donor for Kidney Transplant

Play the Game 2009 in Coventry, UK 8 - 12 June 2009. World handball hi-jacked by its president: Structural problems, scandals, and anurgent need for change Christer Ahl Outgoing President Playing Rules

Christer Ahl

Dear handball friends and followers of Team Handball News:

You may have noticed that after many years of regularly posting commentaries at Team Handball News, I am now virtually absent. One of the reasons for this has been my health situation. Twenty years ago, I lost a kidney to cancer. This situation has been manageable, but now, quite suddenly, my remaining kidney has begun faltering. The situation in the U.S. is such that the waiting list for kidney transplants from deceased donors is very long. I am told that I should expect to wait at least 5-7 years, and my doctors have warned me that there is a big risk that at that time I will no longer be healthy enough to benefit from a transplant.

Therefore, I am being urged by my doctors and kidney donation organizations to make an all-out effort, with great urgency, to try to reach out through all possible contact nets, in the hope that this will identify a living, voluntary kidney donor.   So, it is for this purpose I am writing to you today. I am asking you to use your contacts and information, in the hope that it would yield some results. If you have any such leads to an offer, I would be very grateful if you would contact me at christer.ahl@comcast.net

Thanks for your support,

Christer Ahl

[For those of you who do not know Christer personally, he has been involved with handball for over 50 years, first in his native Sweden and later as one of the pioneers developing the sport in the U.S. He was the chief of referees for the U.S. and the Pan American Team Handball Federation (PATHF) for over 20 years and was instrumental in bringing officiating standards up to higher levels. These efforts did not go unnoticed and resulted in his election as an IHF Council Member as the President of the IHF Rules & Referees Commission. Few people have done more for the sport and perhaps no one has had more influence in ensuring that the rules of the game have adapted to the changing times. Please do whatever you can to spread the word regarding his situation- John Ryan]

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Charting a Way Forward for USA Team Handball: Option 6: The Title IX Field Hockey Strategy (Part 2): Possible Steps and Timing for Implementation

The Netherlands celebrating their silver medal at the Women’s World Championships. Yet another nation with little handball tradition finding success on the Women’s side. How might a U.S. Women’s focused initiative be implemented?

The Netherlands celebrating their silver medal at the Women’s World Championships. Yet another nation with little handball tradition finding success on the Women’s side. How might a U.S. Women’s focused initiative be implemented?

Part 1 highlighted why it’s more feasible for the U.S. to develop a competitive women’s national team.   This part further explores the implementation and merits of a women’s program development focus.

Overview and Premise: To continue the discussion from the previous part this option would call for a very focused emphasis on developing women’s handball in the U.S. In short, a conscious and deliberative decision to direct the bulk of USA Team Handball’s resources towards women’s program activities. In terms of percentages it would be in the neighborhood of 90 to 95%. Obviously, such a decision would be controversial, but doing so would almost double the funding available for the women’s program. Instead of having 2 overly austere programs, USA Team Handball would be moving closer to having 1 legitimate program. And, as previously discussed the focus would be on the program with a far greater chance of national team success.

Impact to the Men’s Program: The defunding of the men’s program would require a number of cost saving measures to include switching to a part-time unpaid volunteer coach, closing the men’s residency program, and foregoing overseas trips for friendly matches. I would suggest that support would be limited to funding World Championship and Olympic qualification match participation and even this funding might require some self-funding from athletes. In many respects this rollback would be a return to the minimal approach used for both the men’s and women’s programs from 2007 to 2012. (Don’t get me wrong: I understand how painful such steps would be, but it would be necessary if this initiative were approved.)

Possible Implementation Steps

A number of steps could be taken with this initiative, many in conjunction with other initiatives highlighted in this series. Here’s a short list:

  1. Hire an experienced European Coach with a strong track record. This would not necessarily be a top club coach, but perhaps a coach affiliated with a strong development program. Someone involved with the recently successful Netherlands development program might be a prime target.
  2. Hire an assistant coach/recruiter. Combining these two roles would theoretically result in more productive recruiting. (Link to option 2)
  3. Facilitate the establishment of a Women’s collegiate conference. As previously discussed Title IX requirements may draw NCAA interest in supporting women’s handball. Further the USOC is stepping up its efforts to work with the NCAA on funding for nonrevenue Olympic Sports. In theory a quality NCAA supported league could provide the pipeline for a competitive U.S. Women’s team. (Link to option 4)
  4. Facilitate the development of a Women’s high school league. Again, Title IX could provide a vehicle for development. If high schools are establishing competitions for non-Olympic, non-NCAA sports like flag football, it’s not a stretch to seeing competitions established for Team Handball. As previously discussed High School/Collegiate League development in one geographic area would have additional benefits. (Link to HS flag football commentary)
  5. Facilitate and provide support to select athletes so that they can join European clubs. It’s hard to imagine league play reaching the level of top clubs in Europe anytime soon. Therefore, developing athletes who can go to Europe at a young age should have renewed focus.  The U.S. might even considering an overseas program.  (Link to option 3)
  6. Provide scholarships for select athletes to attend school at Auburn. As previously discussed if funding becomes available a handful of top prospects should be given financial assistance to join the program at Auburn.(Link to option 2)
  7. Provide funding for multiple overseas trips for competition and exposure to European Clubs. These trips would provide an opportunity for the Women to grow as a team, but also strategically give them needed exposure for a potential professional contract.

Of course, if one adds up all these possible implementation steps it doesn’t take very long to bust the budget. Currently, there’s not enough funding available for one program, let alone two. If more funds do become available, however, the impact of this initiative will continue to grow at a 2-1 ratio.  In other words a legitimate, non-austere program might become a reality.

Pros

Less strain on resources: As previously highlighted the U.S. would no longer be fully funding 2 programs. Instead resources would be focused on the women’s program giving that program a better chance of sustained success.

Clear focus on fewer goals: And, of course, this will also mean that the bulk of the tasks and issues with running a men’s program would be put on the back burner.   Time spent addressing a day to day issue related to the men’s program would now instead be spent tackling some aspect of support to the women’s program. Perhaps several hours on the phone contacting potential recruits or organizing extra clinics for prospective women’s athletes.

Cons

Decreased support to men’s activities: There’s no getting around this elephant in the room. Providing less support to men’s activities will stifle development and growth for that gender.

Greater challenges in promoting women’s sports: While it’s more feasible to support and develop a successful women’s program on the court it will likely be more challenging to promote the women’s game via TV and other media opportunities. Rightly or wrongly there is simply more interest in men’s sports. One simply has to look at the limited Women’s sports viewing options on TV and the attendance for women’s sporting events to acknowledge this as a reality.

Risks

Pressure to more evenly split resources.   Favoring the women’s program is guaranteed to cause controversy even if folks can see the potential benefits. Many observers will surely point out that it’s possible to walk and chew gum at the same time. Why forgo supporting the Men’s program? Maybe a women’s focus, some will say, but why not split resources more like 60-40 or 70-30. Doing so, however, would simply water down the initiative and limit its impact. The U.S. would again be running two austere programs.

It also would not surprise me if some male athletes would take legal action and before this initiative is approved research on how other Federations like Field Hockey have handled legal concerns would be needed.

Costs

There are no added costs to implement this option. Instead this is simply a focused redirection of existing resources.

Timing for Implementation

This initiative could be implemented at any time, but a logical starting point may be the summer of 2016. Right now the women’s program is in somewhat disarray with only around 7 players training at Auburn. The program sorely needs new talent and a strong recruiting push in conjunction with the 2016 Olympic Games should have a decent chance of landing some quality athletes. And, some high quality recruits coupled with a better funded program could make some inroads towards respectability fairly quickly in Pan America. I highly doubt that it would lead in Olympic Qualification for 2020, but if the right recruits (younger, more athletic) are found it could set the stage for a realistic run for 2024.

Meanwhile, the first half of 2016 will be an excellent time to review and assess the Men’s Residency Program at Auburn. The U.S. Men will play in two meaningful World Championships Qualifying events. In March they will first participate in the North American & Caribbean Championships (NORCA) at a TBD location (reportedly Auburn is under consideration). Then, if they place in the top 4, they will participate in the Pan American Championships (18-26 June) in Argentina. I’ll speculate, however, that if the U.S. Men are going to have a respectable showing it may well necessitate fielding a roster mostly composed of Non Residency Program athletes. And, if this indeed is the case management should question the validity of the Residency Program after 2.5 years.

Final Thoughts

As a former Men’s National Team athlete it doesn’t take much for me to speculate how I would have reacted to such a move. Heck, I probably would have led the charge on legal action. But, then again, I would have also reluctantly seen the logic behind such a move. Finally, I fully recognize that while it might be logical to direct resources towards tackling one tough challenge (the one where we’ve got more chance at succeeding) then hopelessly trying to fight two battles, sometimes logic alone doesn’t carry the day.

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Former 16 Year Old Women’s National Team Player Contemplates a Return to Handball

Taylor Proctor on defense 5 years against Canada. She’s barely touched a handball since, but could immediately be an elite player on our national team. What does that say about our current program? And, should more resources be directed towards grass roots programs that can develop talent than can contribute to our national teams at age 16?

Taylor Proctor on defense 5 years ago against Canada. She’s barely touched a handball since, but could immediately be an elite player on our national team. What does that say about our current program? And, should more resources be directed towards grass roots programs that can develop talent capable of contributing to our national teams at age 16?

There’s a nice article on former senior Women’s USA Team Handball athlete Taylor Proctor on the University of San Francisco Basketball website.  Proctor, a 21 year old senior is averaging 22.9 points/game for the Dons and is currently the 9th leading scorer in NCAA Div 1. The article highlights her role 5 years ago in helping the U.S. Women come from behind to beat Canada and qualify for the 2011 PANAM Games.

Perhaps you’re now doing a little bit of mental math (as in 21-5 = 16 years old) and a little retrospective contemplation (the U.S. qualified for the 2011 PANAM Games, but failed in its 2015 attempt.) If you are, your reaction should be along the lines of:

“Really! Huh? Too bad we don’t have her still playing. What if she had continued playing handball and had roughly the same success that she’s had playing basketball at the collegiate level. Why maybe the U.S. would have qualified for the 2015 PANAM Games. Maybe a 6’, 21 year old might be signing a contract with a top European Club?”

Whoaa. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It is truly amazing that a 16 year old could make some major contributions in a Senior Women’s Handball match, but it was against Canada, another struggling side in PATHF. And, it’s a bit of an assumption that NCAA Div I basketball success would equate to similar Team Handball success.

Regardless, if Proctor does forgo a post collegiate basketball career it could be a good news story for USA Team Handball. My personal opinion, is that 22 years of age is right on the edge of being too old for a residency program, but the fact that she’s had prior handball training tempers that a bit. Sure, it would be nicer to get a quality athlete like her at age 18, but it’s just not practical when a full college scholarship beckons.

But, the really big questions folks should be asking are:

  • What does it say about our current residency program if an athlete who’s barely touched a handball in 5 years could “walk on and already be an elite handball player in our program”?
  • What happened to the youth movement that seemed to be on track in 2010?
  • What are USA Team Handball’s strategic plans to facilitate the development of more athletes like Taylor Proctor (i.e. younger with real raw athletic talent)?

Here are some answers to those questions. The current women’s program is on life support. There are perhaps around 7 women athletes at Auburn training sporadically while the U.S. national team coach is living and coaching a lower level men’s club team in France. A recent national team tryout had zero female attendees. Just about any player with decent athletic talent would move very quickly up the U.S. depth chart.

What happened to the youth movement?  Only Sophie Fasold has played recently with the Women’s National Team.  She is currently playing for her club in Germany.  Kate Louthan is playing basketball at Colorado Christian University and Kiah Hicks is on the track team at Colorado State.  Morgan Thorkelsdottir was playing Club handball in Iceland in 2013, but I couldn’t confirm her current status.  Stephanie Hesser led the U.S. National Team in scoring at the 2013 Pan American Championships, but couldn’t make the 2015 tournament roster.  Outside of Fasold the youngest player on the 2015 roster were 23 years of age and the average age of the roster was 28.5.  Essentially, there is no youth movement.

And, as far as I know, there are no strategic plans to facilitate the development of younger athletes. Instead, the focus for the past several years has been to develop a residency program for national team athletes. And, then to recruit athletes as best we can to populate the program. This has resulted in the program being populated mostly with marginal, older athletes, some in their mid to late 20s. Essentially, an austere pyramid tip has been created for a virtually non-existent base.  You can decide for yourself whether resources (funding and man-hours) expended the past few years towards a residency program have been worthwhile or whether they might have been better spent towards programs like the Colorado Landsharks.  Programs that might still be producing some new talent instead of having closed up shop.

I would speculate, however, that it’s not all doom and gloom. The 2016 Olympics are just around the corner and recruiting should pick up. Hopefully, it will pick up enough so that USA Team Handball can attract some high quality athletes that are still relatively young enough to develop into quality handball players. Players that could then play overseas with a professional club to further develop their game.

And, maybe, just maybe some folks in charge will finally start to take a more critical look at the glaring disconnect between grass roots and national team efforts. And, come to the obvious conclusion that more thought and effort ought to be expended toward creating and sustaining clubs like the Colorado Landsharks/Dynamo. Clubs that found and developed talented athletes in their teens that could make real contributions on the Senior Women’s Team. Why if that were done we might even have a few more Taylor Proctor’s out there ready to join a Residency Program when their collegiate basketball careers are over.

Article highlighting youth contributions to Senior Women’s team back in 2010: Link

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20 Team Handball Matches have been Broadcast the Past 2 Weeks on a U.S. TV Network: Few Know, Fewer Watch and No One Seems to Care

Holy crap! Is there something wrong with my DVR? 20 World Championship matches available for viewing. I must be dreaming I’m still living in France. No station here in the U.S. would ever show that much handball on TV. Why, if that were true the USA Team Handball community would be jumping up and down in celebration…

Holy crap! Is there something wrong with my DVR? 20 World Championship matches available for viewing. I must be dreaming I’m still living in France. No station here in the U.S. would ever show that much handball on TV. Why, if that were true the USA Team Handball community would be jumping up and down in celebration…

Sit down for a minutes to talk about handball with me or just peruse a few articles on this website and you’ll know just how important I think getting more handball on TV is for the development of the sport in this country. How important? I would argue that it is not just 1 of many important needs, but empirically the most important need.

Why? Well, it’s quite simple: Our sport’s awareness quotient is so dramatically low in this country that it hampers everything that we want to accomplish, be it better performing national teams or expanded youth development. There’s a reason why National Team Tryouts are so sparsely attended and why clubs struggle to fill rosters. It’s not because Team Handball is a crappy sport. It’s because too few people even know the sport exists. And, nothing could change that reality as effectively as regular TV broadcasts.

We’ve all seen the effect of Olympic broadcasts and many of us have lamented how it’s just a once every four year phenomenon. If only we could get events like the World Championship and Champions League on U.S. TV airways to keep the sport constantly in the public eye, Why, that could be the game changer of all game changers.

A Dream Come True…

Well, in some respects this dream has pretty much come true as beIN Sports US has aired 20 matches Women’s World Championship matches. Along with the weekly EHF Champions League match that means that American fans have been able to watch about 35 hours of team handball the past 2 weeks. That’s unprecedented and should be cause for celebration.

Unfortunately, though it’s just one more reason to shake your head or start banging it against the wall in frustration. Why? Well, for a number of reasons to include the following:

  • – beIN Sports has a small subscription base
  • – beIN Sports US is not promoting the sport effectively
  • – USA Team Handball is not engaging beIN Sports US for promotional coordination

Who’s Fault?

Well, I’ll point some fingers at several organizations

IHF: The IHF owns the TV rights to the Men’s and Women’s World Championships and unfortunately the IHF doesn’t appear to place any emphasis on selling those rights to networks that will maximize exposure. Instead the rights are sold to the highest bidder. Obviously, price should be a consideration but for emerging markets with huge potential more consideration should be placed on maximizing the number of homes where your product will be viewed. Case in point: A few years ago beIN Sport reportedly submitted the highest bid for the US TV rights for the English Premier League (EPL). The EPL, however, went with NBC Sports to maximize exposure. How’s that working out now? The next rights buy was for a billion dollars over 6 years and NBC shows an EPL match live every Saturday.  A billion! Still hard for this old timer to believe that development

EHF: The EHF owns the rights to the Champions League and the Men’s and Women’s European Championship. And, just like the IHF they aren’t putting any emphasis on finding the right network: Again beIN Sports is the buyer and beIN Sports does show the Champions League match of the week 3 or 4 days after its played, but has yet to show any European Championship matches. This is all very disappointing and surprising as the EHF has shown to be more forward thinking in terms of promoting the sport.

European Professional Club Leagues: Just like the IHF and EHF, pro leagues should be looking for the right network. They’re not, though. Most notably the German HBL sold its TV rights to, you guessed it, beIN Sports, which doesn’t even bother to air any matches!

USA Team Handball Management (Past): So, how did the U.S. get stuck with beIN Sports in the first place? Well, while the U.S. Federation doesn’t sell TV rights it doesn’t own, the organizations that do own the content (IHF, EHF and HBL) have a genuine interest in waking the sleeping handball financial bonanza the U.S. could be. To the best of my knowledge, however, the USA Team Handball has not effectively engaged those organizations on the importance of steering their content to the “right” channel.

A couple of striking examples: Back in 2010, yours truly informed both USA Team Handball and the German HBL, that HBL matches were being shown in the U.S. on Dish’s My Sports German Channel. Then in August 2012 with Olympic handball buzz reaching unprecedented levels no one seized the opportunity to engage ESPN and NBC on the possibility of acquiring rights to broadcast this great “new” sport after the Olympics. Pure speculation on my part, but I’m thinking the right facilitation by USA Team Handball might have resulted in upcoming TV rights for key properties heading to the “Worldwide Leader” or perhaps their top competitor, the NBC Sports Network. Instead no such facilitation occurred and beIN Sports scooped up the rights. Now, I’m not suggesting that ESPN would now be airing weekly handball matches on one of its networks, but could I see regular streaming on Watch ESPN?: Yes. And could I see the occasional match on TV like the gold medal WC game: Yes, most certainly.

beIN Sport US: So, beIN Sports US has the North American TV rights to pretty much all the worthwhile handball related TV content. They surely are doing everything within their power to get the word out regarding their handball products.  Right? Well, in theory that should be true, but, for all intents and purposes beIN Sports US has done almost nothing to promote its Handball monopoly. In most cases they don’t even bother to show the content they’ve purchased. Then when they do show the content they own it’s almost always delayed. Their “handball” page is full of articles, but amusingly just soccer articles where a “handball” occurred.  Finally, there is virtually no advertising of their handball product. Not that there’s a whole lot of places to market the sport, but there are websites and social media possibilities. And, of course a partnership/sponsorship with USA Team Handball would be a logical course of action. But, yet somehow that hasn’t happened…

U.S. Team Handball Management (Present): While USA Team Handball surely would prefer another TV network, beggars can’t be choosers- right? And, isn’t it a good thing that a network has chosen to become America’s Home for Handball on TV?

Makes a lot of sense to engage this network to discuss a number of promotional opportunities that could be a win-win for both beIN Sport and USA Team Handball. For sure, it shouldn’t take much effort to convince beIN Sport to become a USA Team Handball sponsor. A beIN Sports advertisement on the USA website is a no brainer win-win. Surely banners at National Championships make sense too. And, why not a prominent jersey sponsorship: Watch America’s team on America’s Handball channel. Maybe beIN Sport could even be convinced to cover TV production costs for some matches in the U.S. to be aired, of course, on beIN Sport.

Well, as this article title suggests if there has been any effort expended by USA Team Handball to engage beIN Sport it has been unsuccessful. I know that a few phone calls have been made but I suspect that little beyond that has been done. Heck, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if several members of the Board of Directors don’t even know that beIN Sports is broadcasting handball on a regular basis. Regardless, it’s pretty clear that while I might think that engagement with beIN Sports should be a top priority it’s clearly pretty low on USA Team Handball’s job jar list.

John Ryan: Well, I would be remiss if I didn’t point a finger back at myself. After all I am the biggest and loudest advocate for getting more Team Handball on TV the U.S. I’ve set up a Facebook page which trickles in a few more members each and every week. I’ve learned far more than I would ever have wanted too about the arcane business of TV rights distribution. I’ve contacted every single entity listed above multiple times about the need to better promote Team Handball on TV in the U.S., but I have totally failed to affect change in any shape or form.

20 World Championship matches broadcast on a U.S. TV channel in HD. Cause for celebration for the handful that know and care, but the needle for this sport’s very low awareness quotient is still suck at near zero. Honestly, I’m starting to wonder if Team Handball is just cursed and doomed to forever to be a backwater sport that no one cares about.

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Puerto Rico on the World Stage

 

Puerto Rico Asst Coach Julio Sainz gets a haircut after Puerto Rico's victory over Kazakhkstan

Puerto Rico Asst Coach Julio Sainz gets a close shave after Puerto Rico’s victory over Kazakhkstan

Puerto Rico’s surprise 4th place finish at last Summer’s Pan American Championships earned them a ticket to their first ever World Championship.  Going into the tournament I figured the debutants were all but guaranteed to lose all their games on the way to a 24th place finish.  And, after their first four games in Group Play it sure looked like a good prediction as they lost to Romania, Norway, Russia and Spain by an average of 28 goals.  Their last Group Play game against also winless Kazakhstan presented an opportunity, but they were still big underdogs.  Kazakhstan is by no means a world power, but they’ve been respectable in the past, even qualifying for the 2008 Olympics.  Perhaps, motivated by assistant coach Julio Sainz’s promise to shave his head Puerto Rico used their speed and quickness to win 30-27.  (And, for those of you don’t know, Coach Sainz has been the Assistant coach for the U.S. and the LA Women’s side for several years.  Apparently, he’s on loan to the “Commonwealth”)

I’ve been able to watch bits and pieces of Puerto Rico’s matches on beIN sport.  They’ve got a really young side with an average age of 22.  And, they are undersized as well with an average height of just 5 ft 6 inches.  The inexperience really shows with lots of turnovers, but their quickness is comparable to the top teams.  If they can get some of their players playing in Europe where they can get more experience this team could have a bright future.  One player in particular, 20 year old Jailene Maldanado will likely garner some interest from a European club.  Teams are always looking for a decent lefty and surely some coach has already figured out that if she’s doing pretty well already with little experience, she might just become a star with quality regular competition.

What Might Have Been

Watching the matches on beIN Sports also has me reflecting quite a bit on what it might have meant for the U.S. Women if they had qualified.  It’s not entirely clear, but as far as I can tell there’s only a handful of women currently training at Auburn.  Certainly there’s not enough to scrimmage and reportedly a tryout last month had no women candidates.  The Head Coach is coaching a Men’s club team in France.  Essentially, there’s almost no program right now.  Qualifying for the World Championships would have kept the program intact and have given several players a tremendous experience on the world stage.  That being said, with an average age of 28.5 I’m not so sure that enough of the U.S. players were young enough that they could have realistically used the experience to build upon for future success

 

Also, seeing Puerto Rico play on a U.S. based TV network had me contemplating what it might have meant if the U.S. had qualified.  For several years now I’ve been advocating a sponsorship or partnership deal between USA Team Handball and beIN Sports US.  A no brainer deal that would be a clear win-win for both sides.  U.S. qualification could very well have been a tipping point that would have facilitated such an arrangement.  For sure one would think there would some promotion of a U.S. National Team playing on U.S. TV.  Something that doesn’t happen very often.

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Taking Stock and Shaking My Head in Frustration: Can Someone Please Educate Me?

Auburn formally designated as an Olympic Training Center:  Can someone out there explain to me why this is such a good deal for USA Team Handball?

Auburn formally designated as an Olympic Training Center: Can someone out there explain to me why this is such a good deal for USA Team Handball?

This past weekend was a big one for USA Team Handball as Auburn University was formally designated as an U.S. Olympic Training Center. On the face of it there is seemingly nothing to complain about putting some Olympic rings flags up and marking the entrance of a few buildings. There’s real cachet with the Olympic rings. Things are finally looking up for USA Team Handball…

Well, seemingly nothing to complain about. Problem is, however, that our current residency program is pretty much a façade. Best that I can tell neither the Men’s or Women’s team currently have enough athletes to scrimmage. And, even if they do neither team is populated with the types of athletes needed to credibly make a run at Olympic Qualification. The program is simply too austere for effective recruiting. How austere? As I highlighted in this previous series (Link 1, 2 and 3) athletes are being provided essentially nothing. They are even being asked to fork over cash to travel to competition.

Right now, it’s not even clear whether the U.S. Women have a coach. The website still lists Coach Latulippe in multiple places, but in July he signed a contract to coach, Valvert, a lower level Men’s regional team in France. Maybe, he’s going to coach both Valvert and the U.S.? Who knows? One might assess this is news item worthy of a short mention on the USA Team Handball website, but to date nothing has been posted.

I’m not sure how much more funding it would take to improve recruiting, support multiple overseas trips for competition, room and board, stipends, etc, but I’m guessing $1-2 Million dollars would be needed to do the job right. But, honestly even if the money somehow starts rolling in I don’t think that a training center modeled after our “success” in the 80’s and 90’s will get us over the hump today. Our Pan American competition is far tougher, the sport is more professionalized in Europe and top athletes graduating from college have many more options today.

Bottom Line: Taking cross over athletes in their 20s, giving them a crash course in Team Handball and qualifying for an Olympics was a reasonable, (but shortsighted) strategy 20-30 years ago. With superior American athletes we could even scare the top European sides once in awhile. But, even under the far better circumstances that existed back then, we still couldn’t beat those sides in Olympic competition.

To think that we can dust off the old strategy and somehow do it better now? With European handball so much more professionalized? With the Argentines and Brazilians grass roots youth programs now producing athletes signing contracts in European leagues at ages younger than we introduce athletes to the game? Seriously, what are we smoking? And, more seriously, might there be better ways to expend scarce funds and staff man-hours?

Logical Predictions Going Forward

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at the first two years of the Residency Program and project the trajectory going forward.

Now to August 2016: The rest of 2015 and first half of 2016 will continue to be extremely lean for the Residency Program at Auburn. With no major competitions and no coach, the women’s program will be a shell of what it was last year. But, as that side was way too old to begin with, hopefully it will be an opportunity to essentially start over with new talent.

On the Men’s side there’s still a coach and some key World Championship qualification competitions coming up. The North American & Caribbean Championship will take place sometime in early 2016 and, assuming a good result, the Pan American Championships in June. However, with the Residency Program lacking quality experienced athletes any remote chance at qualification will actually hinge on major contributions from Americans playing in Europe, either veterans who couldn’t get the job done last time or a crop of expat newcomers who’ve shown promise in Jr. competitions. Or, to put it another way, success will in many respects just invalidate the program at Auburn. My crystal ball assesses that the Men will qualify for the final tournament, but finish no better than 6th.

August 2016 (Rio Olympics) to September 2017: The Rio Olympics will surely increase interest in the sport and recruiting should pick up significantly. But, with an austere Residency Program too many of the recruits will be older, hard workers instead of the younger “5 Star” recruits needed for long term success. During this time frame it will be the Women’s turn to make a run at qualifying for the 2017 WC. Assuming a youth movement with some decent recruits the women should qualify for the Women’s Pan American Championship, but it’s hard to project an inexperienced team finishing higher than 6th or so. And, if there isn’t money for travel to preparatory competition, the results could be much worse.

September 2017 (2024 Olympic Host City Decision) to August 2019 (2019 PANAM Games in Peru): The next two years will likely provide more of the same in terms of results. I would like to think that full time residency programs with three to four more years under their belts will be able to qualify for the 2019 World Championships.  Certainly, that should be the expectation if the U.S. is going to continue to spend the bulk of its limited funds on the Residency Program. If the program becomes less austere I think the women will succeed in qualifying. With the men it will be a tougher road due to stronger competition. I’d like to think we will have a side that can reach the Pan American semifinals though.

But, let’s have no allusions about achieving an unreasonable metric. There is virtually no chance that the U.S. Men or Women will go from not even qualifying for the PANAM Games in 2015 to capturing the Gold Medal Olympic ticket in 2019.

Does this mean the U.S. shouldn’t even try? Of course not. But, it should mean that trying should be done with a very close eye on 2024. This will be even more true should Los Angeles gets the nod for the 2024 Olympics. With guaranteed Olympic qualification the selling of an Olympic dream to prospective recruits will immediately become more realistic. The recruiting needle won’t move instantaneously, but come 2018, 2019 more athletes will see a run at 2020 coupled with guaranteed qualification in 2024 as enough enticement to stick with the program.

August 2019 – August 2024 (An LA Olympics?): My crystal ball goes pretty cloudy at this point. Too many unknowns. It could be that the prospect of substantial funding in the LA area inevitably moves a residency program there. It could be that a limping along program in Auburn is finally built up. Regardless, I do know this: Once it becomes clear that an Olympics is coming to U.S. soil the need to put together respectable teams that won’t embarrass will become paramount. And, if you haven’t spent the last 6 years or so developing grass roots you’ll need a residency program as a quick band-aid fix. Yes, even I will be on board with a residency program at that point.

Why It Matters

I guess one could look at these predictions with a grain of salt: “No kidding, Sherlock, we all know that the odds are long, but we gotta try. We gotta go down fighting.” My response, however, is pointed and loud: “Uh… No, we don’t. OMG WE DON’T.

The retrospective question that I’m afraid we will be asking come 2024 will be, “What bang for our buck did we get for our austere Residency Program established in 2013? How many athletes did we produce that are now on an Olympic team roster? I’ll project right now that the answer for 2013, 2014 and 2015 might very well be zero. Certainly, no more than 1 or 2. And, I suspect that if I do the same calculus for 2016 and 2017 it will continue to be a low, low number. Maybe by 2018, 2019 the number could reach 5 or so players making a 2024 Olympic roster, but only if we automatically qualify for an LA Olympics.

So why on Earth should we in 2015 direct the lion’s share of resources towards a pyramid tip that cannot and will not get us there? Why not instead come up with a plan which will methodically work right now on building a pyramid base so that 9 years from now we can have a pyramid tip with a decent chance? A grass roots plan to produce enough quality athletes so that a residency program for high school graduates might actually start to make sense.

Why do we continue to focus on short terms solutions that are all but hopeless in the face of long odds? We’ve all seen this movie before. Why do we think it’s going to have a different ending this time? What are we doing? Somebody please explain to me how it can possibly all make sense? Seriously, I’m tired of having a bewildering one-sided argument with myself.

Put your thoughts down on paper and I’ll give you the floor on this website to make the case.

It shouldn’t take you long if the Auburn Residency program is truly a “no-brainer.” Be sure to include expected benchmarks for National Team performance and numbers of world class athletes to be developed on an annual basis. Also, a quick overview as to why options like the Aarhus Academy and grass roots development are not better options for the spending of scarce resources.

A Personal Note

On a personal level, what may be the most frustrating aspect of all this is that somehow despite being pretty down right diplomatic and a growing pile of evidence supporting my views I’ve been written off by some as just another malcontent “hater”. Well, I guess I can see to this some extent. You don’t have to have been following handball in this country very long to know that there are quite a few malcontent haters out there. Individuals that simply point out problems with no context to the fiscal challenges the sport faces or any realistic solutions or alternatives. Just some Donald Trump like confidence that they are smart and those that in charge are stupid.

Lumping me into that group might be convenient, but it’s a ridiculous notion. The reality is that few people have thought as long and hard about the challenges this sport faces in this country. And, only a handful of folks have the international experience coupled with grass roots credibility to fully understand the real challenge. (Or, to put it another way, there are a lot of residency program supporters out there that either 1) don’t comprehend the strength of our competition or 2) have never lifted a finger to support grass roots development.) And, finally no one else has taken all their experience and ideas, critically analyzed them and put them down on paper like I have. No one even comes close.

So write me off as a malcontent hater if you like. Or weigh the logically constructed arguments that I have put forward vs. the total lack of strategic documentation backing the current direction of USA Team Handball. Then couple that with the evidence to date and the mounting evidence surely to follow. Finally, take into account my repeated offerings to roll up the sleeves and finish the strategic planning that was started and abruptly stopped with no justification. Then ask yourself who’s the team player and who isn’t. And, if you’re confident the sport in this country is headed in the right direction take a big step back and ask yourself just what exactly you are basing that belief on.

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USA Handball Referees Gaining Experience and Respect on the World Stage

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USA referees Christian Posch and Lars Jedermann a year ago at the Women’s Youth Championship. Now they are officiating professional matches in Austria.

This past summer, the USA’s top pair of officials, Christian Posch and Lars Jedermann had the opportunity to officiate several matches at the Jr. World Championships including some key matchups normally reserved for more experienced/European couples. Officiating assignments are not always awarded strictly on merit, but reports from folks “in the know” are that the American couple earned those assignments based on strong performances. They called matches consistently and accurately without controversy- The hallmark of good officiating.

What’s fairly remarkable about this performance is that they performed so well without calling matches on a regular basis.   Club matches in the U.S. are sporadic and in most cases with a level of play several rungs below International competition even at the Jr. Level. So historically match officials in the U.S. and many other Pan American countries might have been decent and competent, but lacking the opportunity for more frequent matches at a higher level it was challenging to take the next step on the world stage.

But, now Posch and Jedermann are getting a unique opportunity to officiate some matches at a higher level in the Austrian 1st Division (Link). Due to a shortage of available referees and some temporary flexibility with their day jobs in the U.S. they have been given the opportunity to officiate several league matches.   Reports so far indicate that they are continuing to gain respect on the world stage. The U.S. won’t be playing at the Olympics next Summer in Rio and qualifying for 2020 might also be a bit of a stretch. But, could two quality officials from a neutral handball nation find their way on to the World stage in Tokyo 5 years now? Time will tell, but if the current trajectory is maintained it’s for sure a distinct possibility.

More about Christian Posch and Lars Jedermann: Christian Posch is originally from Austria, and is medical doctor currently living in Boston and conducting research at Harvard University. Lars Jedermann, is originally from Denmark and lives in Houston, Texas.

IHF Interview from the Jr. World Championships: Link

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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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Charting a Way Forward for USA Team Handball: Option 14: The JUCO Transfer Strategy: Proactively Identify and Recruit Junior College Athletes

UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian and arguably the best JUCO transfer of all time, Larry Johnson.  Could USA Team Handball take a page out of Tark’s playbook and start a JUCO pipeline to its residency programs?

UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian and arguably the greatest JUCO transfer of all time, Larry Johnson. Could USA Team Handball take a page out of Tark’s playbook and start a JUCO pipeline to its residency programs?

USA Team Handball recently established a partnership with the Alabama Community College Conference. As I’m sometimes brushed off as one of the many naysayers in the USA Team Handball community let me unequivocably state that this is a great idea and one that I didn’t come up with. That being said here are some thoughts as to how this initiative might be applied on a grander scale.

Background

Throughout its history USA Team Handball has recruited athletes from a variety of sources. Primary sources have been naturalized immigrants, expat citizens who learned the game in Europe, military athletes, former NCAA athletes and athletes who’ve played club handball in college. When USA Team Handball announced recently a partnership with the Alabama Community College Conference I had a couple of thoughts:

  • Has the U.S. ever recruited a national team athlete directly from a junior college?
  • What a great idea. How come I didn’t think of that?

As far as the first question goes, I couldn’t think of anyone. I’m sure the U.S. has had a few, but as far as I know it’s never been a prime focus. As to the second thought, I suspect the reason I didn’t think of that possibility is because I am (as many people are) a product of my own experiences. When I was growing up Junior Colleges (JUCOs) were primarily viewed as colleges where less serious students not interested in four year schools could learn a practical trade.

Flash forward 30 years and junior colleges/community colleges have matured quite a bit. Academically, they are stronger and more than just a few High School graduates are studying two years at a dramatically lower cost JUCO and then transferring to a four year institution to finish their Bachelor’s degree.

The UNLV Model: Building a Powerhouse with JUCO Transfers

Playing Air Force service basketball 25 years ago I had the opportunity to play against several JUCO teams in California. It was a real interesting mix of talent and quality. Some schools had marginal talent as if they just thrown their teams together with whatever athletes they could get. And, other schools were absolutely loaded. Antelope Valley Community College in Lancaster, California was one such school. Coached by Jerry Tarkanian’s son it was clearly a UNLV feeder school with quite a bit of talent, including future NBA player J.R. Rider.

Perhaps, Jerry Tarkanian wasn’t the first college basketball coach to primarily fill his roster with JUCO transfers, but he surely was the coach that perfected the model. While other schools looked primarily for High School stars to contribute 4 years, Tark the Shark knew that it was going to be tougher to get those kids to come to UNLV as college freshman. Year in and year out he found the best athletes he could get, melded them into a team quickly and often ran other teams out of the gym. As his reputation as the JUCO Transfer king grew the athletes he got became better and better and he built a powerhouse program that was cons finally culminating in a national championship in 1990.

The JUCO Handball Transfer

While one can still expect the top JUCO players will continue to transfer to NCAA schools offering a scholarship for their final two years of college, what about all those athletes not getting scholarship offers? Every year thousands of those athletes will do some real hard contemplation in regards to their athletic and academic future. Some will transfer to a lower division NCAA school which will offer tuition assistance (but, not a full scholarship), some will just continue college without playing a sport, and some will simply enter the work force.

And, all of those athletes would be potential candidates for consideration at a Residency Program. What really make this strategy interesting is that these athletes should indeed be ready and willing to listen to a team handball pitch. Their dreams of professional or even NCAA Div 1 athletics are over and they’ve completed their JUCO career.  They’ve got to move on. Playing for Team USA at Auburn while finishing their degree might sound a lot better than playing Div 2 or Div 3 at some far flung place or just entering the work force for the rest of their life.

As I’ve highlighted before, getting the best athletes possible at the youngest ages possible is key. But, convincing these athletes to switch to handball while the dreams of their primary sport are still alive at age 18 is a near impossibility. At age 20, though, some will be ready. USA Team Handball can also recruit some better quality NCAA Div 1 athletes at age 22, but those 2 years can make a huge difference. First off, many college graduates are inclined to hang up their athletic shoes and pursue other interests. Secondly, the development from age 20-22 could lead to becoming World Class at a young enough age to lead to pro contract.

Options for USA Team Handball Consideration

USA Team Handball’s partnership with Auburn Community Colleges is a start, but here’s some more possibilities to consider for the JUCO Handball Transfer Strategy

  • Target Junior Colleges on a national level: There are several hundred junior colleges in the U.S. with athletic programs. Engaging those colleges and conferences effectively would take a considerable amount of networking. Recruiting would also need to be very strategic in that USA Team Handball would be seeking quality athletes that aren’t being sought after by NCAA Div 1 schools. Ideally, these would be athletes that are a notch below in their chosen sport, but are ideally suited for Team Handball. To assist in identifying talent USA Team Handball could engage a number of recruiting services which conduct camps and rank talent.
  • Conduct an Olympic Festival Style Camp for JUCO Athletes: During the summer a number of camps with top JUCO talent are held to showcase talent for 4 year colleges. As an example, here’s a list of athletes attending a camp in Georgia: Link USA Team Handball could conduct a 10 day camp to introduce JUCO athletes to the sport and competition could be staged between regional teams. It goes without saying the athletes invited would all be potential candidates for National Team Residency Programs.
  • Create a JUCO All Star team for Collegiate and Open National Championships: Identify a select group of athletes in the late winter/early spring and conduct regular training for them as a group. This could be done on a regional basis and that team would then compete in the collegiate and/or national championships.o

Pros

Broadening of the National Team player pool: JUCO athletes are an untapped resource and an organized, structure program to identify JUCO talent could significantly broaden the overall player pool.

Earlier identification and commitment of crossover athletes: As previously highlighted a JUCO transfer will usually be around 20 years old. Getting a new player at age 20, vice 22 significantly improves the chances that that athlete will be able to become a World Class athlete prior to leaving the program due to life issues. Additionally, it also improves the possibility that the athlete can sign a professional contract in his mid 20s.

Cons

Diverts resources from other efforts:  If USA Team Handball wants to really focus on identifying and developing JUCO talent it will take man-hours and funding to do so properly. This means finding more revenue or diverting revenue from other cost centers. And, it could mean diverting funds from efforts to support traditional 4 year college programs.

Junior College structure isn’t conducive to club development. While JUCOs might be a great source for athletes for residency programs, as two year colleges with many of its students commuting to and from school they aren’t very strong candidates for creating club programs. As club programs can perform a lot of the development work needed for new athletes focusing on JUCO programs will detract from club growth in the U.S.

Risks

Failure to draw JUCO transfer interest.   In theory, JUCO transfers are an untapped talent pool, but in reality it may be challenging to recruit such talent to a new sport they are unfamiliar with. As with high school graduates who have been playing their chosen sport for years, JUCO athletes may simply be unwilling to abandon their first sport yet.

Failure to attract quality JUCO transfers.   While JUCOs are an untapped source the talent pool is somewhat limited. Many of the athletes at JUCOs are playing there simply because they weren’t good enough to get recruited by a Div 1 NCAA school. USA Team Handball will need to carefully look for “diamonds in the rough” that are a perfect fit for Team Handball.

Costs

College Coordinator. Effectively recruiting JUCO talent would take a considerable amount of time, but it could be simply one part of an overall college coordinator’s job jar. Depending on the experience level desire this salary would be in the neighborhood of $30-60K.

Olympic Festival Style Camp. Funding an Olympic Festival Style camp will be a considerable expense especially if athlete costs for travel and lodging are provided. A lower cost program could be done whereby athletes pay to participate, but finding attendees to participate could be challenging

JUCO College All Star Team. A JUCO All Star Team if done on a regional basis could be fairly inexpensive. Athletes from multiple colleges could practice at a centralized location and have a focused training camp prior to the tournament. Team entry fees could be waived and volunteer coaches could be assigned. As, with many other initiatives, however, paid help to organize and coach the team would significantly improve the chances of this initiative succeeding.

Timing for Implementation

Initial outreach such as what has been done with Alabama Junior Colleges can begin immediately. Greater outreach in the form of nationwide recruitment will require additional funding and would necessitate the redirection of limited funding from other priorities. One could argue, however, that an Olympic Festival style camp, clinic or tryouts in conjunction with the 2016 Olympics next summer might be a good strategic point to rollout a concentrated effort.

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Charting a Way Forward for USA Team Handball: Option 6: The Title IX Field Hockey Strategy (Part 1): How Women’s and Men’s Handball Differ

Best finishes at World Championship by select non-European nations.  Should the U.S. try to climb both of these mountains or select the one the provides the greater chance of success?

Best finishes at World Championship by select non-European nations. Should the U.S. try to climb both of these mountains or select the one the provides the greater chance of success?

Developing Team Handball in the U.S. and fully funding Men’s and Women’s National Teams is expensive. But, what if the USA Team Handball decided to focus its limited resources primarily on just developing Women’s Handball and supporting its Women’s National Teams? In part 1, I highlight the difference between Men’s and Women’s handball development and structure world-wide and the argument for the U.S. to focus its resources on Women’s programs.

Men’s and Women’s Sports: Vastly Different Mountains to Climb

With the U.S. one of the favorites in the currently ongoing Women’s World Cup it routinely begs the question. Why is the U.S. Women’s soccer team amongst the elite while the U.S. Men have just basically earned a good measure of respect?

  • Women’s International soccer is a relatively new sport. While the Men’s World Cup has been played regularly since 1930, the Women didn’t even bother to hold a World Cup until 1991. Instead of playing catch up to nations that have been playing regular high level national competition the U.S. Women got in on the ground floor.
  • Most nations don’t take Women’s sports as seriously as they do Men’s sports. Not only is Women’s soccer a relatively new sport most of the World’s nations simply don’t take women’s sports very seriously. At the extreme end of this spectrum some Muslim nations either don’t allow or strongly discourage women’s sports. While few nations take it to that extreme in many places in the world the cultural norm is that sports are for boys. This is changing at a semi-rapid pace, but it wasn’t too long ago that even Western European nations were almost devoid of girl’s sports. In particular, here’s a striking anecdote: In France, one Paris based club only added a girl’s team at the insistence of Americans living in Paris. In fact, a good argument could be made that no nation takes Women’s soccer as seriously as the U.S. does.
  • A U.S. law, commonly referred to as Title IX has strongly encouraged U.S. Colleges to provide scholarships for women in many sports, including soccer. It’s pretty hard to understate the tremendous impact this law has had on the development of the Women’s game. With several thousand young women playing competitive college soccer the U.S. has the largest developmental league in the world. And, all of this is funded by universities and hasn’t cost U.S. Soccer a dime.

And, many of these same advantages also apply to other sports. Here’s a comparison of the best performances by U.S. Men’s and Women’s teams in the 9 Olympic team sports:

Best Team USA Performances since 1950
Men Women
Olympic World Champion- ships Olympic World Champion- ships Official NCAA Sport?
Basketball 1st 1st 1st 1st Yes
Ice Hockey 1st 1st 1st 1st Yes
Volleyball 1st 1st 1st 1st Yes
Water Polo 2nd 1st 1st 1st Yes
Soccer 9th 8th 1st 1st Yes
Field Hockey 11th 3rd 3rd Yes (Women)
Curling 3rd 1st 4th 1st No
Rugby 7s 13th 3rd No
Team Handball 9th 15th 5th 11th No

 

It can be debated as to whether the USA Men’s or Women’s basketball team has been more dominant over the years, but there’s little debate in the 8 other sports: Across the board, the USA Women have performed better overall with more championships and more consistent top 3 finishes. And, if one looks at the places where neither the USA Men nor Women have done very well you’ll also see a “no” in the collegiate column. This lack of competitive collegiate leagues and the “free” development/scholarship funding to go with it has put those sports at a significant disadvantage.

Historical Climbs up the Team Handball Mountain (Other Nations)

While the U.S. hasn’t had much success against the European Handball hegemony other nations have had more luck climbing up the Team Handball Mountain. Notably, two Women’s team’s South Korea and Brazil have planted flags at the summit winning Olympic and World Championship Gold. To date, however, no Men’s teams have had that level of success. The South Korean Men did earn a silver medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and Tunisia took 4th when they hosted the World Championships in 2005. And while those sides have maintained a measure of respectability those results were clearly boosted by the home court advantage.  Not to mention the fact, that both Tunisia and Egypt have pretty strong development and leagues on the men’s side that are pretty comparable to European nations.

The reasons for those 1st place successes on the Women’s side are more directly attributable to the Women’s game being far less developed than the Men’s game. There are Women’s professional leagues and clubs in Europe, but the overall number is significantly less then the Men. The reason is simple: There is less interest from players/fans and, accordingly less money to go around.  Don’t get me wrong, the Women’s players are hard working and dedicated.  They just don’t have the resources that the top Men’s clubs have.  And, this also applies at the lower levels where there are fewer semi-professional and amateur clubs. All this adds up to a significantly smaller and relatively less skilled player pool feeding into Women’s national teams. If there are a 25 Level 10 players (10 on a scale of 1 to 10) playing Men’s Handball today there may be just 5 Level 10 Women’s players. If there are 75 Level 9 Men’s players, perhaps there are just 20 Women’s players.   And, on down line the same disparity applies. These numbers and levels are totally arbitrary, but make no mistake there is a big different in terms of both quantity and relative quality.

So, what does this mean to anyone calculating the feasibility of scaling the mountain? Well, it means that the Men’s mountain is Mt Everist and the Women’s mountain is Mt McKinley. For sure both mountains are scalable, but which is going to cost you more money, take you longer to train for and which is going to have a better chance of success?

The Women’s Handball Mountain: A Faster and Easier Climb

In purely logical, analytical terms it’s a true no-brainer. Assembling a competitive women’s team that could medal in an Olympics or World Championships is a significantly easier task. Not an easy task, for sure, but one as demonstrated by Brazil and South Korean that can be accomplished. One might even envision the possibility of accomplishing it primarily through a traditional Residency Program. It would take a substantially increased budget and phenomenal recruiting, but it might be feasible.

Whereas on the Men’s side with the level and depth of professionalism that exists in Europe the equivalent task is truly daunting. Honestly, expecting amateur athletes new to the sport in their mid 20s to take down sides populated with players playing professionally for the top European clubs is fantasyland. It’s roughly the equivalent of the German Basketball Federation recruiting 2nd and 3rd division Handball players, moving them to a college town in Bavaria for 2-3 years to learn the game of basketball and then expecting them to take down National Teams populated with NBA players. No, climbing the Men’s Handball Mountain can only be done the hard way with years spent developing grass roots and targeted programs that can get some Americans playing professionally.

Can the U.S. Just Choose to Climb One Mountain?: The Field Hockey Example

Coupled with the logic that the U.S. could become more competitive on the Women’s side faster and with less overall effort, are the current fiscal challenges the U.S. Federation faces. Right now there really isn’t enough funding to properly fund even one residency program, let alone two. If USA Team Handball, however, chose to cut the Men’s program that money could be immediately put to good use on the women’s side. Right now that might be just the salary of a Men’s head coach, but even that salary and the accompanying man-hours could be put to good use towards recruiting or an annual junior women’s camp and European tour. And, if fundraising efforts improve that additional funding could be fully dedicated towards operating a full fledged Women’s Residency program, instead of two austere programs that just can’t quite cut it.

All well in good, you might say, but USA Team Handball isn’t a private corporation where a handful of owners can just arbitrarily decide what’s best for the business. For sure, there might be more than a few Men’s Handball players that would find such a decision to be pretty bogus.

There is, however, some precedence from another Federation: USA Field Hockey. In terms of funding, the Men’s and Women’s programs there is a dramatic disparity with the U.S. Men’s program consistently get the short end of the stick in terms of coaching, training and competition opportunities.

Now clearly, there are some circumstances with USA Field Hockey that don’t apply to USA Team Handball. In particular, Women’s participation in Field Hockey dramatically dwarfs Men’s participation. Whereas, with USA Team Handball the opposite is true. In fact, there’s probably less than 100 active women’s player in the U.S. with U.S. passports. Also, Field Hockey support decisions are surely driven by performance and the Men’s team has never been competitive, having only participated in U.S. hosted Olympics and having never qualified for the World Championships. Whereas in Team Handball, the Men’s and Women’s National Team’s performances have roughly been equal over the years. Overall, I’d give a slight edge to the Women, but the difference is not dramatic.

But, it’s not clear to me whether these current circumstances preclude a possible Board of Directors strategic decision to provide more funding to the Women’s program. And, if one factors the possible Title IX aspects of such a decision it could become a validated reality in a short period of time. For instance, if USA Team Handball strategically worked a funding initiative with the NCAA, the South East Conference (SEC) and other entities to establish Team Handball as a Women’s NCAA sport it could create a greater number of Women’s players. (It’s not a coincidence that Field Hockey is a sanctioned NCAA Women’s sport and it also has a greater number of women’s players.) In theory, USA Team Handball would then be bound to support its women programs with greater support at the National level.

Information on USA Field Hockey Demographics, Funding and Strategic Planning:  Link

All good in theory. In part 2, I will take a closer look at the pros and cons, costs, risks and timing for implementing a Women’s focused strategy.

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2015 Women’s Pan American Championships: An Opportunity Squandered and Time to Reassess the Women’s Program

The Numbers

By the numbers:  A snapshot of the U.S. Team performance at the 2015 Pan American Championships.

By the numbers: A snapshot of the U.S. Team performance at the 2015 Pan American Championships.

For reference, here’s a similar table from the 2013 Pan American Championships: Link

An Opportunity Squandered

Going into the tournament, based on recent results I pegged the U.S. as most likely finishing in 4th, 7th or 8th place. This was based on a favorable draw placing the U.S. in the same group as 2 teams it recently had beaten (Greenland and Puerto Rico) and 2 unknown quantities (Paraguay and Venezuela). But, Puerto Rico and Greenland had other plans and they apparently made some adjustments to turn the tables on the U.S. Coupled with losses to Brazil and Paraguay and a victory over Venezuela, the U.S. was relegated to consolation play where they then easily defeated Guatemala before losing to Chile in the 9th place game.

If you are a cynic you can look at the team’s overall ranking (10th out of 12 teams) and conclude that it was the worst performance in U.S. history.  And, in terms of final team ranking you would be 100% correct.

Recent Result in Pan American Competitions

2007 Pan American Championships: 7th out of 8 teams
2007 PANAM Games: Did not qualify
2009 Pan American Championships: Did not qualify
2011 Pan American Championships: Did not qualify
2011 PANAM Games: 8th out of 8 teams
2013 Pan American Championships: 8th out of 10 teams
2015 Pan American Championships: 10th out 12 teams
2015 PANAM Games: Did not Qualify

If you are more of an optimist, however, you could look at the score lines and conclude that the performance was better than other recent Pan American Championships in that the U.S. was competitive in every single game except their first game against eventual champion Brazil. And, even in that game it was close for a half.

Overall, I lean a bit more, however, to the cynic side of things. This was a golden opportunity to send a team to the World Championship. Unfortunately the team that seized that opportunity, though, was Puerto Rico.

Some Key Data Points that Should Raise Some Questions

U.S. Roster Average Age: 28.5: I’ve highlighted on numerous occasions that the average age of the U.S. National Team is much higher than it should be for a team that is essentially a developmental team. Across the board, the players on the U.S. roster are about 4 to 5 years older than they should be for the skill level they currently have. Yes, they can continue to improve, but their raw athletic ability will continue to decline and life issues will inevitably start to interfere with their ability to fully committ to the sport. I’ve been told that a youth movement is coming, but I see no signs of it. Instead I see a handful of “new” players that aren’t exactly “young” or exceptionally gifted. Dedicated, hard working for sure, but that will only get you so far.  Finally, I haven’t seen the rosters with the birth dates of the other nations participating in the tournament, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the U.S. had the oldest team participating.

Top 3 Scorers (Goals) (Training Location):
Karoline Borg (30) (Norway)
Kathy Darling (26) (France)
Julia Taylor (22) (France)

Borg plays for Njard in Norway’s 1st Division (actually the 2nd level in Norway) while Taylor and Darling have been playing at the N1F level (the 3rd level) in France. Taylor, however, has been only practicing this year, but has signed a contract for next year.

Probably, not coincidentally, they also were the 3 leading scorers for Team USA scoring nearly half of the U.S. goals (78 of 161). Borg even left the tournament early for college exams, but still ended up leading the team in scoring. Regular competition hones skills and keeps players at the top of their game. A Residency Program in Alabama simply can’t provide the competition experience that a decent club in Europe can provide.

Maybe if the U.S. had more players playing in Europe we’d be having a different conversation altogether. As, I’ve pointed out in the past, a Residency Program might have some real value if its goal was primarily to develop younger players to the point where they can play competitively in Europe at a higher level club.

References related to Puerto Rico’s Quickness in the USA Team Handball Match Summary: 5. Sometimes without witnessing a match it’s hard to get a sense as to what happened, but this recap sure gives the reader some good insight as to how Puerto Rico turned the tables on the U.S. And, it should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen the U.S. play in recent years. Team USA lacks quickness that often can be exploited with the right tactics. As a former leaden foot defender myself, I sympathize mightily. Focus and determination will only carry you so far. The U.S. really needs to emphasize quickness in it’s recruiting if it wants better results.

Currently Non-Training Veteran Players (Called Up): 2
Residency Players (Staying Home): 7 (Estimate)

Two athletes (Jennifer Fithian and Tomuke Holmes) on the 16 player roster are currently not active with a club or training at the Residency Program in Alabama. Hats off to these two veterans for making the roster. It can be extremely challenging to keep yourself fit and your handball skills sharp, but they’ve done it. It’s certainly not their fault that they were deemed more valuable than players training full time at Auburn. In particular, it’s downright amazing that Tomuke Ebuwei at nearly 39 years of age can beat out athletes nearly half her age that are training full time.

The decision to call in veterans instead of Residency Program athletes, though, is a glaring indicator that USA Team Handball is not getting the types of recruits it would like to. I would surmise that if the decision on what athletes would make the team was close the edge would have gone to younger athletes with more future potential. The fact that it apparently wasn’t a close call is an indictment on recruiting.

Stephanie Hesser Stats
2013 Pan American Championship goals scored: 27 (led team)
2015 Pan American Championship goals scored: 0 (failed to make team roster)

Probably, what has me shaking my head the most is that Team USA’s leading scorer from the 2013 Pan American Championship, Stephanie Hesser, couldn’t earn a spot amongst the 16 players selected for 2015. Based on the U.S. team’s results her performance in training has either fallen dramatically or there’s something else going on behind the scenes. All the more troubling because at 21 she’s one of the few players young enough and skilled enough to possibly be a game changer for the program in her mid to late twenties.

Chances for 2020 Olympic Qualification

With 2016 Olympic Qualification now 100% over thoughts turn towards 2020 prospects. Barring a change to the Olympic Qualification process this will likely mean defeating the current World Champions Brazil in 2019 at the PANAM Games in Peru. The U.S. played Brazil close for a half, before losing 28-14 in Group Play. A far better score line than other recent encounters, but this Brazil team was not the same team that won the World Championships 18 months earlier. With several players unavailable due to European club commitments this experimental side had only 5 hold overs from the WC squad and was essentially a Brazilian B Side that had never played together before as a team. And, they still dominated the tournament.

Come 2019 it’s likely that Brazil won’t be quite as strong a team as they are now, but it’s hard to think that they will have dropped too far in quality. It’s a real stretch, though, to think we can put together a side to knock them off. But, I’d like to think that come 4 years the U.S. will be able to field a better side. A team that is capable of qualifying for the PANAM Games and securing a World Championship slot. There’s a couple of ways the U.S. could go about such an effort, though.

  • It could keep the basic roster intact and add a handful of players gradually. This would present the best chances for near term success and qualification for the 2017 World Championships.
  • It could overhaul the roster and purposefully recruit younger athletes, ideally athletes in the 18-22 age bracket. This would probably limit chances for near term success, but could set the stage for a realistic run at 2024 Olympic qualification

Time for Some Accountability?

To sum up it’s really hard to put a silver lining on this recent performance. And, logically it’s time for USA Team Handball to consider making some personnel decisions.

It’s no secret I thought the original hiring of Coach Latulippe was highly questionable due to his poor record in his first go round with the U.S. and a very mixed record as a club coach in France. These results are pretty strong evidence that the second go round isn’t going much better. I don’t think USA Team Handball should be spending its limited funds on a full time coach, but if they do decide such a position should be funded it’s time to start a search for a new coach.

And, USA Team Handball should also take a long look at keeping the man who hired Coach Latulippe, High Performance Director, Dave Gascon. I’ve disagreed with just about everything he’s been involved with for the past several years, from the failure to hire a new CEO in time for the promotional opportunities of the 2012 Olympics, to the short circuiting of the Strategic Planning organized by the USOC, to the hiring of full time coaches even before a Residency Program was established to the rush to approve the Auburn Residency program prior to the seating of a full board of directors. One decision after another that has had negative consequences or has yet to bear any significant fruit. All that being said, he’s to be commended for his time, all of which has been done at no cost to USA Team Handball.

Still, in my opinion it’s time to take stock.  To take a look at metrics such as team results and player recruiting and assess whether reasonable targets are being met now and what the trendlines look like if the status quo continues.  I think if that is done objectively the conclusion will be that it’s time to find some new blood and give those individuals an opportunity to see if they can have better success going forward.

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Is an Austere Residency Program Better than No Residency Program? Part 3: The Moral Obligation to not Short Change Athletes and the Problems Inherent with Self Funding

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In many ways the athletes at the Residency Program at Auburn are like unpaid interns. Hungry, goal oriented, hard working and willing to make big sacrifices to get ahead. Like some interns they maybe willing to work for free, even willing to pay to work, but that still doesn’t make it OK to not compensate them..

Part 2 of this series focused on the mixed messages being sent to USA Residency Program athletes. This part focuses on the moral obligations to athletes inherent with Residency Programs and the dilemma it creates in terms of other spending possibilities.

The Moral Obligation

So, let’s first review a couple positions I feel pretty strongly about:

1) At this point in time Residency Programs for U.S. National Teams make little sense. This is because:

– The U.S. is unlikely to qualify for an Olympics anytime soon
– We don’t have the necessary funding to properly fund its operation
– We should first carefully select a location based on multiple criteria
– And, underlying all of this is the reality that given the sport’s current status in the U.S. there are several other spending options that make more sense at this point in time

2) USA Team Handball should always fully fund athlete participation in qualification events for Olympic and World Championship qualification.

And, let me further qualify position 2) by stating that my position in regard to this funding is even stronger when those athletes are participating in a Residency Program. USA Team Handball should fund trips like that before just about any spending line. And, it doesn’t stop there. Athletes at Residency Programs should get room, board and a stipend. Find the money somewhere. Heck, cancel the Club National Championships if you have to. Just do it.

Huh? Wait and second, you might ask. How can you, John Ryan, bad mouth Residency Programs, leftwards, backwards and forwards and then turn around and argue that they should be the #1 funding priority, everything else be damned?

Well, the answer to this seeming contradiction comes from my own personal experience as a “sort of” national team residency member whose only compensation were cafeteria meal tickets that he had to fight to get. I say “sort of” because I never was invited to be on the national team and I didn’t live in the dorms. I just showed up and started practicing. Don’t get me wrong I was happy to be there and as a Captain in the Air Force I was better off financially than the rest of my teammates were with their meager compensation.

But, this personal experience and the experience of friends and teammates shapes my opinion. I thought our setup at the Olympic Training Center in 1990s was austere, but I see the deal that the athletes are getting at Auburn and think to myself,

“Holy Crap, at least I got 1 meal/day in the USOC cafeteria. These guys are getting Jack S&*#!”

In my opinion, it pretty much comes down to this: If an athlete is part of a Federation sponsored residency program the amount of time and sacrifice involved for all practical purposes makes that athlete an employee of USA Team Handball. And once you cross that threshold it creates a compelling moral obligation to compensate those athletes appropriately. Now a debate can be had as to what is appropriate compensation, but I would argue that it should at least be minimum wage. That would equate roughly to room, board and a small monthly stipend.

As I’ve already elaborated none of that’s being provided and worse, we’re asking athletes to pay for trips. It’s a huge disconnect. If USA Team Handball were a business the Residency Program athletes are either the equivalents of unpaid interns or slave labor. Perhaps, an exaggeration of the situation, but it paints a picture. And, this picture creates a moral dilemma. USA Team Handball might prefer to spend money on grass roots or youth programs, but when they do so they’ve also got to factor in that athlete making incredible sacrifices at Auburn. Should that dollar go to development or towards that athlete eating Mac & Cheese and soliciting friends for funds to go to Cuba?

Work Arounds and Rationalizations to the Moral Dilemma

Nobody faced with a moral dilemma likes to make choices because such choices are hard. Inevitably, such dilemmas lead to some rationalizations and work arounds to make the tough decisions a little easier to make. Here are some examples that appear to be at play:

Directed Donations through Social Media: USA Team Handball is raising funds for the upcoming Pan American Championships through a campaign at gofundme.com. On the surface this might seem like a great way for everyone that wants to help the USA Women’s team to do so directly. The reality, however, is that money is extremely fungible and it’s pretty easy to move funding from one budget line to another. For all practical purposes contributing to the Cuba trip simply raises USA Team Handball overall budget.   Money that USA Team Handball would have been spent for this trip (or should have been set aside for this trip) gets freed up to be spent elsewhere. It might make folks feel better, but the reality is that their contributions are also funding budget items that they don’t care about or worse, would never ever consider contributing to.

The Athletes Keep Telling us they’re Willing to Make Huge Sacrifices: USA Team Handball management can alleviate some of the moral dilemma by being brutally honest to all its athletes in residence about the budget situation. In fact, I would be surprised is this hasn’t already been the case.   No promises made and athletes can decide whether they want to live and train under those circumstances. A real tough recruiting pitch, but the morally correct thing to do. Still, it involves some level of rationalization as nobody likes to give recruits a “take it or leave it” choice. And, many of those that take the choice are so devoted that they will bear huge sacrifices to do so.   Yes, it’s free will, but it’s also taking advantage of people to a certain extent.

Short Changing the Athletes: In a fiscally constrained environment every line item suffers, but what happens if a little more funding comes available? Does USA Team Handball fund some development project or does it provide a stipend or meals for its residency athletes? Well, the temptation may very well be to keep the funding level the same for the athletes. After all, they’ve been happy with what they have, so there’s no compelling need to make them happier. Besides they signed up knowing what the financial circumstances are and it would help our sport to do that development effort. I, for one, can speak from personal experience that unless athletes speak out they may very well get shortchanged.

Self Funding: If funding is short, it’s also possible to ask the athletes to fund a portion, if not all of the trip. After all, they are the ones that will derive the most benefit from attending a prestigious tournament. Again, we have another example of how money is fungible. Yes, that funding coming out of the athlete’s pocket frees up funding that the Federation can spend elsewhere.

The Perils of Self Funding

The problems of self funding, however, go much deeper than merely squeezing the athletes out of what little money they have. It also can cause real problems with recruiting and create some awkward situations.

Really Limits Recruiting: Not every athlete will want or will be able to afford paying for room, board and trips to competition. As highlighted previously it will pretty much limit participation to the very dedicated. While dedication is always desired in an athlete it doesn’t necessarily correlate to the type of athletic skills needed to compete on the world stage.

Have’s and Have Not’s: Virtually every team (pro or amateur) has a bit of financial diversity amongst its teammates. Lebron James makes more than the 12th man on the bench. AAU teams have kids from poor neighborhoods and kids with a 3 car garage. Where it’s got to be pretty awkward though is the situation when making the team for the big tournament is a function of being willing and able to pay your way. At least it would have been pretty strange 22 years ago if I was willing to pay my way to the World Championships, but Darrick Heath was short of funds. This is a really bad situation that should be considered only as an absolute last resort.

How can this Problem be Solved?

So, how do you solve the Austere Residency Program problem. Well, there’s really only 2 ways:

  • Turn the austere Residency Program into a full-fledged Residency Program. Of course, this can only be done with more funding; a lot more funding. Room, board and stipends would be just a start. Funding would also be needed for regular trips for competition, scholarships, and recruiting. And, if you add up all the costs to do a Residency Program properly for 30 athletes it’s a pretty sizable chunk of change.
  • Close the Residency Program down until such time that sufficient funding becomes available.

Alternatives

I guess there are some alternatives.

Here’s a bad one: Ignore the problem and continue to run a Residency Program on the cheap. But, don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s better than nothing. It’s not. Not only is it extremely unlikely that it will achieve the desired effect of Olympic Qualification it will continue to siphon funding and man hours that would be better spent on development. Development that would lead to a larger player base that might make a future Residency Program viable in terms of available recruits.

And, here’s a better one worthy of further consideration. Dramatically restructure the Residency Program to focus only on developing players, 23 and younger.   But, honestly I’m not sure we even have the funding to do this right. Perhaps, may be the Federation should even consider abandoning one gender as a cost savings. I’ve yet to write a commentary on this option, but due to Title 9 and generally weaker competition worldwide this means keeping the Women’s program at the expense of the Men.

Final Thoughts

As I written this latest commentary I can’t help but reflect on my own Residency Program experience and wonder if I’m being like the strict parent telling his kids in college to study and never party hearty. You know, the strict parent that was total wild child when they were younger. After all, despite its limitations my Residency Program was a good one. Who am I to want to deny up and coming athletes the same experience?

But, as I’ve written ad nauseam, on numerous occasions so much has changed in the past 22 years. PATHF competition is stronger, European leagues are way more professionalized and post college athletes have much better opportunities today.  Honestly, I’ve got my doubts as to whether a full-fledged, well funded Residency Program unlike any we’ve ever seen could get the job done today.

To think that an austere program could somehow do the job? It just has me scratching my head in bewilderment that smart people can reflect on what’s occurred in the past, assess the current state of affairs and come up with such a different conclusion.