Why a Residency Program at Auburn is the Best Way Forward for USA Team Handball… and Why Those Reasons Fall Way Short in Justification”

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Back in September after Auburn was designated as an USOC Olympic Training Site I posted a plea asking for someone to explain how this was such a great deal for USA Team Handball. Six months later I haven’t gotten any takers. Somewhat disappointing, but not a real surprise. For sure, lots of folks have better things to do with their time. But, also don’t kid yourself: Lots of folks surely don’t want to get in a debate when they’ve already made up their minds and don’t have much backing up their position.

I first saw this play out four years at a 2 day meeting in Salt Lake City that USA Team Handball called to develop a strategic plan for the sport in this country. As I highlighted in this earlier commentary this meeting was a good kickoff discussion that could and should have set the table for the development of a strategic plan. As outlined by the professional facilitator who led the first day’s discussion proper Strategic Planning requires following a deliberate and structured process:

  1. Identify and prioritize the goals and objectives for USA Team Handball
  2. Develop potential action plans to accomplish those goals and objectives
  3. Carefully review and select action plans for implementation based on their merits, feasibility and alignment with established goals and objectives

As I pointed out in my commentary, however, steps 1-3 were never accomplished. Heck, it’s debatable as to whether they were even started. Instead USA Team Handball jumped straight to step 4 to implement a residency program model.

One possible action plan of many was given free ride without even an inkling of due diligence. Worse, there never really was an action plan, just a vague notion that a residency program similar to what had been done in the past was desired. USA Team Handball even went way out on a limb and hired head coaches for teams that didn’t exist without any idea where they might put a residency program.

Without a real plan in place, funding or a suitable location it looked like this concept would never get off the ground, but then Auburn stepped forward with a limited offer of support. Never mind, there really wasn’t the money to do a residency program properly, it’s what had been decided. It’s the no-brainer solution for what ails handball in America. Don’t worry about whether it matches the long term goals and objectives of the Federation. Those goals haven’t been identified let alone validated, so you don’t have to. Don’t even bother to set benchmarks and expectations for success. Just do it.

Alright… Deep breath. OK. I’ll take another… Deep breath.

Am I missing something here?

For sure, I’m confident that I know quite a bit when it comes to the topic of Team Handball in the U.S. I played at the college, club and national team levels. I experienced first hand both the good and bad aspects of a residency program. I started two clubs in the U.S. where none existed previously. I lived in France for 5 years, played recreationally there and saw how the sport was organized in Europe. I’ve followed professional and national team handball developments very closely for a dozen years. Perhaps, there’s a half dozen folks in the U.S. with a comparable resume when it comes to both national team concerns and grassroots development.

I’m also a pretty reasonable guy.  Hardly, a “My way or the highway”, type.  More often then not, when presented with data and rationale, I’m inclined to see the light. I might not agree with decisions that have been made, but I respect them when they are made with due process and after a careful consideration of all options. But, this was never done 4 years ago which is one of the reasons why this “reasonable guy” is a little upset.

Now, after 3 years of diplomatically pointing out that due process was skipped and that the resulting decision is very flawed, even I’ve had a bit of self doubt creep into my consciousness. Yes, I have rhetorically asked myself, “Could I be totally wrong here? How could smart people reach such a dramatically different conclusion from mine? How can they be so comfortable with skipping well established planning steps and jumping straight to a solution? Maybe, it is a no brainer? What am I missing? Why am I being ignored?

I’ve posed these questions to myself and in one form or another to several key players in the USA Team Handball Community. Some of those folks have been decision makers and some simply, like me, have been around a long time.  Broken into 2 broad categories here are some reasons I, and others have come up with as to:

“Why a Residency Program at Auburn is the Best Way Forward for USA Team Handball… “

And, further when you step back and take a closer look: 

“Why Those Reasons Fall Way Short in Justification”

Category 1: Actual Reasons Provided by Federation Leadership. These have been provided with perfunctory short answers (verbally and email) or can be inferred from Board of Director Meeting Minutes.

  1. Auburn is providing a great financial deal that the Federation would be crazy to turn down or leave.
  2. The U.S. had its greatest success with the Residency Programs of the 80s and 90s and therefore a Residency Program is obviously what’s needed today.
  3. A Residency Program is needed because it provides a great platform to build around for sponsorship and grass roots development.

Unfortunately, there’s no documentation that I’m aware of that further defines, explains or supports why these reasons are valid.  Unless, somebody wants to step forward with that further explanation, you’ll be stuck with my analysis.

Category 2: Reading Between the Lines.   Here are a couple of reasons that I’ve come up with based on budgetary decisions and how some key decision makers might view historical relationships and grass roots alternatives. These reasons have not been officially stated, but one can infer them by reading between the lines:

  1. USA Team Handball needs a Residency Program because of USOC expectations.
  2. Grass Roots development is at best a secondary goal for a sports federation and accordingly should receive less funding and attention.

As the title of this series of commentaries indicates I have assessed each of these reasons as faulty to one degree or another. And, this wasn’t summarily done. I’ve considered each of these reasons carefully looking at possible rationales only to repeatedly come up empty. Some reasons are just totally out to lunch while others at least on the surface, have a kernel of legitimacy. In the coming months I’ll be posting new commentaries addressing these reasons. I’ll first do my best to present the logic behind the given reason and then some counter-reasons as to why that logic is faulty.

As always, if you think that I’m not playing the role of Devil’s Advocate sufficiently feel free to chime in with some more coherent arguments. This can be done on the Facebook page or as I’ve said before, I’m more than willing to post to the website anyone willing to write a thoughtful commentary.

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Commentary and Analysis: USA Men vs. Alberta Jr. Team Series

It's a long way to Tipperary and to Auburn for that matter: Does it make more sense for the U.S. to Train in Europe? That thought along with analysis of the 4 match series played between the USA Men and Alberta Jrs

It’s a long way to Tipperary and to Auburn for that matter: Does it make more sense for the U.S. to train selected athletes in Europe? That thought along with analysis of the 4 match series played between the USA Men and Alberta Jrs.

The USA Men recently hosted the Alberta Men’s Jr. Men’s Team in a series of 4 matches played over 4 days (15-18 February, 2016). The U.S. won all 4 matches by the following scores

Match 1: USA 35, Alberta 25
Match 2: USA 30, Alberta 23
Match 3: USA 32, Alberta 25
Match 4: USA 29, Alberta 27

Links to Video of the matches courtesy of the Alberta Team Handball Federation: Link

The Good

4 games; 4 wins: A team should always get credit for winning matches. The U.S. faced some adversity and still came away with 4 victories.

Sticking with Residency Players: The U.S. has previously called in veterans and expats to shore up weaknesses against modest competition like Puerto Rico. Not so this time around. The U.S. fielded a roster entirely composed of players participating in the Residency Program. That’s the way it should be if you’re a believer in the Residency Program model.

Teamwork: It’s hard to get a full sense from Youtube videos of how well a team is working together, but I’ve got the impression that these players are bonding together as a unit.  Undoubtedly, they are facing a lot of adversity and a little bit of “us against the world” mentality has helped make that happen.

Better Handball Skills: It’s clear that these players, many of whom are relatively new to the game have leaned the fundamentals of the game. They look like a handball team. That’s real progress.

Notes on a few players:
– Joshua Norman: Norman plays a pretty good point on defense. His quickness and court awareness disrupted Alberta’s offense and made the U.S. defense better across the board.
– Alden Mezick: Mezick has developed into a pretty decent goalie. For his limited experience this is a significant accomplishment and it makes me wonder how much more progress he would make with regular competition against better players.
– Ty Reed: Reed has developed into a capable wing in a short period of time.

The Not So Good

Handball Skills Still Need a lot of Work: While the players have the fundamentals down one doesn’t have to look to hard to see that there’s still a lot of work left to be done. Backcourt play, in particular, is still pretty ineffective. There’s little question in my mind that veterans like El Zoghby, Hines and Axelsson are still far better options for those 3 critical positions. And, sight unseen I suspect some of the younger dual citizens playing in Europe are also better options as well. Yes, talent wise all that Auburn has accomplished so far is a promising goalie and a couple of credible options on the wing.

No Future Elite Professionals: Predicting future success on the handball court is a challenging proposition. It’s not easy even for professional scouts. Still, I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb by stating that I don’t think any of the athletes currently training at Auburn will ever don a jersey for a top professional club some day. Hard workers for sure, but I would be very surprised to see any of them playing in the HBL, LNH or for a Champions League side. 2nd Tier or 3rd Tier sides might be possible, however, for a few, but even that is a few years away.

The Lack of Promotion: Where was the best place to get information on these matches? Unfortunately, it was the Alberta Team Handball Federation. They posted scores on their Facebook page in a timely fashion and match videos on their Youtube page. They also posted travelogues with behind the scenes video of their trip. By contrast the U.S. only managed a couple of Facebook posts and the Federation website doesn’t even mention the games. The crowd in attendance was also pretty sparse. It’s almost as if the Federation didn’t want anyone attending or knowing about these matches.

The Unintended Contrasts

Competition Availability (North America vs. Europe): Perhaps nothing could drive home the “lack of regular competition” problem inherent with a U.S. base Residency Program more than the scheduling of a 4 game series between teams located in Alberta and Alabama. 2,400 miles, a 35 hr drive or a 10 hr plane trip with 2 stops. The European equivalent would be Barcelona playing Minsk. Many thanks to our Canadian friends who are willing to foot the bill for such a journey.

It makes me wonder if the cash strapped U.S. will be returning the favor at some point. Or more appropriately, it makes me wonder if anyone with the U.S. Federation will look a little more closely at moving selected athletes to a European training site like the Aarhus Academy. Instead of competition against a team like the Alberta Jrs. every 2 months or so they could be playing against more experienced European club teams on a weekly basis. And, some of those players could even get discovered for a coveted pro contract.

More information on the European Based Training Program the U.S. could consider: Link  

Grassroots vs. Residency Programs (Alberta vs. Alabama): I also can’t help but watch these matches for a couple of minutes without asking myself the following questions:

  • – How does a Canadian Province put together a Jr. Team that can compete with the U.S. Sr. National Team? The Alberta roster included five 18 year olds and no player older than 21. And, they’ve done it with no national federation funding.
  • – Could the U.S. develop a program in one U.S. state similar to what has been developed in Alberta? Seriously, just one state would be a good start. That’s all I’m asking.
  • – Why aren’t members of the Board of Directors and the Staff at USA Team Handball asking themselves the same questions?

More information on the “Alberta Option” for USA Team Handball to consider: Link

At least I’d like to think some decision makers are asking such questions. In the meantime, I’ll just keep shaking my head in puzzlement and keep telling myself it’s only a matter of time before smart people see the light.

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VIDEO: USA Men Beat Alberta Jr. Team 35-25

USA on attack vs. Alberta

USA on attack vs. Alberta

 

The USA Men beat the Albert Jr. Men’s team 35-25 last night in a game played at Auburn, Alabama. The U.S. trailed Albert 20-18 at the half, but played some outstanding defense in the second half, limiting the Canadian Provincial team to just 5 goals. This is the first match of a four game series and the teams will play again on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of this week.

Video of the match is available on the Alberta Federation Youtube page: Link

Video for the upcoming matches as well as travelogues (video logs) from the Albertan team are also available for viewing there.

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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

2051_USAreferee_03_Pillaud

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.