What’s Wrong with Your Analogy?

Team Handball is a very minor sport in the US and many other countries. This low profile can be expressed in several ways to include:
– Limited athlete participation
– Little or no fan attendance
– No significant amateur leagues
– No professional leagues
– Very weak National Teams
– Almost no TV coverage (2004 Olympics was the most significant coverage ever on U.S. TV)
– Almost zero name recognition (people don’t even know the sport exists)

Well meaning observers of Team Handball, often upon seeing the sport for the first time, are perplexed. They think, “What a great sport! Why haven’t I heard about this sport before? Why is the US so uncompetitive against the top teams? You know, if Team Handball simply copied what was done for , then Team Handball in the US would also be popular and competitive.”

These well meaning analogies however are often plagued with problems. So herewith is my analysis of “What’s wrong with your analogy.”

Soccer

This is probably the most commonly cited analogy and there are many commonalities between the state of US Soccer many years ago and the current state of US Team Handball. The progress US Soccer has made in the past 20 years is simply dramatic. One has only to look at the number of youth leagues in the US, the attendance at the World Cups in the US, the development of MLS into a fairly stable Professional League, the performance of the US National Teams, and the availability of TV broadcasts. By emphasizing youth leagues the US has not only been able to develop some quality players for the National Teams they have also created a greater appreciation of the sport and enough of a fan base in the US to support a Professional league and TV Broadcasts.

What’s wrong with this analogy?
1) What’s often overlooked with this analogy is the “why” behind the development of so many youth leagues. This didn’t happen by chance and was driven by a number of factors, with the biggest one being how dirt cheap it is to field a soccer team. Balls, goals, and an outdoor field is all you need. The fact that Team Handball is an INDOOR SPORT WHICH REQUIRES SIGNIFICANT COURT SPACE is a huge handicap. As anyone who has ever tried to start a Handball team knows the challenge of finding, and often paying to use, an indoor gym is a significant hurdle to overcome. And even if you find a gym, you will also be fortunate if you find one that can handle a 40m x 20m court.
2) Another factor that has to be considered is that soccer is relatively speaking a less physically and technically challenging sport than Team Handball. While Team Handball can and is played by young children in Europe, soccer is a better game due to less physical contact and the fact that even 5 year olds can kick a ball. And at any age the fact that Team Handball is a PHYSICAL SPORT immediately limits your pool of potential players.
3) While Soccer suffered from low participation the sport has always had significant name recognition and exposure in the United States. I grew up in rural Iowa in the 1970’s and 80’s, far away in both time and place from the soccer explosion in urban centers during the 1980’ and 90’s. Yet, I knew what soccer was and played the sport (albeit poorly and with little real understanding of the rules) in Physical Education classes. Contrast this to the virtual zero name recognition that Team Handball has in the US. Quite simply, it is extremely difficult to start from ZERO NAME RECOGNITION and have to actually explain the basic concept of a game to somebody who potentially might be interested in it.

What’s right with this analogy: While the 3 hurdles listed above are significant they can be overcome. It’s unrealistic, however, to think that the US can simply mimic soccer’s road to success. No one will argue, thought, that if some good youth leagues were established, even at a ridiculously small fraction (compared to soccer), US Team Handball would be in a much better state than it is today.

Lacrosse

This analogy’s faults are similar to soccer’s. Lacrosse isn’t nearly as popular as soccer, but it has seen some significant growth in the past 20 years, including the development of a professional league. However, tenet 1) the sport is played outdoors and tenet 3) it is fairly well known; still apply. In fact in some parts of the country (the Northeast), I’ve read that they have had to shut down little league baseball, because so many kids are playing Lacrosse. (It would be amazing if Handball ever did that to one of the major US sports)

What’s right with this analogy: The professional league, albeit not a huge one, could be a long term goal for US Handball. Additionally, focusing on one principal region of the country might be something for US Team Handball to consider.

Ultimate Frisbee

Same analogy faults as Soccer, and this sport is even cheaper.

What’s right with this analogy: The growth of this sport has been truly dynamic and fast despite at one time having near zero name recognition. Once again if Team Handball could only have a fraction of their participation and success it would truly be an improvement.

Volleyball

Volleyball has exploded from a principally California based sport to a nation-wide sport. This is particularly true in terms of the number of girls playing the sport today. Case in point, I’ll use my old high school in Iowa. Twenty years ago we played the sport (poorly) in PE class. Now my high school and virtually every high school in the state it is a varsity girl’s sport. How did this happen? Title IX played a primary role, but volleyball and its non physical contact nature is a natural for girls. This goes back to tenet 2) Handball is a physical sport and that can sometimes make it a tougher sell.

What’s right with this analogy: Title IX should be used to sell Team Handball as a woman’s sport. This is being done it just needs to be done more aggressively.

Rowing

Don’t ask me how this sport has increased in popularity. It’s more expensive than handball, requires having a lake or river nearby, and in my opinion, has got to be one of the most boring sports in the world to watch. Amazingly, because it is an NCCA sport and helps fulfil Title IX obligations, schools like Arizona State (In the middle of a desert!) have programs:

Arizona State Crew:  http://www.asu.edu/clubs/rowing/index_files/page0002.htm
I even read in Sports Illustrated that some schools have given scholarships to athletes with no experience in the sport.

What’s right with this analogy: My goodness, if you can get 50 people to join a club to row in the desert, you’d think you could get 20 to play handball. This proves anything is possible. Once again Title IX should be a key ally.

Rugby

There are several hundred rugby clubs in the United States playing at different levels including a National Super League. Rugby is also arguably the most popular club sport in American colleges. The US National Team has not come close to cracking the top tier of nations, but can field a respectable team and even has a few players playing professionally in Europe. But while USA Rugby, comparatively has been more successful then USA Team Handball, the sport still hasn’t been able to reach the next level in terms of popularity.

What’s right with this analogy: Well certainly Rugby in the US has proven that a sport can grow and become popular even if it is a very physical sport. It also has a pretty organized nation wide club system, both independent and collegiate. USA Team Handball should also try and follow Rugby’s path of getting more Americans to play for overseas clubs.

This can go on and on. The bottom line is that Team Handball can certainly learn and apply lessons from these other sports, but it will never be as simple as an exact copy of another successful development plan, principally because I know of know other sport that has had to overcome these three principal handicaps:

1) Team Handball is an indoor sport that requires significant court space
2) Team Handball is a physical sport and this limits the overall potential player pool
3) Team Handball suffers from near zero name recognition