EHF Champions League Quarter Finals: Odds, Schedule, Streaming Links and Predictions

EHF CL Final Four Prediction: 3 French Teams and Vardar as a special wild card guest.  Because.  Because, if there’s an LNH Coupe de la Ligue being staged outside of France, I’ve just got to be there.

The Champions League Quarterfinals started yesterday with Flensburg hosting Montpellier, but I won’t give away the score.  For the handball purist this might well be the best two weekends of handball all year.  Best in the sense, that the two game aggregate format provides fans with a compelling narrative over the course of two games.  Don’t get me wrong, the Final Four is fun and there’s something to be said for a knockout tourney in a festival style setting.  But, for the purist the opportunity to see how each side handles the away leg provides an interesting dynamic.  As does, how each coach makes adjustments between match 1 and 2.

Oh, and I guess there’s something to be said for the World Championships and European Championship being pretty good too, but I’ll take professional club handball over national team handball.  Players that play with each other all season long trumps all star team competitions jammed into a two week period.  But, that probably has something to do with being an American.  (As if the Basketball World Championships can hold a candle to the NBA Playoffs; Why would one think handball was any different.)

First, for context here are the current odds and opening odds for each team to win the title.

Now a bit on each of the match ups.

Kielce – Paris S-G     Sat, 21 Apr 1600 CET    On Demand Video:
Paris S-G – Kielce     Sat, 28 Apr 1730 CET    On Demand Video:

Paris has been on a tear this year in the Champions League, but they’ve had some slips up in the French League which suggests some vulnerability.  Meanwhile, Kielce has been less than impressive and were given a free pass to the QF thanks to Rhein-Neckar’s decision to send their 2nd team to play the first leg in the Round of 16.  I can’t imagine Paris not making the Final Four.  But, then I didn’t think Skjern would knock out Veszpre either.

Kiel – Vardar    Sun, 22 Apr 1700 CET     On Demand Video:
Vardar – Kiel    Sun, 29 Apr 1700 CET     On Demand Video:

Defending Champions, Vardar, are the clear favorites here. Still, despite Kiel’s lackluster season one can envision them getting a solid win at home in the first leg.  And, by solid they probably need somewhere in the neighborhood of 5-6 goals to have a good chance in the return leg.  Further, with their chances in the HBL looking dire for a CL berth next season, maybe this 2 game series is “their season” now.  I know this sounds sacrilegious to any German fans, but maybe for once a CL game is more important than an HBL game.  And, who knows maybe Kiel could even pull off a Liverpool. (In 2005, Liverpool finished 5th in the EPL, but won the Champions League.  Faced with the prospect of the champion not being able to defend their title, they were given an exception to participate the following year.)

Nantes – Skjern    Sun, 22 Apr  1900 CET     On Demand Video:
Skjern – Nantes     Sun 29 Apr   1650 CET     On Demand Video:

A really strange pairing here for the right to go to the Final Four.  Could anyone have even imagined such a match just 2 years ago?  Still neither team is getting any respect as both sides are given the longest odds for winning the title.  I can see Skjern’s long odds, but Nantes should be given more credit.  I anticipate that they will get a convincing win at home in the first leg and probably will win the 2nd match as well in Denmark.  This undersized team plays a quick game that can surprise.  Yes, in my opinion, Nantes is the new Flensburg.

Flensburg – Montpellier    Wed, 18 Apr  1900 CET    On Demand Video:  Link  (Sorry, you may need this too:  Link)
Montpellier – Flensburg    Sun, 29 Apr   1900 CET     On Demand Video:

For me, the prospect of Flensburg playing Montpellier in a Champions League brings back fond memories of their epic clash in 2005.  A 14 goal win by Montpellier in the 1st leg, followed by 13 goal Flensburg in the 2nd leg.  And a crazy 9 meter goal with time expired for Montpellier to win on aggregate.  The greatest “almost comeback” in the history of sport.  (No, not just handball, but in the history of sport).

We can’t expect a similar thriller, but these two teams are evenly matched, but I’ll give the edge to Montpellier.  After all, if they took down Barcelona they can surely take down Flensburg,

Coupe de la Ligue in Cologne?

Yes, I’m predicting 3 French teams playing in Cologne with Vardar as the guest wild card entry.  Funny, with my planned trip to Cologne for the Final Four it will be my second opportunity to witness a Coupe de la Ligue played outside l’Hexagone.  I was in Miami in 2009 for the first French venture to another country.  Should be an interesting scene with a French invasion of Germany.   Well, at least that’s my prediction anyway.

Team Handball News Collegiate Top 5 Poll (April 16, 2018)

College Nationals is next weekend at West Point, NY and the last poll before a champion is crowned on the court is out.  To no surprise, hosts Army are the unanimous #1 ranked team.  Earlier this month they took 2nd place in their annual tournament narrowly losing to top rated open club team NYAC in the final.  (Albeit a depleted NYAC as 4 members from that squad were playing with the U.S. National Team in Mexico.)

Ranked 2nd are Air Force and Virginia.  Air Force has played well in two recent tournaments in Phoenix and Los Angeles, taking 2nd in the LA tourney this past weekend.  Virginia has also had a solid year, but they slipped up on April 1st with an NHTL loss to Army’s 2nd Team 23-17.

Moving up to 4th Place is Ohio St which had a 4-1 record at the “Arnold Classic” tourney in March.  Their 21-19 victory over Illinois St is probably responsible for their leapfrogging of the Redbirds who slipped to 5th place.

Look out to Nationals

I haven’t seen seeding or pools for college nationals yet, but one can see a potential narrative.  With an 11 years in a row run of National Titles, plus hosting, Army is a huge favorite to repeat.  Air Force and Virginia are in theory the two teams that will fight to play them in the Final, but in reality another home team lurks as a dangerous opponent:  Army’s 2nd team (West Point Gold).  Ohio St is another potential team that could break through, but they’ll need to prove that their gaudy 9-0-4 record isn’t just due to beating up on weak opposition.  Illinois St would be another possible dark horse, but to a lack of funding they aren’t attending.

For sure, there’s one thing that nobody outside of the Cadet Corps wants to see and that is an all Army (West Point Black vs West Point Gold) Championship Final.  And, honestly I bet there’s probably more than a few cadets that probably don’t want to see an intrasquad match either.

Chat Me Up

I’ll be at West Point all day Saturday and Sunday.  Don’t hesitate to stop me and have a conversation about any handball topic.  I’m sure to have an opinion.

Proposed Collegiate Summer Camp for Coaches and Players

And, if you’re interested in taking your game to the next level be sure to let me know if you’re interested in attending a Collegiate Camp this summer at the Lifezone Handball Academy near Chicago.  Craig Rot and I are still formulating plans, but the intent is to help collegiate players and coaches raise their game for next season.  Tentative dates are 2-7 July.  Please let us know if you are interested by filling out this short survey:  Link

NORCA: Final Standings and Top Level Assessment

(Note: Puerto Rico is 3rd due to head to head victory over Mexico)

Canada and Puerto Rico secured victories on the final day of competition to secure 2nd and 3rd place respectively and to qualify for the Pan American Championships in Greenland.  Canada held off the U.S. for a 33-31 victory.  At one point in the second half the U.S. led 24-22, but Canada was able to rally and secure the victory.  Puerto Rico beat hosts Mexico 30-28.  Puerto Rico was able to control the tempo of the match, avoiding the helter skelter style of play Mexico prefers and was able to keep the crowd out of the game.  Cuba beat the Dominican Republic 40-20 in a game that had no bearing on qualification.

Top Level Assessment

Overall:  While this tournament was still technically an event under the old Pan American Team Handball Federation (PATHF) in many respects it was the first ever event of the new North American & Caribbean Handball Confederation (NACHC).  With 6 nations participating, including an often absent Cuba, it felt like more of a Championship.  And, with 3 spots on the line for qualification to the Pan American Championships there was more to play for with real consequences.  I say this in that sometimes NORCA events have had 4 nations fighting for 3 spots.

The level of play is clearly a rung or two below South America, but was very competitive.  Really, as evidenced by the match scores there’s not a whole lot separating teams 2-6.  The largest margin of victory among the bottom 5 teams was 6 goals and even in those 2 contests the matches were closer than the score indicates.  2nd Place Canada squeaked out a 1 goal victory over 6th place Dominican Republic.  4th place Mexico played to 3 draws.  Yes, every team that played in that tournament can go home thinking they could have qualified if they had just done one or two things differently.

Going forward one can envision a competitive 8 Nation Championship.  Greenland, which didn’t participate because it’s hosting the Pan American Championship, might well have won the event.  Then add one more Caribbean team to round out the field.  Yes, a nice little tournament today and one that would get better as the nations further develop their programs.

Cuba:  This tournament provided a taste of what Cuba might have in terms of a national team.  I say a “taste” because I don’t think that Cuba did a very good job of integrating their professionals playing in Europe with their younger talent still on the island.  Still, they had talent to spare and that’s why despite inconsistent play they were the class of the field.

Canada:  A very workmanlike and consistent performance by the Canadian side resulted in their 2nd place finish.  Canada doesn’t have the most athletic team, but they are pretty solid technically and this paid dividends towards the end of several close matches.  They kept their cool and let their opponents make mistakes.  And, as anyone who follows handball knows that’s often the difference between 2 goal losses and 2 goal wins.

Puerto Rico:  Puerto Rico clearly wins the comeback award.  They started poorly with losses to Canada and Cuba.  Then played a draw to the Dominican Republic- the Dominican Republic’s only point in the tournament.  But, they still controlled their own destiny and had solid convincing wins against both the U.S. and Mexico to qualify.  They’ve got a couple of very talented players to build around.  And build they must as from what I observed they lack depth.

Mexico:  Mexico may have one of the best fast breaking teams in the tournament, but they lacked discipline in the half court game.  As the host nation, they surely will look upon three draws as all games they could have won.  And, all they needed to qualify was just 1 more point.

USA:  A disappointing finish for the U.S.  I’ll have more to say in a separate commentary

Dominican Republic:  The Dominican Republic certainly has some athletes, but was very inconsistent on offense and defense.  They show signs of promise, but need more match experience to get better.

Match Results

Tuesday April 3
Puerto Rico 27×31 Canada
United States 30×41 Cuba
Mexico 33×28 Dominican Republic

Wednesday April 4
Cuba 36×23 Puerto Rico
Dominican Republic 26×32 United States
Canada 26×26 Mexico

Thursday April 5
Puerto Rico 29×29 Dominican Republic
Canada 24×27 Cuba
Mexico 30×30 the United States

Saturday April 7
United States 28×34 Puerto Rico
Dominican Republic 21×22 Canada
Mexico 28×28 Cuba

Sunday April 8
United States 31x33vs Canada
Cuba 40×20 Dominican Republic
Puerto Rico 30×28 Mexico

538 Website Uses Google Trends Data to Assess Curling Interest, So I Do the Same for Handball

Google Trends data on searches for “handball” in the U.S. since 2004.

One of my favorite websites, fivethirtyeight.com recently posted an article that immediately got my attention:

America Loves Curling, Until it Forgets about it for Four Years:  Link

It got my attention, because I’d just written a commentary which highlighted the exact same problem for team handball.  In the 538 article, the author, Neil Payne used Google Trends data to quantify just how much America forgets curling.  Google Trends is a tool in which you can plug in different search terms and get graphs as to how much search traffic that term gets comparatively over time.  No big surprise: Curling sees a massive spike in interest every February of an Olympics year.  And, a small surprise:  Curling’s interest spike is bigger than any other winter Olympic sport.  This was measured as a comparison of Google searches in Olympic months vs non-Olympic months.

It’s an interesting use of Google data so, if you know me, I had to do some of the same analysis for handball.  (And, oh what an interesting rabbit hole it is.)

First off, I quickly discovered the semantical mine field the sport’s name has in the U.S.  Another form of handball similar to racquetball is more popular in the U.S., but Google doesn’t seem to be capable of fully distinguishing between the two.  It’s possible to enter several different terms into the Google Trends engine:

  • Handball (search term)
  • Team Handball (search term)
  • Handball (sport)
  • American Handball (sport)

Further, you can compare the relative results of each term as well as results for individual countries or world-wide data.

For starters, I looked at U.S. internet searches for “handball” since 2004.

At first glance, it followed what I expected with sharp spikes in August of Olympic years.  But, then I noticed a significant spike in November of 2009 followed by a slight bulge in the data for the following months.  At first, I thought it might be some great article on handball in the mainstream press, but then it dawned on me:  It was my old friend Thierry Henry and his infamous “hand of frog” handball in a World Cup Qualification match vs Ireland. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fLUxMRYJAso

This bulge appears in both the “handball” and “handball (sport)” search suggesting that Google can’t tell the difference between a search for the sport of handball vs a search for a soccer related handball.  Further, if one does a comparison of searches for “Handball (sport)” vs “American Handball (sport)” one will see handball kicking American handball’s butt.

As much as I would love for this to be an accurate comparison of the two sports popularity, there’s little to suggest that it has any basis in reality.  We’re making some serious inroads, but such a disparity just can’t be accurate.  For sure, I could see handball beating wall handball in searches, but not by a factor of 100 to 1.  No, the conclusion should be that Google Trend data for “handball” in the U.S. ends up being an aggregate of handball, wall handball and soccer handballs.  What does that mean then?  Well, it means that the Olympic spikes for handball searches in the U.S., big as they are, are actually even bigger than what the data shows.  That, the baseline hovering around 10 would probably be closer to 2 or 3 if Google could figure a way to take out wall handball and soccer handballs from its data.  The 538 article highlights that Curling has the biggest spike of winter sports with a relative spike of 80 when compared to non Olympic months.  For handball the data shows a gain of only around 60, but it’s probably at least 80, if not more for the reasons described.

Handball vs Other Sports

The 538 article also compares Curling to several other winter sports.  I did several comparison of handball vs other sports and here are a few charts.

Here’s handball compared to 2 other “lesser known” Olympic Team Sports.  Both Water Polo and Field Hockey see similar jumps and both are more well known in the U.S.  Field Hockey, since it’s an NCAA Women’s sport and a more commonly played high school sport has a higher baseline with more peaks and valleys.  You can do your own comparisons, but be forewarned if you put a popular sport like basketball or volleyball into the mix, the handball line will almost entirely morph into the zero line.

I decided to make myself feel a bit better about handball by seeing how well it would do against arguably the most obscure Olympic Sport, Modern Pentathlon.  And, handball wins that battle, but again we’d probably wouldn’t win by as much without wall handball and soccer handballs padding our numbers.

Finally, what about a Handball vs Curling comparison?

What does this comparison tell us with the gigantic Curling Winter Olympic spikes and our tiny little Handball Summer Olympic spikes?  Well, it shows how you much curling benefits from being in the Winter Olympics where there are fewer sports to compete against.  Seriously, what other explanation could there possibly be for handball losing to curling so soundly?  It really makes you wonder how much handball would “blow up” if it was staged during the Winter Olympics instead of the Summer Olympics.  With the NHL players gone handball might even have gotten better ratings than the hockey competition.  And, it would be so easy to make happen.  A whole month of professional club handball is already sacrificed every year (Men- December and Women- January) so the world’s best players would be readily available.  Think the Curling venue was a happening place with the South Korean Women playing for Gold.  Imagine what the crowd would have been like for handball?  We’ve highlighted the potential of a summer/winter switch before.

2010: Link

2012: Link

But, while it would make so much sense don’t expect the IOC to give up its snow and ice requirement for Winter Olympic sports any time soon.  There will be Nigerian bob sledding teams before that ever happens.

Who Should be on the USA Team Handball Board of Directors (Part 2):  A Gospel Spreader

Who should be on the USA Team Handball Board?: A Gospel Spreader: How about a media personality that’s already fallen in love with the sport? For consideration: Bill Simmons, Scott Van Pelt and Stefan Fatsis

In the coming year as many as 7 new directors will be elected/selected to serve on the USA Team Handball Board of Directors.  This series of commentaries will highlight some traits, skills and backgrounds that might be a good fit.  And, what the heck, even identify a few candidates by name.  Part One focused on candidates with wealth.  This part focuses on finding a Board Member who can help spread the good word.

The Underlying Problem to the Money Problem

In Part One of this series I stated matter of factly that USA Team Handball’s #1 problem was a lack of revenue.  While this is true statement it’s important to step back and ask why is there such a lack of revenue?  That seemingly simple question can be answered in a lot of different ways:

  • Because we have a small membership base.
  • Because we don’t have any major sponsors.
  • Because we have very limited revenue streams.
  • Because the USOC changed their grand funding philosophy towards medal winning sports.

All of those reasons for a lack of revenue are true, but I would argue that there is an underlying root problem that, if successfully addressed, will go a long way towards solving the revenue problem.

That root problem:  The Lack of Awareness; As in far too few people in the U.S. are even aware of the sport of handball.

I’ve addressed this problem in several commentaries.  These two commentaries from 2012 summarize the problem in detail:

  • Why weren’t the U.S. national teams at the London Olympics (Part 5): A lack of awareness and marketing: One in a million: The 312 real fans of team handball in the U.S.:  Link
  • Why weren’t the U.S. national teams at the London Olympics (Part 6): A lack of awareness and marketing:  The Catch-22 TV paradox:  Link

The cliff notes version:  Only about 5% of the American population even know the sport of handball exists and the lack of regular TV broadcasts really inhibits the likelihood of more Americans discovering the sport and becoming fans and players of it.

Solve the Awareness Problem and Revenue will Follow

If USA Team Handball were to successfully address this “lack of awareness” problem increases in revenue would undoubtedly follow.  This is because there would be more fans of the sport, making sponsorship more than just charitable giving.  This is because there would be more Federation members and players contributing to the membership revenue stream.  More players, in turn, would, over time, improve the player pool and the quality of our national teams.  Leading in turn to better performance on the court and more support from the USOC.  And, eventually to another revenue stream, networks paying for U.S. National Team matches.

We can debate just how much revenue will follow.  And, we can debate how long it will take for those trickle down dollars to follow.  But, there should be no debate as to the overarching interrelationship between the awareness and revenue problems.

The Awareness Problem will be Solved

I’ve written ad nauseam about this problem and the importance of regular TV broadcasts.  I’ve highlighted the problems with some of the networks that have acquired handball TV rights and the lack of emphasis U.S. Team Handball has placed on this issue.  I’ve looked longingly at how some other sports (soccer, rugby and lacrosse) have addressed and in some cases have solved their awareness problem.  And, I’ve looked at the changing landscape for sports distribution as digital web streaming continues to play an ever increasing role.  I’ve tried my best from my news/blog website to be a pied piper for this cause.

Overall, I’m convinced that it’s only a matter of time before this problem solves itself.  The sport of handball has a lot of challenges and handicaps, but its attractiveness as a televised sport is not one of them.  Handball is not very likely to become a top tier sport in the U.S., but it’s going to have a significant niche in the U.S. sports market.  And, due the wealth and overall population (326 million) of the U.S. such a niche is nothing to sneeze at.

It’s going to happen, sooner or later.  Even if absolutely nothing is done to address this problem it will solve itself.  But, why on Earth, shouldn’t we try to do some things to make it happen sooner?

Solving the Problem… Sooner

So, here’s where the Gospel Spreaders come in.  Every four years, like clockwork, handball in the U.S. gets a publicity blitz courtesy of the Olympics.  Print reporters, bloggers, TV and radio personalities get their first opportunity to see the sport and they fall in love with it.  They write odes to the sport, devote entire radio and TV segments to it and inevitably they discuss why the U.S. isn’t any good at such an American looking sport.  And, they come up with plenty of “interesting” conceptual ideas as to how the U.S. could become a world handball power. Their discussions while well intentioned and often entertaining are usually superficial and don’t fully appreciate how professional the sport is in Europe.  (Sorry, Lebron and a few other NBA players aren’t going to take handball gold at the Olympics anytime soon.)

And, like clockwork, after the Olympics are over the short lived interest in handball also recedes from consciousness until 4 years later there is another Olympics and the American handball cicadas come back out.

Here’s a greatest hits of some of the pieces that have been written over the years

  • 2008: Sean Gregory:  Hey, America, What About Handball?: Link
  • 2009: Stefan Fatsis: Team Handball Has It All, Except an American Interest: Link
  • 2012: Bill Simmons: The London Chronicles, Vol. 2: Handball! (Handball?) Handball!:  Link
  • 2016: Adam Kilgore: U.S. athletes run fast, jump high, throw hard — why are we so bad at handball?: Link

Nice stories, but, what if the U.S. could get one of those new handball converts to stay fully engaged with the sport?  To not disappear and instead use his media savvy to strategically keep the sport in the limelight.  To successfully lobby a quality TV network and/or some new media digital options to continue broadcasting handball with matches from Europe, U.S. National Team and domestic competitions.  In short, help craft and implement a plan to move the sport forward in the consciousness of the U.S.

While that board director would primarily address the awareness problem he/she would also get involved with other aspects of Federation operations.  And, while some might pooh-pooh the thought of having a media person on the board by virtue of their years of experiencing observing other sports they may very well have some insights and suggestions that are worth considering.

And, of course, that would be the pitch:  You’ve shown that you’re a big fan of this great sport.  We need your help in promoting this sport so that others will discover it.  We need your help in transforming it from an interesting curiosity every 4 years into a mainstream niche sport.  If we can do that our national teams can only get better.  Would you like to play a role in this turnaround?  Will you do this for your country?

Candidates for Gospel Spreader

Bill Simmons: For a number of reasons, Bill Simmons, is at the top of my list.  His article from London, as well as a short segment on his HBO TV show during the Rio Games, shows his affinity to the sport.  He’s also got a huge following with his BS Podcast, The Ringer website and 6M Twitter followers.  And, at the moment, he’s unaffiliated and essentially his own boss.  He could devote a few hours a week to handball and actually try to put some of his whimsical analysis on how “to make handball great again in America” into action.  Why one could even envision it as a thinking man’s documentary/reality TV show or podcast.  A real life laboratory taking place over several years and culminating with the 2016 Olympics

Scott Van Pelt:  During the 2012 Olympics, probably no media personality got more engaged with the sport of handball than ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt.  Entire nation wide radio segments devoted to Team Handball.  Absolutely unprecedented.  He even had somebody make him a USA Team Handball T-Shirt so he could wear it on the Radio/TV simulcast.   In the 6 years since his profile has increased and he’s arguably the most prominent sports anchor on America’s top sports network.  But, I haven’t heard a lick about handball from him since that brief shining moment 6 years ago.  Still, he’s someone to consider, especially if it could be coordinated with an IHF and/or EHF rights deal with ESPN

Stefan Fatsis:  No one has been more engaged in spreading the handball gospel than Stefan Fatsis, a reporter who has written for the Wall St Journal and the New York Times and has been an occasional correspondent on National Public Radio.  He wrote his first handball ode at the 2004 Olympics where he memorably asked French Coach Claude Onesta why the U.S. isn’t very good at handball. Onesta’s response: “As far as I am concerned, there are a lot of games at which the United States does not excel.”  He’s continued to write about the sport every time he gets a chance and routinely drops a handball reference on the weekly sports podcast, Hang Up and Listen.  Even did a podcast with me back in 2012 to get fired up for the Olympics.  In short, when it comes to handball he walks the walk and talks the talk.  His profile is nowhere near a Bill Simmons or a Scott Van Pelt, but maybe he’d try harder because he’d be more committed.

Others?:  I’m sure there’s no shortage of would be media personalities that could be considered.  Feel free to chime in with additional suggestions on the Team Handball News Facebook or Twitter pages.

Who Should be on the USA Team Handball Board of Directors (Part 1):  Billionaires and Millionaires

Who should be on the USA Team Handball Board?: How about this 1978 Empire State Games bronze medalist, player/coach, Bob Rich?

In the coming year as many as 7 new directors will be elected/selected to serve on the USA Team Handball Board of Directors.  This series of commentaries will highlight some traits, skills and backgrounds that might be a good fit.  And, what the heck, even identify a few candidates by name.  This first part will focus on candidates with the ability to contribute financial support and the expertise that comes along with it.

The Need

Anybody who follows team handball in the U.S. knows that the number one challenge the sport faces in this country is a distinct lack of revenue.  How big a need is it?  Consider this.  The most recent Form 990 tax disclosure form for USA Team Handball lists total yearly revenue as $347,825.  That’s not anywhere near the revenue that’s needed to run a sports federation in the U.S.  It’s a shoestring of a shoestring operation and it means that the U.S. can’t even pay to send its national teams to international competition let alone fund an austere residency program.  And, you can pretty much forget about starting any significant initiatives that might expand youth and collegiate program development.  Even salaries can’t be paid as the last Board Meeting Minutes highlight that the CEO forgave back pay and will likely take a salary cut.

This is why it’s often talked about finding Board Directors that can financially contribute to USA Team Handball.  This includes personal contributions as well as the capacity to solicit friends and business connections.  The most prominent example of this is former Board President, Dieter Esch who reportedly provided contributions in the mid 6 figures from 2008-2010.  Former Board President Harvey Schiller also made significant personal contributions and reportedly worked his connections as best he could to solicit more support for the Federation.  Other Board Members, including current Interim Board President, Bob Djokovich ($11,555 recently) have made contributions to help keep operations afloat.

Why Not Go Bigger?

But, maybe the need is so significant that USA Team Handball needs to think bigger.   Millionaires are nice, but billionaires are where it’s at.  Or, maybe perhaps 6 figure millionaires.  Individuals with the wherewithal and connections to provide an injection of around $2M/year for the next several years.  Maybe this is just really wishful thinking, but then again maybe not.

There’s a solid pitch that just might be bought by the right wealthy individual who likes sports and relishes a challenge.  Someone perhaps who’s thinking about spending 10’s or even 100’s of millions of dollars for a professional sports franchise.  That pitch goes like this:

Why not spend a smaller amount transforming a USA National team from a perennial loser into a world power?  Instead of spending millions of dollars on salaries for a handful of athletes why not spend millions of dollars on youth athletes, collegiate athletes, and a few professionals that make 5 figure salaries, not 7 and 8 figure salaries?  And, this is not just about you opening your wallet and writing a big check.  We need your experience, knowledge and skills to help build a plan to make it happen.  Can you?  Will you do this for your country?  Do you want to be with us 10 years from now in Los Angeles when Team USA steps on to the Olympic podium?

Well, I’m sold on that pitch.  Too bad, I don’t have the resources to write the big check.  But, something tells me that there is somebody out there with the resources that might be so inclined.   We just need to find them, get them to listen to the pitch, and reel them in.  Easier said than done, but here are a couple of by name possibilities to consider.

Bob Rich, the Retired Billionaire Team Handball Player/Coach

Every day, courtesy of Google, I get an email with news articles referencing the word, “handball.”  It’s an eclectic mix of articles that really reminds me where my favorite sport fits in the big scheme of things.  This is because half of the articles aren’t about the sport of handball.  They are either about, “wall handball”, or more likely the latest controversial handball call in a soccer match.  (Seriously, enough about Thierry Henry, Please!)

But, occasionally, I get a random article from an unusual source.  One such article was this one from the Buffalo News:

The Quiet Billionaire: Bob Rich is Still Buffalo’s Ultimate Booster: Link

“Meh,” I thought to myself this guy probably plays “wall handball” on occasion at the gym.  But, instead I was surprised to find out that this “quiet billionaire” actually played and coached a team handball squad at the 1978 Empire State Games.  The Empire State Games is kind of an Olympics for New York State and actually introduced quite a few people to the sport of handball back in the 1970s and 80s.  And, Bob Rich was one of those people.  In fact, a little internet searching dug up the fact that he’s quite enamored with the sport.

So much so, that he devoted an entire chapter to team handball in his book, “The Right Angle: Tales of A Sporting life.”  The chapter highlights his discovery of the sport, his efforts to put together a team from scratch in the Buffalo area, and his surprisingly good memory recalling details from matches played 30+ years ago.  Even has references to USA handball legend, Laszlo Jurak, who coached the Long Island team.

Google Books:  Link

Who is Bob Rich?  He is the majority owner of Rich Products, a frozen foods company.  According to Forbes, he is the 441st  richest person in the U.S. with a net worth of $5.52 billion dollars.  In addition to dabbling in handball, he owns the Buffalo Bisons AAA baseball team and two other minor league baseball teams.  He’s also on the Board of Directors for the Cleveland Clinic.  Might I suggest he would be a good addition to the USA Team Handball Board as well.

The Cuban-Nowitzki Combo

Further down the list of richest Americans is Dallas Mavericks owner, Mark Cuban at #564 with a net worth of $3.4B.  But, Cuban is surely one of the best known billionaires initially becoming famous with his vocal antics in support of his team and now with his regular participation on the TV show, Shark Tank.  He’s also shown a penchant for supporting other sports including rugby, which he played in college.  He even has a principal owner’s stake with a proposed Professional Futsal League which could due to the court size/goals similarity of the two sports have a natural affinity with handball.

Cuban, however, is a very busy guy.  When he’s not fully engaged with his NBA franchise he’s off doing something else.  Sure, handball could be added to his large portfolio, but maybe there’s a sidekick millionaire he’s friendly with that might be a better fit.  Someone who’s currently very busy, but that come May/June of this year might have a lot of spare time on his hands.

That someone, of course, is Dirk Nowitzki, one of the greatest basketball players of all time who is expected to retire at the end of the NBA season.  Nowitzki, who is German, reportedly plans to split time between Germany and the U.S. and has even talked about acquiring a U.S. passport.  And, Nowitzki is very familiar with team handball since his father Jorg, was a top player in his younger days.  Could Nowitzki be convinced to take a bit of his time to be an ambassador to the sport?  To convince his former employer to help take the sport another level in the U.S.?  Why not?  It’s certainly worth asking.

Others?

Bob Rich Jr., and the Cuban-Nowitzki combo are but two possibilities.  Surely, there are others.  The net should be cast far and wide with the key selling points that financial support and a willingness to help craft a strategy to transform the sport in this country are needed.  Call me crazy, but I think such a pitch just might work.

USA Team Handball Board of Directors:  Change is Coming

USA Team Handball Board of Directors President, Dr Harvey Schiller resigns. In all likelihood, more changes to the Board are coming in the near future.

This past Thursday (1 Feb) many in the U.S. handball community got a bit of a surprise in their inbox, in the form of a resignation letter from the now former USA Team Handball (USATH) Board of Directors (BoD) President, Dr. Harvey Schiller.  Dr. Schiller, easily the highest profile Board Director USATH has ever had thanked everyone for their support and noted that he believed it was “best to now bring in new leadership including capable board members to meet the challenges ahead.”  Board Member and 1984 Olympian Bob Djokovich has stepped in as the interim Board President for the next 60 days.

The surprises, however, did not stop there as the January 18 BoD Meeting Minutes that were also provided included a lengthy section highlighting upcoming Board elections.  I like to think that I’m a pretty sharp guy, but I’ll have to admit that I struggled to decipher all of the information contained.

Fortunately, I was able to get a hold of Mike Lenard on the phone in Korea where he is supporting the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.  We discussed the board minutes and the existing bylaws and he was able to clarify for me the upcoming election process.  From my perspective, here are the key points:

  • The underlying issue is the conflicting language regarding BoD terms and elections in the current federation bylaws. Mike has worked on a volunteer basis to update the bylaws to address these and other issues and it is still an ongoing effort.  4 Board Member seats are past due for an election and 3 others will be due for an election in the near future.
  • There are a number of ways that this current situation could be resolved, but the crux of the matter is that 7 of the 9 board members have been serving on the board longer than 4 years, the standard term length.   (The 2 Athlete Representative positions (David Thompson and Sarah Gascon) were recently elected and their terms will not expire until 2021.)
  • Mike Lenard proposed a couple of options and the one the board decided to have him further flesh out would be to have 3 elections as soon as possible (with 2 for new terms and 1 to replace Dr Schiller for the remainder of his term) and 4 elections later this year. He is now working on more detailed procedures that will then be provided to the board for a vote to incorporate in the By-laws.
  • The near term election will be for 3 Independent Board members and the election later this year will be for 3 Independent Board Members and 2 General Membership Board Members. (The seat formerly held by Dr Schiller will be elected both in the near term and later this year.)
  • The different board positions will be clearly identified in terms of their term length. It is also desired that terms be staggered with 4 or 5 board seats having their terms expire every 2 years.
  • Each class of Board Membership has a distinctly different electorate.
    • Athlete Representatives are elected by athletes who have represented the U.S. in international competition within the last ten years. (The exact requirements for this electorate may be tweaked)
    • General Membership Board Members are elected by members in good standing with USA Team Handball. This will likely be an election later this year similar to the one that was held in 2013 which saw the election of Jennie Choi and Attila Agoston to the Board.  The current by-laws indicate that only “athlete members” can run and vote in the election for this position, but it’s been proposed that this be modified to allow any member in good standing to run for the board.
    • Independent Board Members are “elected” by the Nominating & Governance Committee. This committee has 5 members and their responsibilities also include identifying and interviewing potential board members.  While it is technically an election in reality it is more likely to be a collaborative selection process by the committee.
  • The current members of the Nominating & Governance Committee are Tom Fitzgerald (Chair), Cindy Stringer and Dennis Berkholtz. The current BoD will need to confirm these members and add two new members.

So, that’s the “nuts and bolts”, as I see it, in terms of process that USA Team Handball will be using for the upcoming Board elections.  I should emphasize, though, that nothing has been formally approved yet by the Board.  As, I hear further developments I will post them.

Current USA Team Handball Board of Directors: Link

The PHF Split:  Key Aspects Meriting Further Analysis

The IHF President and PHF President shake hands in a happier moment.

Much of what has been released in the dueling official statements (PHF and IHF) is fairly straight forward, but some aspects are not so clear cut.  Some claims, to varying degrees are a bit misleading and some aspects merit further discussion and analysis.  The analysis presented here is a mix of rumor, intuition and feedback I’ve received from people in the world handball community.

Olympic Handball in Jeopardy?

In the IHF Statement a passing reference is made to the Olympics:

“The IHF President’s development plan includes many projects which shall promote the development of the sport worldwide and in Pan-America. He undertakes large endeavours in many fields to develop handball not only to maintain its position on the Olympic programme but also to pave the way for development on all levels, including World Championships and Olympic Games.”

I added the bold face, and it sure merits additional discussion.  Why would the IHF even mention the need for handball to maintain its position on the Olympic Programme?  Handball no longer part of the Olympics?  That couldn’t possibly be?  Could it?  Well, apparently somebody must be occasionally discussing that possibility otherwise it’s hard to imagine the point being made.  Certainly, one could hardly imagine the World Federations for Basketball, Athletics or Swimming making such a point.

I’ve heard rumors of handball’s place in the Olympics being in danger, but it was only a few days ago that I saw this rumor in print for the first time.  As reported by handzone.net, the French Handball Technical Director, Philippe Bana went on record as having seen IOC reports indicating that the future of handball on the Olympic Program after 2024 is in jeopardy due to the sport being too European.  And, logically what better way might there be to counteract IOC concerns then to aggressively build up handball in America, especially with the U.S. hosting in 2028.  Certainly, I would assess that this IOC threat is at least a factor, if not the biggest factor, behind this initiative.

$1,000,000 from Qatar Airways

Mentioned in both statements is the accounting for $1,000,000 in sponsorship from Qatar Airways.  The IHF letter claims that this sponsorship was obtained with the assistance of the IHF and that it’s not clear how this funding was used.  With the nation of Qatar being closely tied to the IHF for the past several years it’s certainly logical to assume that assistance from the IHF was pretty critical to securing this sponsorship.  Certainly, one might have a difficult time of rationalizing why the airline with only 3 flights to and from North and South America would seek a $1M sponsorship with a relatively minor sport if their footprint was so small in that region.  But, technically the relationship is between Qatar Airways and the PHF, so one could argue that the IHF doesn’t have any say at all in how that $1M has been sent.  On the other hand, having spoken with different handball people throughout North America, no one has volunteered as to how a portion of that $1M has been spent in their country.

PHF Nations are Unified Against the Process the IHF has Used; Less so Against the Concept of Splitting

The PHF in its official statement likes to point out how the PHF nations are standing together against IHF’s proposed splitting of the PHF Federation.  They point to the vote tally at the PHF Extraordinary Congress (25 against, 1 abstention) and at the IHF Congress (reportedly only Mexico and Costa Rica voted in favor of letting the IHF Council decide the matter.)

However, it’s been brought to my attention that at least some of the nations were primarily voting in opposition to “the process” that the IHF was using to impose the splitting of federations.  And, that to varying degrees several nations were open to “the concept” of splitting.

From my own perspective this position makes quite a bit of sense.  As, I elaborated on in this earlier commentary there are a lot of good reasons for splitting a federation that almost stretches from pole to pole.  Travel costs will decrease and done properly it will foster growth and development.  I think most nations when they review the pros and cons would likely come to the same conclusion.

But, should such a split be imposed from above?  Without constructive dialogue on how to go about in an orderly fashion?  In principle, I’m not on board with that.  It’s kind of like the UN telling a nation it would be better if the split in two.  The natural inclination is for a federation (or nation) to say, “Thanks for the suggestion.  We’ll take care of that on our own.”

Then again, it’s not clear as to whether this topic was ever proposed informally by the IHF and then summarily shot down by the PHF leadership without taking it to the PHF nations.  That the idea was dead on arrival, even if some nations might warm to the idea, especially if it came with resources.

An Olympic Slot for Both the North and the South?

There are a lot of aspects to a proposed splitting of the PHF Federation, but a bottom line factor of the split that could sway nations one way or the other will be the World Championships and Olympic qualification slots that would be offered to each federation.  The original proposal outlined last summer simply divvied up the slots that the PHF currently has.  I bemoaned a bit the North getting shortchanged, but now I’m hearing rumors of both the North and the South getting an Olympic slot.  That would certainly be a response to IOC threats to show progress with efforts de-Europeanize the sport.  Further, if its own Olympic slot is part of the deal you can bet the North nations will very quickly warm up to a split even if they aren’t fans of the process that has been used.

Is There a Personality Clash with the Two Presidents?

I’ve also heard rumors from multiple sources indicating that the IHF President (Hassan Moustafa) and the PHF President (Mario Moccia) simply have had a falling out.   These two articles at Super Handball (link 1, link 2) elaborate on that relationship, noting that some have speculated that Moccia is gunning for the IHF President job and that the split is a way of getting back and decreasing his influence.  Indeed, as the PHF notes in their Official Statement the split has the effect of removing a VP slot from Pan America on the Executive Council.  Instead the newly split federations will each have a “representative” on the Council.

Way Ahead Still Murky; Tournaments in Jeopardy

With the way ahead still murky some planned PHF tournaments are in real jeopardy.  These tournaments include the PHF Beach Handball Championship (Men and Women), scheduled for March in Oceanside, CA; a Men’s North American & Caribbean Championship (location TBD), and even the Men’s Pan American Championships, scheduled for June in Greenland.  It’s possible that these tournaments will still be staged under the auspices of the IHF, but that is still TBD.  If I get any definitive information I will post it as soon as I hear about it.

Move Over Simonet, Sigurdsson is the New ESPN Sports Center Top 10 Handball King

Sigurdsson with the punch in goal vs Serbia

Last September, Montpellier’s Diego Simonet made the ESPN Sports Center Top 10 plays of the day with a nifty goal in a Champions League match vs Metalurg.  To date his goal has gotten 1.2M views on Instagram.  A nice viewership to be sure, but he’s now been eclipsed by Iceland’s Gudjon Valur Sigurdsson who’s only needed 21 hours to get 1.6M views for his 2nd chance punch in goal following a penalty shot vs Serbia at the European Championships.

Much like Simonet, Sigurdsson’s efforts has received thousands of comments along the lines of “what’s that sport”, “Is that something a PE teacher made up”, and “this should be on the Ocho” (A Dodgeball movie reference that poked fun at ESPN’s expanding family of networks).

I’m a little tired of beating the dead horse into a pulp, but what the heck, why not?  The lack of awareness the sport has in this problem isn’t just one problem among many the sport faces in this country.

IT IS THE BIGGEST PROBLEM.

Fix this problem and all other problems will become easier to solve.  Nothing demonstrates this more than the thousands of comments that accompany this video.

To the EHF’s great credit every match of the ongoing Men’s European Championships are available for viewing, both live and on demand.  Further, they are high quality web streams with English language commentary.  For the dedicated handball fan it is truly a phenomenally great deal.  And, it’s 100% free.  How could I possibly complain?

Well, because the EHF and others don’t need to convince me and the other 300 or so super fans of the sport in the U.S.  They need to be laser focused on finding a way to turn that 300 into 3,000, then 30,000, then 300,000.  Seriously, 300 fans in the world’s biggest market?  How can that possibly be?  It’s a mind boggling small number for such a great sport.  And, nothing could fix that faster than decent TV exposure.

The Need to Find the Right TV Network Partner?

While a free video stream is pretty cool, potential new fans aren’t likely to accidentally type in www.ehfTV.com and get converted.  The way people watch sports is evolving, but TV is still king in 2018.  A good TV network partner can lead the potential new fan to the sport.  ESPN gave handball a freebie with exposure on its flagship show, Sports Center, but I doubt they also gave everyone a heads up on where to watch online.  (For sure they took down my post with a link to ehfTV.)  But, they sure would have if the matches were shown on one of their networks or even their online platform.  And, there likely would be more than just the occasional spectacular goal making the top 10.

For too long, not enough effort has been given by the EHF, IHF and others to find the right network.  Getting on TV in the U.S. was seen as something nice if it happened, but of minor importance.  And, then it seemed that any network would do.  How else to explain beIN Sports US, which currently has the U.S. TV rights for most of the major handball properties, but chooses not to broadcast on TV anymore.

There are, however, signs of change on the horizon.  The IHF has a new contract for the World Championships with MP&Silva so a new network could be showing that event next January.  And, the EHF is in the process of reviewing 4 bids for a mega ten year contract from 2020-2030.  I’ve been told that the U.S. market development is a big part of this review, so I’ve got some cautious optimism for the future.

Or, Maybe a TV Partner isn’t Needed?

But, then again while TV is king, maybe it won’t be much longer.  The way people watch sports is evolving at a pretty fast pace.  I, for one am pretty happy with ehfTV.  The NBC OTT platform in the 2016 Olympics was seriously awesome too.  All of the major networks have OTT platforms and reportedly ESPN is upgrading their platform to address the drop in traditional cable TV viewers.  Maybe the partner won’t be a TV partner, but a digital streaming partner.

And, maybe you don’t even need a partner?  Perhaps with the right marketing campaign a dedicated handball online streaming platform could take off its own.  Seriously, my daughters watch “Youtubers” that make millions of dollars a year.  How are those less than awesome videos discovered?  Could a combination of social media and advertisement create a stand alone platform for the word’s handball community.

The Deadest Weekend of the Year:  Couldn’t Handball Replace Ice Fishing?

In the U.S., the NFL is king and there is a 2 week gap between the Conference Championships and the Super Bowl.  The weekend between those 2 events is sometimes called the deadest sports weekend of the year.  Everyone is waiting for the big game and they’re not quite ready to shift their attention to basketball.  And, often that deadest weekend coincides with either the European Championship or World Championship Final.  One might think this would be an opportunity, but sadly it hasn’t in years past.  In 2012, I did this review of what was on every available sports channel in the U.S.  Yes, depressingly the NBC Sports Network had an Ice Fishing showing on.  Ice Fishing! And, yes I’ve actually been ice fishing.  Boring to do. Mind boggling boring to watch.

Here’s hoping that next year around this time we’ll be celebrating a World Championship Final on a major U.S. Network.  It has to happen sooner or later.  I suggest sooner is the better option.

2018 European Championships Odds, Analysis and Notes

France vs Norway:  A rematch of the World Championships Final on Day 1.  What a way to start the European Championships.

The 2018 European Championships start today and as usual France are the established favorites for this major tournament.  They are closely followed by hosts Croatia and Olympic Champions, Denmark.  Further down the list are Spain, defending champions Germany and World Championship runners up, Norway.

2018 European Championships Odds (Courtesy of Best Betting)

Nation Odds
France 2.25 to 1
Croatia 3 to 1
Denmark 4.25 to 1
Spain 8 to 1
Germany 9 to 1
Norway 14 to 1
Sweden 25 to 1
Slovenia 40 to 1
Hungary 50 to 1
Serbia 100 to 1
Macedonia 200 to 1
Iceland 225 to 1
Belarus 500 to 1
Czech Rep 500 to 1
Austria 1000 to 1
Montenegro 1000 to 1

Analysis

The EHF website has a nice preview article on each nation participating.
EHF “Countdown” articles on each nation: Link

The Stregspiller Website has several good interview and previews of the tournament and the chances of the top teams

Sascha Staat on Germany:  Link
Kevin Domas on France: Link
Peter Bruun’s Overall Preview:  Link

Peter Bruun’s summary is excellent and I pretty much concur with all of his analysis.  In particular, the following:

“Still, France possesses sufficient power and quality to be my top pick for winning the title.  However, much will depend on the performance of Nikola Karabatic – more so now than ever before. France with or without their charismatic leader is a very different team, and if Karabatic can’t deliver, “Les Bleus” won’t even reach the semi-finals.”

Recently, I was amused somewhat about twitter postings regarding possible MVPs and key players for the tournament.  Amused in that there wasn’t much talk about Karabatic, who I still think is the best player in the world.  (Probably, the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) as well, but, that’s fodder for a longer commentary).  And, for sure, shepherding this talented, but relatively inexperienced team to a title as a 33 year old veteran would be a big legacy statement.  But, then again flaming out in the Main Round would also make a statement.

I’m a little bit less enamored with Croatia despite being the host.  As with France and Karabatic much of Croatia’s success hinges on Domagoj Duvnjak.  Reportedly, he’s back in fine form after being out for several months due to injury, but I will need to see that with my own eyes in a non-friendly match to believe it.  Perhaps they can still be willed into the semifinals as the host nation regardless, but I have my doubts.  Looking to the Main Round the would be Norway-Croatia match might be pivotal for advancement

In Groups C and D, I think Denmark and Germany are pretty clear favorites and it wouldn’t surprise me if they both end up with unblemished records, excepting of course their head to head matchup.  Spain could surprise, but I don’t think any of the other teams have the personnel to match up with them.

For the Final Four.  I’ll go with France beating Germany in one semi and Denmark beating Norway in the other.  And, then France getting revenge over Denmark in the Final.

Gotta Love the Format

Personally, I wax and wane as to whether the Preliminary/Knock out stage or Preliminary/Main Round format is better.  There’s a lot of drama in a Round of 16, but, this European Championship sure makes a strong case for the latter.  Day 1 and we’ve got a rematch of the WC Final between Norway and France.  A match that could very well put the loser on the cusp of not making the semifinals.  Wow, talk about a riveting way to start out the tourney!

EHF Stepping Up their Game on the Media Side:  Link

Well, I’ll jump the gun a bit and assume that the EHF will not have any geoblocking of the championship like 2 years ago.  Hopefully, a good assumption.  Every match should be available at ehfTV live and on demand.  Viewers in the U.S. should get their “boss key” working as pretty much every day for the next 2 weeks will have 3 or 4 matches available for viewing around Mid-day depending on your time zone.

Further, it looks like they will have a daily show with highlights and interviews which should be an outstanding way to catch up on the competition and get fired up for the upcoming matches.  They will also be live tweeting conversations and Snap Chat.

 

Well, it Had to Happen Sooner or Later:  Barcelona’s Unbeaten Streak is Snapped after 133 Matches and What it Says about Long Shot Chances in Handball

Big News in Spain: Barcelona played a Liga Asobal handball match and didn’t win it.

In the midst of the Women’s World Championships this past December a pretty significant Liga Asobal Men’s club match was played in Guadalajara, Spain where the host team managed a 26-26 draw against, Barcelona, one of the best club teams in the world.

Why was that draw significant?  Well, because not since May 18, 2013, when they lost to Naturhouse La Riolla, 33-31 had Barcelona failed to win a match in Spain’s top competition.  A staggering 133 straight victories and 4 straight undefeated 30-0-0 seasons from 2013 to 2017.  Back in 2013, I wrote a commentary on how the financial crisis in 2008 had set in motion the tumbling of what was once the World’s 2nd best league to merely an afterthought competition.  Essentially, Barca and everybody else.

Still, 133 straight victories?  No upsets along the way? This is not simply a matter of amateurs vs pros.  The other teams in the league aren’t what they once were, but they are sides still mostly, if not entirely, composed of professional athletes.  Granollers and Leon have had decent teams the past few years.  Perhaps if you ranked every single club in Europe, they’d be somewhere in the top 30.  Top 50, for sure. They’ve each had 8 shots at taking Barca down.  Plus, the home court advantage for half those games.  Crazy things can happen with “home cookin” if you know what I mean.  I don’t care how much better the opposition is.

One couldn’t imagine such a string of victories in American professional sports.  There’s just way more parity even if there have been some pretty dominant teams over the years like the present day Golden State Warriors.

Just how lacking in parity is the Liga Asobal?  Well, I would ascertain, that Barcelona has the league’s best player at every position.  Probably, the 2 best players at every position.  Heck, there might not be another athlete on all the other teams combined who could find a spot on their roster.  OK, that might be a stretch, but for sure nobody playing on any of the other teams would start for Barcelona.  And, not only are the players better at every position they are significantly better.  There’s a huge gap in talent.

Still, 133 straight victories?

Handball is Just Not the Sport for the Big Shock Upset

But, then again maybe 133 straight wins isn’t such a shocker.  When you’re looking for the really big upset in sports there are several factors that come into play.

  • How hard is it to score? Games with a lot of scoring are less prone to upsets because the odds dictate that the better team is going to get its points and the weaker team will be faced with the prospect of matching and scoring more.  But, if the the prospect of scoring is challenging even for a great team it open the door to the possibility of a huge upset by even totally outmanned opposition.  And, no other sport demonstrates this as ably as soccer where a game can be won, 1-0.  Entirely amateur sides have knocked off dramatically superior opposition in such games over the years.  More often than not the top side wins 5-0, but every once in a while a lucky goal goes in off a corner kick and the dramatically inferior side puts 11 players in the box and prays the pro side can’t find the back of the net.
  • How many opportunities are there to score? This essentially relates to the variability in outcomes over time.  The longer the game, the more chances to score, the more likely it is the better team will eventually come out on top.  It’s just statistics really.  For any 5 minutes in a 60 minute game, the weaker team might outperform the stronger team.  A team will miss a shot, but if they get to keep shooting, it’s only a matter of time before talent wins out.  But, if there are fewer opportunities or it’s a game of shorter duration then the upset becomes more possible.  There are a couple of sports that demonstrate this well.  One is Rugby 7s where a minor rugby nation like the U.S. can knock off New Zealand without causing much of a real surprise in this 14 minute compact game.  Whereas a USA Rugby 15s victory over New Zealand would be epic.  Another game:  Beach Handball where a USA victory over a top team would be a minor surprise, but the same win over a European team in court handball would again be epic.
  • How much difference can one player’s great performance make? In some sports an incredibly great game by one athlete can make all the difference.  A great pitcher in baseball can throw a no-hitter.  A basketball player can shoot out the lights from 3 point land.  The closest thing to something similar happening in handball is a commanding goalie performance.  And, I’ve seen it happen, on occasion, but in reality such a performance might realistically mean chopping the talent gap 4-5 goals.

Handball is a game where 2 of these 3 factors always work against the dramatically weaker team.  And, even the 3rd possibility of a great individual performance is muted somewhat in its effectiveness.  Upsets do happen in handball.  But, those upsets typically occur in matches where the talent gap between the two sides is actually somewhat modest.  Think, the French women’s recent upset of Norway.  There was a gap in talent, but not a chasm and goalie play/defense overcame it.  But, the bigger the gap widens in terms of talent the chances of a shock upset increase dramatically, probably exponentially.

Unwittingly, a Test Case for Other Handball Odds Assessments

I’ve written a couple of commentaries (Link 1, Link 2) where I’ve tried to critically assess the odds of the U.S. National Teams to qualify for the Olympics and the World Championships.  As, I did my assessment I struggled a bit to try and quantify the differences between long shots, big long shots and really, really long shots.  It’s a theoretical contemplation for sure to entertain the differences between 5-1, 10-1, 50-1, 100-1, 250-1, etc.   And, the USA Women are never going to play Brazil a thousand times to get some good data that might back up assertions on just how long are the odds for a long shot upset.

But, Barcelona’s 133 straight victory run over the past four years probably serves as a pretty good approximation.  Heck, one could argue that the gap in talent between Barcelona and the typical also run Liga Asobal team is less than the gap that exists between the U.S. and Brazil Women.  Much like the gap I described above I don’t think a single American would make the Brazilian roster.  The Brazilian roster is composed mostly of athletes playing on tier 1 teams in Europe.  The U.S. has maybe a couple of players that with some more competitive experience could possibly make the roster of a tier 2 side in Europe, but the bulk of the roster, while hard working is tier 3 at best.  Even with Brazil’s disappointing World Championship performance there is still a massive talent gap.  We could argue as to whether the possibility of an upset is a 100-1, 250-1 or 500-1 proposition, but there should be little doubt that it’s a big number.

And, the double whammy the U.S. Men face in having to beat 2 significantly superior sides, Brazil and Argentina is aptly displayed.  Seriously, what do you think the chances are of Barcelona losing 2 games, back to back in the Liga Asobal anytime soon?   As, I previously highlighted needing 2 upsets means a really big number.  Maybe the 2,500 to 1, is even right on the money

I wish this was all simply a total nonsense speculative assessment.  I wish the U.S. had a realistic shot at Olympic qualification. I also wish we would stop kidding ourselves and start thinking long and hard about how to transform the sport of handball in this country.  To take advantage of the 10 years we’ve been given leading up to the 2028 Olympics to do things right.  I’m beginning to think the odds of that happening, though, maybe isn’t much better than our 2020 Olympic Qualification prospects.  Call me Don Quixote if you will, but, I’ll keep advocating and asking the burning questions until somebody starts thinking maybe we should try to answer them.

And, here’s a closing thought for you.  Barcelona’s 133 game victory streak may be over, but the 136 game unbeaten streak marches on.  Yeah, the match in question was a draw.  I’m thinking if there had been extra time Barca would probably have kept their winning streak.  And, Guadalajara also ran into Barcelona in the semifinals of the Copa Asobal a few weeks later with the opportunity to show everyone that the draw was no fluke.  Final score?  Barcelona 36, Guadalajara 22.

USA Women’s Trip to France:  Summary of Results and Top Level Analysis   

USA Women on defense vs Belgium

The USA Women recently traveled to France for some training and friendly competition.  Here’s a summary of their match results based on information obtained from French Club, the Belgian Federation, USA Team Handball website and various social media accounts:

16 December  USA vs Paris Saint-Germain 26-18 (Halftime 12-10)
17 December  USA vs Belgium 29-31 (11-12)
19 December  USA vs Belgium 21-31 (13-14)
20 December  USA vs HBCSA 19-31 (10-13)
21 December  USA vs Lomme Lille Metropole 24-29 (11-14)

Background on the Competition

Here’s some very top level analysis on the competition Team USA faced during the trip.  “Very top level” in that other than a few video clips I did not see any of the matches.  The relative quality of the French club team can be assessed by the division they play in.  Unlike their male counterparts (one of the world’s top clubs), the Paris S-G women play in somewhat obscurity in France’s N2F, effectively the 4th Division in France’s confusing club hierarchy nomenclature.   They entered the winter break with a 3-1-4 record and are in 7th place in their pool.   HBCSA plays in France’s 2nd Division and they had compiled a 4-1-3 record so far this season and are in 5th place.  Lomme Lille Metropole plays in France’s N1F (effectively the 3rd level) and had a 4-2-2 record and are in 4th place in their pool.

As far as to the level of the Belgian Women’s team there’s not very much in terms of recent results to assess how good they are.  According to Belgian native Jan Vanderstraeten, who plays for the Portland Sasquatch the Belgium ladies have only recently restarted their program after 13 years of not playing in international competition.  Overall, handball in Belgium is a significantly lower level than most countries in Europe, but they are now taking steps to develop their program.

Team USA Makes Do with Thin Roster

The U.S. was missing several key players and was particularly lacking in backcourt experience.  Further, with 3 goalies on the 13 player roster leaving only 10 court players available such a thin roster had to be a concern going into the trip.

Team USA Roster

Taking into account the thin roster, a 1-4 record with 2 lopsided losses against modest competition is not a surprise to me.  Playing 5 matches in 6 days is really demanding for a team with a full roster of experienced players and the U.S. was clearly short handed. Truth be told, it could have been worse and the U.S. is commended for easily taking care of the 4th division team, playing Belgium close in the first game and then playing the 2nd Division side close for a half.  Again, having not seen the matches I can only guess that the U.S. ran out of gas in the 2nd halves of the 2nd match vs Belgium and against HBCSA.

Finally, if one compares this trip’s results to the trip taken last January to France there are signs of progress.  For sure, last year’s trip had a more robust roster, but yet actually compiled more disappointing results against similar competition.  If the U.S. roster had included Andersen, Butler and Van Ryn helping out in the backcourt this team would surely have fared better.

Photos: USA vs Belgium Link Link

Belgian Federation Reports on matches: Link Link

Handzone.net (France) Report on match vs HBCSA: Link

Photos: USA vs Lomme Lille Metropole: Link

USA Team Handball Preview of Trip: Link

 

Handball Bar Stool Discussion:  Ever Wondered What a Basketball Game Would be Like if Teams had to Play a Man Down?  Or Two Men Down?  Just Like in Handball? (Well, Now We Know)

Alabama on defense with just 3 players. Nice to see the NCAA experimenting with the adoption of handball rules. What might be some other cross over possibilities?

This past weekend a pretty bizarre basketball game was played between 2 NCAA Division 1 College teams, Alabama and Minnesota.  With 13:39 remaining in the game a fight broke out on the court between the two teams and upset, the entire Alabama team left the bench to join the fray.  And, unfortunately for Alabama the penalty for leaving the bench is ejection leaving Alabama with only the 5 court players that were playing at the time of the incident.

From then on it just kept getting more bizarre as shortly thereafter Alabama’s lost 2 more players, one due to fouling out and one due to spraining an ankle.  With 10: 41 remaining in the game Alabama was down 11 points and down to 3 players.  What ensued?  Well, basketball fans got to see the Collin Sexton show as he finished with 40 points and single handedly kept Alabama in the game.  Indeed with 1:30 left Alabama actually cut the lead to 3 points!  Only to end up falling short 89-84.

The match is pretty interesting to watch and this article describes what happened in more detail and has a link to the video.  As a handball fan I watched with handball knowledge and was a little befuddled that the Minnesota coaching staff couldn’t figure out how to put a team away with a 2 man advantage.  A double team or even a triple team on Sexton (a future NBA lottery pick) probably could have done the job.  And settling for outside shots, even if uncontested, is not the best strategy either.

And, naturally it rekindled one of my favorite barstool topics regarding basketball and handball, two similar sports, but with different rules that lead to different strategies.  Remember handball’s last minute rule problem?  The silly situation that led to really unsportmanlike hard fouls to ensure that the other team couldn’t get a shot off.  It’s become a distant memory as handball adopted some basketball like penalties to make such fouls a really bad idea.

But, there are so many other possibilities for transfer between the two sports that would certainly change how handball or basketball would be played.  Highly debatable as to whether they are good ideas or not, but have another round of beers and discuss.  Here are my favorites

What if basketball adopted these handball rules?

  • On the fly substitution. Paint a couple of substitution lines on the court and see how coaches work the offense to defense player changes.  No more tall guys sitting at mid-court waiting for the buzzer to sound.  Really, what purpose does checking in at the scorer’s table serve anyway?
  • Two minute penalties. Give teams the option of taking the free throws or having the fouling team play down a man for two minutes.  All kinds of unintended consequences here, though.  Would the game become even softer as teams become more reluctant to foul.

And, what if handball adopted these basketball rules?

  • Shot Clock. Passive play has got to be one of the silliest rules ever.  Really?  Leave it up to the officials to decide whether a team is making a good faith effort to attack?  Can you imagine what basketball would be like if that was the rule instead of a shot clock?  Quit nibbling around the edges handball people and just cave in and adopt a shot clock.  But, as in basketball it’s needed for the higher levels.
  • Start and stoppage of the time clock. Of course if you adopt a shot clock, though, you’re going to have to rethink the running clock.  Otherwise, defenses will adapt their strategies to delay the offense.  Additionally, it would eliminate referee decisions as to what is deemed worthy of stopping the clock.
  • 4 quarters and more timeouts. Professional handball players bemoan the numbers of games they have to play a year, but somehow the NBA plays even more with the only big complaint being back to back games.  I realize that basketball is a softer game that’s a bit easier on the body, but the greater amount of stoppage time in an NBA game also helps.

Anyway, those are some of my favorite possibilities.  Feel free to chime in with your opinion on Facebook or at the barstool after your next match.