The ehfTV “Rewind” show is highlight show of Champions League action with a few interviews thrown in for good measure. Last week, as an American I did a double and triple take when I saw the “Inside the Game” profile with Kiel’s Danish center back Rasmus Lauge-Schmidt. The cause of the double take? The video shows Lauge-Schmidt practicing a bit of American Football in full pads.
It turns out that the 22 year old, Lauge-Schmidt is a huge fan of the National Football League (NFL), the professional football league in the USA. So much so that every Sunday night he watches from 7:00 PM until the early hours of the morning. (As a former resident of Europe, I can attest to doing the same thing; That time change certainly alters your NFL viewing clock.) I haven’t confirmed with Lauge-Schmidt, but I’m pretty sure that his fandom has been restricted to viewing and he’s never actually played the game. I suspect that the EHF set up a mock practice with the local club in Kiel to provide some good optics for the interview. After all, it can be a little boring to just watch someone talking. And the interview did get me thinking about the current status of American Football in Europe and some lessons that might be applicable to Team Handball in the U.S.
American Football popularity abroad
A lot of people in the U.S. are probably under the impression that the game isn’t played much outside of the U.S and Canada and while that’s certainly true to an extent, the sport is played in most European nations. I was first made aware of this many years ago when I stumbled upon a full contact scrimmage of the London Ravens in Hyde Park. Long time LA handball player, Mika Maunala, amused me with stories of playing QB in Helsinki and I had a German work colleague in Paris that played, by coincidence for the club in his hometown, Kiel. (Yes, ironically I was the bigger handball fan in my office.) Sure enough Lauge-Schmidt photo op was with the local club there, the Kiel Baltic Hurricanes.
It’s hard to fully gauge how popular a sport is from a few personal anecdotes, but clearly American Football is gaining a foothold in Europe. NFL broadcasts are readily available in most countries even if it’s usually with a cable outlet. In London the NFL now plays two regular season matches to sell out crowds of 80,000 plus at Wembley Stadium. There’s quite a list of nations with leagues even if it’s uncertain as to the level of amateurism/professionalism, but at least some of the teams appear to draw decent crowds. The Hurricanes for instance drew 7,000 fans for a semifinal match recently. While that doesn’t even begin to approach a typical crowd at an NFL game the U.S. right now can only dream of a crowd approaching that for a handball match in this country.
Such a foothold wasn’t obtained through osmosis. Sure, it’s a great game to watch and generally when newcomers are exposed to the sport they become fans. Lauge-Schmidt is but one example. Virtually every expat I’ve met who’s emigrated to the U.S. has become a fan of the sport. (count my colleague, Christer Ahl in that category.) There’s lots of sports that fall into that category and just like American Football generally newcomers to Team Handball like what they see when exposed. And that’s where the NFL is the difference maker as they do an absolutely masterful job of packaging and promoting the sport. Perhaps this can best be summed up by what I heard French basketball player Tony Parker say once in describing American sports production: “They make every weekend of games seem like the World Cup.” The pageantry, aesthetics and TV production involved in packaging the sport are simply unmatched. And the promotion is strategically planned both home and abroad. For years the NFL has cultivated a following. Even going so far to create an NFL developmental league there for several years. While that league eventually folded it surely played a key role in the sports development overseas.
Proof that foreigners can learn to play an alien game at the highest level
If there ever was greater proof staring the handball world in the face that it’s possible for a game totally alien to a country’s sporting culture to take root there is no better example than American Football in Europe. Sure, the sport isn’t as popular as many other sports, but think of all the crazy obstacles it’s overcome to reach the level of popularity it has. First off, there are probably only a handful of games more expensive to play. Unlike the typical school team in the U.S. with equipment handout on the first day of practice every player has to buy his own personal set of pads. Then think of the complexities of the game that have to be learned. The idiosyncrasies of the rules and the penalties might seem second place if you’ve watched it all your life, but coming in cold it’s pretty complex. Finally, think of all the unique skills like blocking and tackling that have to be taught and learned. Not to mention the concept of intricate play calling where every single player has to memorize responsibilities and formations for every single play. With all those obstacles to overcome it’s a wonder that the sport is played anywhere outside the U.S. and Canada.
Yet, amazingly the level of play has risen to the point where there’s now a trickle of foreigners getting recruited by American colleges and then eventually making it into the ranks of the NFL. Notably, there are now two established German players, Bjoern Werner and Sebastian Vollmer. Probably not household names back home, but with salaries of $2M and $4M respectively they make more on a yearly basis than anyone playing handball in the German Bundesliga. If Germans can learn to play American Football to the highest level it’s not so difficult to think that Americans can do the same with Team Handball. And while it has indeed happened in recent times, Americans (who learned the game in the U.S) haven’t ascended to anywhere near the highest levels in Europe. For instance, arguably America’s current best player, Gary Hines, plays for German 3rd Division side, HC Bad Neustadt.
Probably, for Americans to make the leap into the upper pro ranks in Europe, it will take a greater number of athletes picking up the game at younger ages. And then those athletes heading over to Europe at younger ages with enough time to further develop as players so that top clubs are interested in signing them.
Or, alternatively, some absolutely top quality athletes could be enticed to give Team Handball a try after their career with their first sport winds downs. In Part 2, I’ll take a closer look at this possibility with a focus on the American Football to Team Handball pipeline.