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Charting a Way Forward for USA Team Handball: Option 4:  Upgrade and Expand Collegiate Team Handball (Part 1: Background)

This option for USA Team Handball requires a little more explaining than the other options for consideration.  Part 1 provides the background information.  Part 2 will tackle what could be done.

Background (Framing the Problem)

Last weekend Army beat Air Force 31-26 in what is surely USA Team Handball’s longest, continuous club rivalry, collegiate or otherwise.  It dates back to at least 1986 when I traveled to West Point as an AF cadet to play in my first of two collegiate handball matches.  The other match took place in the Spring of 1987 at the National Club Championship when our pool play game vs West Point also served as the Collegiate Championship.  Yes, back in 1987 there were just two collegiate men’s teams, Air Force and West Point. 27 years later there were 10 men’s colleges and 2 women’s colleges at the Collegiate Championship, but as anyone who follows the sport in this country knows this number has ebbed and flowed for years.  In reality there are just 3 firmly established men’s collegiate programs (West Point, Air Force and North Carolina) and 2 firmly established women’s programs (West Point and North Carolina).  Yes, if you’re looking for positive spin could say that collegiate Team Handball has almost doubled in size (from 3 to 5 programs) since I started playing.

First, a short aside from those who might want to point out that there are currently more than 5 collegiate clubs in the U.S.  This is true, but as the graveyard map above so ably demonstrates there’s a big difference between showing up at nationals for a couple of years and being a program that’s consistently there, year after year.  Maybe the Texas A&Ms and Illinois States of today won’t join that graveyard, but they’ve got to stick around for about 5 years before I’ll grant them “firmly established” status.

Still, even if you use a looser definition and counted every college that formed a club and played in one tournament we’d still be way short of where this country needs to be.  To be at 5 programs in 27 years is a huge disappointment to say the least.  Contrast those numbers to other club (non NCAA sports) like Rugby which claims to have 900 collegiate clubs and 32,000 players.  Or, Ultimate Frisbee which claims 700 clubs and 12,000 players.  I don’t know what the numbers were for those sports back in 1987, but Ulitmate, for sure, was in its infancy.

But, is a lack of collegiate growth an over-riding concern or just one development problem of many that USA Team Handball faces?  After all, this country doesn’t have many clubs in general.  And arguably, we have only one program currently at the High School level in New Jersey and just a couple at lower levels like the programs Craig Rot has started in Minnesota and suburban Chicago.  Does collegiate handball deserve extra attention.

Why Collegiate Handball is (or should be so) important for USA Development

Here are some arguments as to why collegiate handball is worthy of some extra attention:

  • It’s the first realistic opportunity the USA has to get some quality athletes to devote themselves full time to the sport: Sure, it would be nice to get younger athletes fully engaged, but the traditional American sports present very stiff competition.  Unless Team Handball can become a fully sanctioned sport in high school almost all (if not all) of the better athletes will gravitate to the traditional sports.  After, high school, however, a good portion of these athletes will see their careers end when they are not awarded a college scholarship.  These athletes may not be part of the “elite” in their chosen sport, but they may be strong candidates for elite status in Team Handball.  And, at the other end of the spectrum:  While it might be tempting to wait for some even better raw athletes after their collegiate careers are over, these athletes are older and may age out before they can be great club or national team players
  • Colleges have infrastructure that can more readily support club start up and sustainment: Starting a club requires a number of things to include a place to practice, athletes and organization.   Gym space can be an issue, but virtually every college has gyms that could be used for team handball.  Colleges are also chalk full young adults, mostly aged 18-22 and by default some portion are athletes making recruiting less challenging.  Finally, many colleges have policies in place that encourage and support clubs with funding and resources.  It doesn’t usually pay for everything, but it provides structure and a base for support.
  • College sports have tradition and name recognition: Team handball lacks recognition in this country and if you were to hype a TV broadcast between our nation’s best club teams, NYAC and NYC you would get some blank stares from many a sports fan.  However, if you were to talk about a match between Air Force and West Point, or say the acronym “UNC” the typical sports fan will immediately think, “Service Academy Rivalry” and “sky blue” uniforms. If you ever want to sell the sport the aesthetics of school colors and tradition will beat no name clubs with aging veterans.

The impact of having so few collegiate club handball programs

While few would argue that it’s not good to have so few collegiate programs is it really a big deal or just something that would be nice to have? Well, here’s some of the impact our low numbers have had on the development of the game and our national teams.

  • Fewer collegiate clubs means a dramatically smaller player pool for our National Teams: If you are an advocate of Residency Programs this reality surely hits home.  Over the years, collegiate clubs have been a primary recruiting source for our National Teams.  Army, Air Force and UNC have been the handball starting point for dozens of players.  It would be interesting to see a statistical breakdown of National Team players and how many started first with a collegiate club, but I’m guessing it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 30%.  Higher for the men and lower for the women.  Imagine what that percentage might be with more clubs and then imagine how much higher the quality of players would be with a larger pool to draw from.
  • Fewer collegiate clubs means a dramatically smaller fan base and accompanying smaller revenue stream: Setting aside the National Team player pool aspect think about everyone who’s put on a collegiate jersey.  Everyone of those former players is a potential ardent fan of USA Team Handball, European Club Handball and the sport in general.  Someone that might purchase the upper tier cable package to get Champions League matches on beIN Sport, someone that might buy a USA Team Handball jersey, or attend a USA national team match.  Last weekend USA Rugby played the All Blacks of New Zealand in front of 61,000 fans at Soldier Field.  For sure there was more than a few New Zealand expats there, but I bet there were a sizable number of former collegiate rugby players in the stands.  Handball couldn’t even fill an arena if we had 100% attendance from every collegiate player from the past 3 decades.  And, another potential revenue stream:  The philanthropic billionaire former player.  The greater the number of former players, the better chance you have that someone like former collegiate rugby player Mark Cuban:  ready, willing and able to open their sizable wallets to help.
  • Fewer collegiate clubs means fewer youth coaches, referees and club leaders: And apart from the direct revenue aspect if there are more collegiate teams there were surely be more former players giving back to the sport.  Rugby for many years in the U.S. was mostly a collegiate sport with a few clubs consisting of expats and college graduates.  (Does that sound familiar USA handball followers?)  As more and more collegiate club programs got on solid ground and an alumni base grew into the thousands, though, the growth started occurring in youth programs.  Now there are even sanctioned high school programs and colleges that are recruiting those athletes.

Why there are so few collegiate club handball programs

So why has the “sport of the future” had such paltry growth at the collegiate level?  More importantly, what can be done to change this?  Answering the “why question” is fairly straightforward.  Here are the two main reasons why growth has been so minimal:

  1. It’s difficult to start a club program: Starting any team handball club in the U.S., collegiate or otherwise isn’t easy.  As I’ve pointed out before it’s drudgework that many (including dozens of former national team players) don’t want to go anywhere near.  Heck, in some respects it’s amazing that we’ve had several programs get started even if they inevitably flamed out.  Which alludes to the 2nd reason.
  2. Transitioning from a fledgling program to an established program isn’t easy: While starting a new club is challenging, there often is a level of energy which is invigorating and allows new clubs to overcome those challenges.  In most cases, however, that energy level wears off after a year or two and eventually the club encounters some new challenge that isn’t overcome.  That challenge could be dwindling numbers, the need for a new gym or as, often is the case, the departure of key individuals leading the charge.  All too often, in fact, in almost every case over the past 27 years, the new challenge is not met and the grave digger heads out to the cemetery to add another gravestone.

So, how can USA Team Handball turn things around for its collegiate programs?  In part 2 of the “college focused option” I take a closer look at what could be done and the pros/cons, costs and risks associated with doing so.