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.

Team USA Olympic and World Championship Qualification Odds (Part 2):  Assessing 2024 Olympic Qualification Odds Based on Level of Investment

Projected U.S. Olympic Qualification Odds based on level of investment. Does this reality suggest a strategy that forgoes investment in the near to mid term in favor of  maximizing national team performance in 2028?

In Part 1, I highlighted the long odds USA National face in the next couple of years.  In Part 2, I project what the odds are for the 2024 and 2028 Olympic Games.  I also get a little philosophical as to whether those odds suggest a re-evaluation of USA Team Handball’s near to mid- term priorities.

2024 Olympic Prospects

With under 2 years to get ready for the 2020 Olympics it should come us as no surprise to anyone with even just an inkling of handball knowledge that the U.S. Men and Women do not have a realistic chance of qualifying for those Olympics.  Perhaps, some folks don’t fully realize to the extent of just how unrealistic it is, but most people are aware that it’s not very likely to happen.

But, even if there is virtually no chance to qualify there is still an obligation to make a good faith effort to do so.  Further, one can make the case that efforts to qualify for 2020 will have the benefit of setting up a stronger and more realistic attempt to qualify in 2024.

For an Olympics qualification run that is less than 2 years away it’s fairly straight forward to assess how successful such a campaign might be.  This is because the teams that compete in those qualifying tournaments will bear a strong resemblance to the teams of today.  Sure, there will be some roster changes to both Team USA and its competition, but on the whole it’s pretty unlikely that there will be a dramatic drop off or gain in performance.

6 years out, however, is a bit more difficult to project.  Will Argentina’s Diego Simonet at age 33 still be as big of factor? Or will Argentina even be better with some promising newcomers complimenting the wily veteran?  Will the Brazilian women be as strong with less sponsorship and support then what they received in the run up the 2016 Olympics?  Could Cuba’s economy improve such that they are competing on a regular basis?

And, what of the U.S. teams?  Could the U.S. Women continue to improve with several newcomers joining the program to replace some veteran athletes due to retire?  Could the U.S. Men show steady improvement with a mix of dual citizens and top athletes learning the game at Auburn?  Or, might the U.S. teams simply tread water playing with a measure of respectability, but lacking the depth and talent needed to challenge the likes of Argentina and Brazil.  Or, could the U.S. sink even further in terms of relative competitiveness?

Projecting the 2024 Competition

I could set up a table of possibilities as I did for 2020 qualification, but doing so would be pointless.  There are simply too many variables to project out that far.  That being said, I think some top level crystal ball projections can be made in regards to our competition.

  • The Brazilian Men are poised to be very good for years to come. Multiple players in their early to mid 20’s are playing for top clubs in Europe.  Their domestic league is also respectable and they’ve fielded Jr and Youth National Teams with great depth.
  • The Argentinian Men are also solid, but lack the depth Brazil has. They’ve got Simonet, though, and if he’s playing well Argentina will continue to be a threat for a gold medal.
  • No other Men’s PHF team appears to be on a trajectory to challenge Brazil or Argentina anytime soon. Chile and Greenland have decent teams, but their lack of depth is even more pronounced than Argentina’s.
  • The Brazilian Women have a Golden Generation that is starting to age out. I doubt that their replacements will be as good, but on the whole they have tremendous depth. Brazil’s 2nd and 3rd teams could have taken silver and bronze for the last several years if they had been allowed to participate in PHF Tourneys.
  • The Argentinian Women have yet to show that they can improve to the level of Brazil. Solid technical players, but they have to find a game changing athlete that can take them to the next level.
  • No other Women’s PHF team appears to be on a trajectory to challenge Brazil, but several sides are probably capable of mounting a challenge to Argentina
  • As an aside, the Cuban Men’s and Women’s programs are a real wild card. If properly resourced they surely could contend with other 2nd tier programs and perhaps even challenge for a PANAM Games Gold Medal.

Projecting Team USA in 2024

But, what about the U.S. Men and Women in 6 years time?  Taking the court in Santiago, Chile, the likely host of the 2023 PANAM Games.  As discussed, there are a lot of variables to factor in, but there is one simple thing that can be done:  Just add 6 years to the age of every athlete in the current talent pool.  If one does this simple addition to the Sr Team rosters for the past few tournaments, you’ll reach a quick conclusion:  That there will likely be only a few hold overs between now and then.

With the U.S. Men the roster change will likely be pretty significant.   The last major Men’s competition was the 2016 Pan American Championships I would assess that perhaps 4 or 5 players from that roster will be on the team in 2023.   I would then add 1 or 2 players from the current team at Auburn and then 4 or 5 dual citizens that have shown promise in Jr Events.  There’s some overlap with those 3 groups, but all told I think 10 athletes could come from our current player pools (Sr and Jr).  And, that would mean 6 athletes that aren’t even playing or perhaps just started playing would be on a 2023 roster.

And, such a roster would have some major question marks.  The biggest one being who would be the reliable, consistent scoring threat in the backcourt?  Perhaps a 39 year old Gary Hines will still be starting at backcourt, but I’d like to think he’ll have gently been nudged into retirement by some up and coming players.  Or at best he is a veteran reserve playing key minutes a la France’s Daniel Narcisse by then.

With the U.S. Women the change will be really dramatic.  I would assess that from the 2017 Pan American Championship roster the only holdovers could very well be just 3 or 4 younger dual citizen athletes.  Perhaps there will still be a couple of U.S. based players from the 2017 roster, but they will all be 31 or older and right in that age range where “life issue” decisions related to career and family could become more pressing.   Yes, there could be as many as 11 athletes on the U.S. Women’s Team in 2023 who are not even playing handball right now.

Now at first glance, particularly to our European friends, the prospect of the U.S. National Teams qualification for the 2024 Olympics with much of the roster consisting of newcomers might seem pretty farfetched. But, it is possible to take a quality athletic talent who has never played the game before and turn them into a decent handball player in 6 years time.  Possible, but not easy.  And, not cheap either.  It requires recruiting great athletes, providing them a quality training atmosphere and relatively frequent competition opportunities for those athletes.  I’ve written ad nauseum that the program at Auburn has not provided any of those key components for the past 4 years.  Don’t get me wrong.  Those athletes and coaches are working hard and doing the best they can, but there simply has not been enough financial support to do the job properly.

Playing the percentages (or the percentage gain)

But, what if we could properly fund our National Team programs?  Would it make a difference?  Would we then have a real shot at Olympic Qualification?

Those are very important questions.  Questions that should be asked, researched, and answered by USA Team Handball.  The short answer is that, of course, it would make a difference and it surely would improve our odds of qualifying.  But, the real questions are “How much would it improve our chances?” and “Is that percentage gain in improved chances worth the investment?”

For illustrative purposes, I’ll outline 3 possibilities in terms of investment to support or National Teams over the next 6 years and assess at a top level what our chances of qualification will be:

Minimal Investment:  This is the status quo and would mean relying on dual citizens and the continued recruitment and development of athletes at Auburn under the current austere circumstances.

Modest Investment:  This would be a modest investment in the neighborhood of $500K to 1.5M/years to beef up support to the residency programs.  This investment would be used to improve the Residency Program with partial college scholarships, stipends for athletes and travel support for multiple trips/year for overseas competition.  This should improve recruiting and also improve the development outcomes for those new athletes.  Overall, this would be roughly comparable to the U.S. residency programs of the 80’s and 90’s, particularly as you get closer to the $1.5M end of the scale.

Robust Investment: This would be an investment of $1.5-3M/year and would be an all in effort to fully maximize the performance of our teams in time for the 2023 PANAM Games.   The Residency Program would be further improved with select athletes receiving full scholarships and/or salaries.  A full time recruiting director would be hired.  Top athletes would be placed overseas via training arrangements with top European clubs.  This would be an unprecedented level of support perhaps comparable to what Olympic Sports currently under the NCAA umbrella receive.

Taking those 3 possible investment scenarios into account here’s how I would assess the likelihood for USA qualification in 2024.  (You’ll see that for illustrative purposes I also include the odds for 2020 and 2028)

USA Women

 

Excepting, Brazil and to a lesser extent Argentina, the competition in Pan America is relatively weak.  This means that a modest investment if properly executed could put together the 2nd best team in Pan America fairly quickly.   The U.S. would still not be nearly as good as Brazil, but capable of pulling off a 1 in 10 upset of Brazil in a one off Gold Medal match.  If more resources are provided with a robust investment I could see that being upped to a 1 in 5 upset possibility.  However, I don’t see it going higher because 6 years, regardless of investment, is just not enough time to put together a roster of that caliber mostly from scratch.

USA Men

 

Recall from Part 1 that Olympic Qualification for the USA Men, in most scenarios would require successfully beating both Argentina and Brazil.  That’s very likely to still be true in 2024.  For our current team this is really daunting and for 2020 Olympic qualification would require winning two 50-1 upsets or a 1 in 2,500 proposition.  For 2024 I think a modest investment would improve our team such that odds of an upset would be in the neighborhood of 10-1, but again the double whammy is a real killer meaning the odds of doing it twice are still 1 in 100.  A robust investment would further improve our National Team, but as with the Women, 6 years is just not enough time to reach Argentina and Brazil’s level.  We could improve our odds for an upset to perhaps 1 in 5, but again that means performing a double upset which would be about a 4% possibility.

Significant Investment for Minimal Gain

So, if we have no further investment to beef up our residency programs we face really, really long odds.  And, if we do provide additional investment we essentially change “really, really long” to “really long”.  With the Men’s program such an investment would have almost no value.  Spend a little or spend a lot, it just won’t move the needle much. With the Women’s program there is some small value, but it’s certainly nothing to get excited about.

Bottom Line: Significant investment directed at improving our National Teams with the intent of securing a 2024 Olympic Qualification slot makes very little sense.  Even our current investment is highly questionable.

Now, if Los Angeles had been awarded the 2024 Olympic Games, the whole dynamic changes.  “Really long shot qualification” replaced with “automatic qualification”.  The discussion would then become how do we put the most competitive team possible on the court in 7 years time?  And, that would logically lead to a near term strategy with some really aggressive recruitment.  And, even I would advocate some investment in such a strategy.   But, 2024 didn’t happen.  LA got 2028 and that reality should lead to a totally different approach and strategy.

Why it All Matters

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time outlining the long odds.  And, sure as the sun comes up every day, I will get some grief along the lines of “Why are you always so negative about things?  Why always, with the glass half empty?”

My response is that I’m an analytical guy.  I’ve looked at the data and I’m sorry, there’s just a lot of reasons to be negative.  The glass isn’t half empty.  There’s barely any liquid in the glass at all. Quite frankly, if you’re all sunshine and roses about our prospects for qualification in 2020 and 2024 you’re either lacking information to understand the big picture or kidding yourself big time.

There’s a time and place for optimism.  Certainly when you’re getting dressed in the locker room against a superior opponent it’s appropriate to be optimistic.  To go out there and give it your all.  The odds be damned.  Certainly, that was my attitude in my brief and unspectacular national team career.

But, when you are trying to map out a future for the sport in this country?  Sorry, Optimism must take a back seat to reality especially when you take into account all of the shortcomings the sport in this country needs to address.  Every dollar spent, every man hour directed toward near term national team support is a dollar and man hour that could have been spent on development and the building of a player base that could actually make the U.S. competitive in 2028.

Further, while USA Team Handball’s current incoming revenue is minimal (2015 was only $348K) that should change.  Sponsorship support will increase with the lead up to the Olympics.  The IHF could even kick in with funding support.   Am I concerned that way too much of that funding will be directed towards near term National Team support?  Propping up Residency Programs that are way too austere.  That our once in a generation Olympic opportunity will be squandered?  Yeah, I’m concerned.  Big time.  And, so should you.

The IHF Proposes a Pan American Split (Part 2):  The Curious Politics Behind the Proposal and a High Stakes Vote in Turkey

The IHF President Proposal to split the Pan American Handball Federation in two and still on the agenda for the upcoming IHF Congress.  A major vote that could change handball in Pan America for decades to come.

The IHF Proposes a Pan American Split (Part 2):  The Curious Politics Behind the Proposal

In Part 1, I outlined the IHF’s proposal to split the Pan American Federation into two separate federations.  In Part 2, I look at the overall merits of the proposal, the curious politics behind it, and a looming high stakes vote at the IHF Congress in Turkey.

Not a Perfect Deal, but One that Makes Sense

As discussed in Part 1, there’s a lot of pros and cons to the IHF proposal to split the Pan American Handball Federation (PHF) in two.  Personally, I took some offense to the lack of World Championship qualification slots.  1 slot only for Youth and Jr Championships.  And, essentially half a slot for Sr. Championships.  While it may reflect the current competitive status of North American/Caribbean Handball it’s still quite a snub.  But, once I got over the snub and weighed the cost savings and the opportunity to create truly regional competitions I started to warm to the proposal.

And, the more I’ve thought about it the more I’ve warmed up to it.  The reality is that it just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for all that travel back and forth across the equator.  All that money spent paying airlines will be roughly halved… forever.  Those costs are different for each nation, but make no mistake there’s some real big savings over time.  And, there are just too many Pan American events right now that are for all practical purposes simply South American events.  The recently completed Women’s Club Championships are a prime example:  8 clubs- all from South America.

I think the New York City Team Handball Club Men’s team is only side from the North that has ever participated in a club championship And, yes club handball is not very well developed in the North, but bet your bottom dollar, if this championship was ever staged in the North, Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Cuba would be far more likely to attend.  And, then maybe only one team from Argentina and Brazil would make the trip up north.

And, this is not likely to ever change in a Federation that spans from Greenland in the north to Tierra Del Fuego in the south.  Club Championships, Jr and Youth Championships will continue to have limited participation due to travel costs.  Only Sr Championships will be truly North/South affairs.

Whereas, if you split the federations there’s a real chance that the North will see legitimate growth in participation to all those events.  Ideally, it could turn into handball’s version of the FIFA CONCACAF.  Not the strongest Federation, but a competitive one with good participation in all events.  And, perhaps even the South will see growth with the 5 primary nations (Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Chile) focusing on and encouraging growth in Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela and Central America.  In theory, they could create a legitimate handball CONMEBOL.

And, I’m not even factoring in the contentious issues that roiled the Federation 10 years ago.  Major issues that were resolved with devastating impacts to Canada and Greenland.  Things have been more agreeable the past few years and it’s nice to see some championship events coming north for a change.  But, with a split?  Well, those issues would never rise to the fore again because the disagreeing nations would be in separate federations.

But, a Deal that’s Being Unanimously Rejected?

Well, while I may have warmed to the idea of two federations, the PHF nations soundly rejected the proposal at an Extraordinary Congress held on 7 October.  As stated on the PHF website:

  • Se trató la propuesta presentada por el Presidente de la IHF de dividir al Continente Americano en dos Federaciones (Norte y Sur) y la misma no contó con ninguna adhesión positiva.

Or, in Google Translate :  “The proposal presented by the President of the IHF to divide the American Continent in two Federations (North and South) was discussed and it did not have any positive adhesion.”

As to why it was rejected, no rationale has been provided.  Speculation on my part, but I would surmise that many nations are resistant to change or are concerned with qualification slots.  Regardless, while the proposal merited only one sentence, this proposal was the reason why a PHF Extraordinary Congress was held and it wasn’t just discussed, it was discussed at length.

It surely would have been interesting to have been a fly on the wall of that meeting, but I’ve heard next to nothing (on or off the record) as to what was discussed.  Nobody’s talking and for something like this with major potential repercussions that is a bit surprising.  Yes, the PHF appears to have quite a bit more discipline then the leaky Trump White House.

The Curious History and Politics Behind the Proposal

What’s really curious about this proposal is that it was initiated by the IHF.  This in many respects would be sort of like the European Union proposing to Spain that it split into 2 countries, Spain and Catalonia.  As an organization it’s fairly easy to see it from the PHF perspective: “Mind your own business, would ya?  If we want to split the PHF, we’ll figure out that ourselves and then we will put forward a proposal to the IHF for consideration.”

And, what makes things curiouser and curiouser?  A similar proposal was submitted by the U.S. back in 2009 and it was rejected by the IHF.  Former USA Team Handball Board President, Dieter Esch, later voiced his displeasure with IHF President Moustafa’s lack of support to his proposed breakaway federation.  Indeed, it was a factor in Esch’s decision to step down and discontinue his generous financial support to USA Team Handball.  And, now Dr. Moustafa is taking up the mantle for a North American Federation?  And, USA Team Handball is rejecting the proposal?

It should have you scratching your head.  But, then again, USA Team Handball has entirely different leadership now and having known USA Team Handball CEO, Mike Cavanaugh, for around 30 years, he’s not one to prone to rock the boat unless it is absolutely necessary.

Additionally, as I discussed in my interview with Handball de Primera, it’s possible that some nations in the PHF were/are reluctant to speak out openly, out of fear of future repercussions should the proposal not come to fruition.  For sure, it would be awkward to attend future PHF meetings after having previously voiced support for leaving the PHF.  And, it would only be natural for future issues and decisions to be weighed negatively against the “traitor” in their midst.  Yes, often it is better to be quiet and tactical in such a situation.  But, to be honest I’ve got little insight as to what the nations are thinking and this is clearly speculation on my part.

The Way Ahead: Drama and High Stakes in Turkey?

Well, you might think that this issue is over.  After all, the PHF nations unanimously rejected the proposal.  The IHF wouldn’t force the PHF to split if they don’t want to? Right?

Well, apparently that’s not the case as the proposal is still on the agenda for upcoming IHF Congress in Antalya, Turkey on 11-12 November.   And, you can even read the proposal which in a rare moment of transparency is readily available on the IHF Congress website.  This wording is virtually identical to the IHF Council Meeting Minutes except for the omission of information regarding WC qualification slots (which I outlined in part 1).

So, assuming this proposal stays on the agenda, the IHF Congress will vote on the motion to split Pan America in two.  For passage, the motion will require a 2/3 majority.  This may seem like a steep hurdle, but President Moustafa who is running unopposed for his 5th term as IHF President generally knows how to count up the votes.  The IHF 2013 Congress had 163 attendees and the 2015 IHF Congress had 139, so one could assume that the 2017 Congress will have similar attendance.  Perhaps even more as additional nations have joined the IHF.  Further, the IHF has been known to pay airfare and hotel for developing nations to attend, which often endears support from those representatives on key votes.

If there are 160 voting members, the measure would need to have 107 voting in support to beat the 53 voting against.  And, one can do a whole lot of speculating as to where the votes might come from for either bloc.  Key questions to be asked and answered in Turkey:

  • How many nations will show up and how many are attending on the IHF’s dime?
  • How strongly will the IHF President push this motion? Will he be content to let the Congress decide or will he see its non-passage as an affront to his leadership?
  • How will the different continental federations discuss this proposal at their meetings prior to the IHF Congress? Michael Wiederer, the influential EHF President voiced his support for the proposal stating that he is in favor as it would help to strengthen handball in the economically important country of USA. How might other IHF Council members lobby their respective continents?
  • Can the PHF member nations effectively lobby other nations with the rationale that this proposal shouldn’t be forced upon a continental federation? (i.e. The message being that your continent could be next)
  • Are the PHF member nations truly united against this proposal or will some take the opportunity of a secret ballot to vote in favor?
  • And will some renegade PHF nations even go further? Actually lobbying for the proposal in private or with a wink and a nod in a semi-private discussion in the hotel lobby or at a coffee break?
  • What will USA Team Handball say or do? As this proposal is in part focused on U.S. development a few choice words in public and/or private could make a real difference.

Honestly, I don’t know the answers to any of these questions which makes the outcome all the more interesting.  In another life, as a NATO Staff Officer I attended dozens of meetings with the flags around the table.  With very few exceptions these meetings were snoozers with little doubt as what would be decided… because anything important had already been decided before the meeting.

But, this might very well indeed be the rare case where an International Meeting takes place with the outcome to a major issue in doubt.  There might even be impassioned discussion at the Congress right before the vote takes place.  Something rarely seen or heard.  And this discussion should even be available for viewing on a live web stream on the IHF Congress web page.  An unprecedented possibility that should have every handball fan in Pan America on the edge of their seat.

Yes, mark your calendars.  11 November 2017 could be the date that seals Pan America’s fate one way or the other.

The IHF Proposes a Pan American Split (Part 1):  The Pros and Cons

The IHF is proposing to split the PHF into 2 separate federations.

This past summer I began hearing rumors of a possible split to the Pan American Handball Federation (PHF).   A couple of postings on the PHF website have indeed confirmed that the rumors are true and I’ve now seen an outline of the actual proposal.  Surprisingly, the proposal actually came from the IHF as opposed to a PHF member nation.

For reference, here’s an overview of the current PHF nations and qualification paths:  Link

Detailed Map of PHF Handball Nations: Link

The proposed IHF split would do the following:

  • Split the PHF into two separate federations: A North America and Caribbean Federation and a South America and Central America Federation.  So, unlike soccer it would be a CONCA and not a CONCACAF.
  • For Jr and Youth World Championships the North/Caribbean would receive 1 qualification slot and the South/Central would be awarded 3 slots just like Asia, Africa and Europe. The new North/Caribbean slot for the Jr WC would come at the expense of the reigning Youth Champion and the new Youth WC slot would come at the expense 2nd best continent at the preceding Youth WC.  So, in practical terms the new North/Caribbean slots would likely mean that Europe would lose 1 of their ~12 slots for Junior WC and that Africa, Asia, or South America would lose a bonus slot for the Youth WC.
  • For Sr World Championships the IHF borrows a bit from FIFA World Qualification formats and essentially gives the North/Caribbean a ½ slot and gives South/Central America 2 ½ slots. With the ½ slots being decided by a playoff between the North/Caribbean Champion and the South/Central 3rd place team.
  • For the Olympics the IHF proposal only states that “the qualification process for the Olympic Games shall be discussed later.”

The IHF listed several rationales for this proposed split to include

  • Improved organization as each Federation would be focused on serving fewer nations
  • Cost savings particularly due to smaller travel distances
  • Greater participation from nations that currently don’t have a realistic chance of making the PHF or IHF championship events
  • Opportunities for beach handball growth in the Caribbean

Assessing the Pros and Cons

There’s certainly some positive aspects to this proposal along with some shortcomings.  Here’s an assessment of the Pros and Cons

Pros:

Cost Savings:  If this proposal were to be approved there would be some significant cost savings in travel.  Here’s some back of the envelope calculations based on a sampling of flights from Atlanta to different destinations.  In broad terms travel to cities like Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires is twice as expensive as it is to go to the Caribbean, Canada or Mexico.  Around $600/person cheaper per flight.  If a team contingent is 18 and a Federation makes an average of 1.5 North to South (or vice versa) trips a year that’s $16,200 in costs that would disappear.  Right now there are about 12 active Federations in the PHF so that would be $194,400 in total savings/year.  And, if one does a simple x10 calculation that would be $1.94 million dollars over a decade. Admittedly that’s some very rough analysis, but while we could argue about the numbers, there’s no denying this would save a lot of money over the long term.  A lot of money for resourced starved nations that could then be spent on development instead of airline travel.

Greater Participation:  Directly tied to the cost savings is the possibility that more nations would participate in more events.  Somewhat established nations like the U.S., Canada and Mexico would be more likely to participate in Jr and Youth events.  Less established nations in the Caribbean and South America might see an upsurge in participation as well.

Independence Would Eliminate Issues of Fairness:  I was really pleased with recent PHF developments to award Greenland the Men’s Sr PHF Championships and the U.S. the Beach Championships.  But, I also remember some major injustices meted out by our friends in the South.  Not trivial little things either.  Canadian Handball was on the verge of a renaissance a decade ago when they qualified and participated in the 2005 WC, but due to arcane rules they weren’t even allowed to participate in WC qualification in 2006.  And, then Greenland was demoted to Associated Membership after they went to the WC in 2007.  The U.S. might very well have qualified for the 2007 PANAM Games if the 2nd chance tournament hadn’t been moved at the last minute from Puerto Rico to Chile.  Yes, these events were a decade ago, but I’ve got a long memory.  Of course, there are bound to be conflicts within any organization, but given the distances between the North and the South I suspect key decisions in the future will continue to gravitate towards a north/south split in opinion.  I also like to think the level of disagreement won’t reach the heights that it did a decade ago, but make no mistake there will continue to be contentious issues.

No Major Change to the WC Slot Status Quo:  For all practical purposes while the North is being short changed on WC slot allotment it wouldn’t result in much change to the current status quo.  In some respects it’s even better for the North as several times we’ve failed to send any team to the World Jr or Youth Championships either because we didn’t place high enough or failed to send any team at all. And, for last 5 Sr tournaments the North for the most part has missed out on the semifinals and the opportunity to play for 3rd place and the last WC slot.  (Cuba and Puerto Rican Women in 2015 being the exception).  Under this format the North champion would be guaranteed a chance to qualify for the 3rd slot.  Further this playoff could even be a marketable event.

Cons:

The Oceania Treatment: While it’s true there’s no change to the current status quo, if one looks at this proposal from a WC slot allocation perspective, the proposed North/Caribbean Federation is pretty much being treated as another Oceania.  Nothing against our friends from the Pacific, but give us a little respect will ya?  The U.S. has been in a downward cycle for the past 20 years, but with an Olympics we will surely improve.  The Greenland men knocked off Argentina at the 2016 PHF Championship.  Cuba has several pros playing in Europe and when properly resourced they can be very competitive.  This split should come with more WC slots or at the very least there should be some clear benchmarks given to the North/Caribbean Federation as to how those slots can be increased.  And, really how many European teams do we need at the World Championships?  Yes, maybe one of the performance slots should be given to the North/Caribbean champion.

Weaker Competitions:  Splitting into 2 Federations will mean that each competition will be weaker.  In particular, the teams from the North will no longer get the experience of playing the Brazilian Women and the Brazilian and Argentine Men.  While matches against those sides have recently been blowouts it’s still very beneficial for weaker nations to get a yardstick as to where they stand against top competition.  And, even the South tourney will be degraded with sides like Uruguay, Chile and Paraguay missing out on matches against peer nations like Greenland, the U.S. and Canada.

The 8 Nation Rule: Underlying possible concerns with this split is a recent IHF competition rules requirement for federations to have at least 8 nations participating in World Championship Qualification events.  While Pan America may have around 30 full and associate members, the level of participation varies dramatically.  Perhaps around a dozen nations have fairly active programs, regularly participating in Sr events and to varying degrees Jr and Youth events.  Then there are around 6 nations that are somewhat established and sporadically play in qualifying events.  And, finally there around a dozen nations in Central America and Caribbean that are really fledgling nations.  I think for some of them the IHF Trophy tournament just this past year was their very first official competition.

So what does all of this mean?  Well right now the PHF can easily meet the 8 nation rule for Sr events, but doing so relies on participation from the established nations from both the North and the South.  The South could probably meet the 8 nation requirement independently, but it would need to coax nations like Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and the Central America nations into participating to ensure that it’s met.  And, doing so for Jr and Youth events would be even more challenging.  The North/Caribbean Federation would have even a harder time coaxing the fledgling nations of the Caribbean to participate.  Perhaps there could be a Caribbean championship and also maybe the French Departments of Guadaloupe and Martinique could participate.  (Side note: Trinidad & Tobago is one of the fledgling nations.  Will some future USA National Team have to travel to Port of Spain to ignominiously go down in defeat in a handball WC qualifier?)

While it’s true that the shorter distances might allow greater participation both of the new Federations might find themselves short of numbers and accordingly losing their WC slots.  Perhaps the IHF will provide a grace period for growth requirements.

So there’s a rundown on the pros and cons, as I see it.  But, what about the PHF nations and the IHF as a whole.  What do they think about the proposal? In Part 2, I’ll take a closer look at the history of Pan American Handball and the politics behind this proposal.

Team USA Olympic and World Championship Qualification Odds (Part 1):  Assessing the near term 2019-2020

Sometimes when the odds are long we don’t even want to contemplate them. But we should. We really should.

With the 2028 Olympics now officially coming to Los Angeles, I’m working on a number of different commentaries that assess possible ways forward for USA Team Handball.  And, for those also inclined to dream of the future I’ve set up a Google Drive to develop documentation in a collaborative environment.  (Send me an email at john.ryan@teamhandballnews.com if you’re interested in participating.)

But, while it’s inherently logical to envision a strategy that centers around the 2028 Olympics and the automatic Olympic qualification that comes with it, it’s still important to remember that it’s 11 years away.  If you spend all of your time planning to be the team of the future, you might very well never get to that future.

That being said with very limited resources and critical shortcomings in just about every phase of development I think it’s pretty important to continually assess the quality of our National Teams and what their prospects are on the world stage.  To assess how likely Olympic Qualification and to a lesser extent World Championship qualification is so that informed budgetary decisions can be made.  If there’s a decent chance at Olympic qualification it makes sense to allocate more resources to support a robust effort to improve our national teams in the near term.  To get that team over the hump.  And, on the flip side if the odds are long, perhaps it makes more sense to direct limited resources towards other needs to facilitate development and a stronger run in the future.

With that introduction explanation as to why it’s important, here’s an assessment of our Olympic and World Championship qualification over the next two years.

USA Women Odds             

The recent USA Women’s trip to S. Korea showed a bit of promise as the women were more competitive against professional and semi-pro club teams.  Still losing mind you, but way more competitive than matches against European club teams that had taken place just a few months earlier in France.

First I’ll tackle the 2019 Pan American Championships.  This event will take place probably in June and will likely include a qualification event for the North America and Caribbean region.  Here are my assessed odds for where the U.S. will finish.

Note, that the overall odds total up to 100%.  Also, keep in mind that you can add them up to determine other odds like making the semifinals (10% +10% +20% = 50% in this instance).

Rationale for the different numbers

1st(<1%):  It’s really hard to see any other PHF team beating Brazil in the next two years.  Really, only Argentina has even a remote chance of such an upset.  I know folks like to bring up the “Miracle on Ice” analogy that in one game anything can happen, but it just doesn’t apply here.  The gap is just way too large and handball has too much scoring for such a miracle to occur.  It’s the equivalent of an NCAA Div 3 team beating Kentucky or Kansas in basketball.  Of course, anything is possible, but we’re not talking about a 1 in 10 chance like the 84 Olympic hockey team.  I’m thinking somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 in 250 or so is about right.

2nd (10%): Beating Argentina in a one off game, however, is conceivable. Argentina is clearly a better team than the U.S. and the other PANAM teams, but they are not that much better.  From a historical standpoint I’m pretty certain that the USA Women’s national teams from the 80s and early 90s would probably beat the current Argentina squad.  So, in theory a residency program clicking on all cylinders should probably be able to put together a team capable of finishing 2nd at the PANAM Games.  That being said I don’t think it’s very likely that can be accomplished in 2 years time.  There are a lot of variables here, but let’s be optimistic and give the USA a 10% chance of upsetting Argentina in a semifinal or group play match and securing 2nd place at the PANAM Games.

3rd (20%) and 4th (20%):  Overall, I would assess the U.S. chances of making the semifinals as a 50-50 proposition.  Some might pooh-pooh such a number since the U.S. hasn’t even made a PHF semifinal in over 14 years.  But, if they’ve been watching the U.S. play recently they should know that they are due to play for a medal.  And, playing for 3rd means an opportunity to qualify for the World Championship.  Meaning that overall, I would assess the Women as having around a 30% chance of participating in their first World Championship since 1995.

5th to Last (40%): But, while the U.S. has shown progress, they could also falter in pool play. Certainly, that’s been the case for the past few tournaments.

Fail to Qualify (10%):  I’d like to think this number is less, but it’s still possible to think that such a melt down could occur.  And, if Cuba decides to show up at a NORCA event, a decent team like the U.S. will find itself on the outside looking in, if they have a bad tournament.

Now, let’s take a look at the 2019 PANAM Games.

You’ll notice that the numbers are the same and this is because the competition will roughly be the same.  The only significant difference is in the qualification format as the U.S. will likely play Canada in a series of qualification matches.  The Canadians have slipped a bit in recent years and I think the U.S. will be big favorites against them.  That being said, though, there’s still 1 in 10 chance the U.S. could slip up.

USA Women Olympic Qualification

So are the U.S. Women’s Olympic dreams contingent on an extremely unlikely upset of Brazil?  Essentially nonexistent?  No, not quite.  Because Brazil is that good, it’s possible they could win the 2019 World Championship and then give Pan America one more Olympic slot.  After all, Brazil were World Champions in 2013 and beat Norway, the current World and Olympic Champions, just last summer at the Olympics in Rio.  But, while they clearly are capable of doing so, more often than not Brazil hasn’t done so well when they get to the knock out stages of major tournaments.  In fact, the 2013 World Championships is the only time they’ve made it to the semifinals.  The latest odds for the WC list them at a 16/1 underdog or roughly a 6% chance of winning, but, again let’s be optimistic and give Brazil a 10% chance of being the 2019 World Championships.

So, when one puts the two requirements, Brazil winning the World Championship and beating Argentina together you get a basic probability equation

10% x 10% = 1%

Yes, a 1% chance of 2020 Olympic qualification.  And, honestly that’s being pretty optimistic.

USA Men Odds

Now let’s take a look at the Men’s chances.  Before, we do that, however, it’s important to note that there are a lot of question marks concerning the Men’s National Team roster.  Since the 2016 Pan American Championships (the U.S. placed 8th out of 12 teams) the U.S. Sr. team has played only a handful of matches.  This past summer using a roster mostly composed of athletes at the Residency Program in Auburn they split 4 matches vs Canada 2-2.  I suspect, however, that the strongest possible U.S. roster would rely mostly on players based overseas, Gary Hines, of course, and several promising younger dual citizen players who have made our Jr. team competitive.   Whether the U.S. will field such a roster, however, remains to be seen, but I’ll assume that they will.  (If for some reason they don’t, though, their odds for success will be even longer than what I’ve assessed below.)

As far as the competition in PHF, unlike the Women’s competition, there is no one team which is overwhelmingly stronger than the competition.  Instead, there are two teams (Brazil and Argentina) which are substantially better.  The gap is still pretty large, though, just not at the extreme level it is with the Women.  A notch below Brazil/Argentina are Chile and Greenland and then below them are several teams roughly on par with the U.S.

First, here’s a look at the Pan American Championships which are scheduled to take place in Greenland next summer.

1st(<1%):  While the Brazilian and Argentinian Men aren’t out of this world better like the Brazilian Women they are still quite a bit better than the U.S.  So instead of a one off miracle victory being a 1 in 250 or so proposition it’s probably around 1 in 50.  That may provide some comfort that there’s a 2% chance of an upset, but it’s tempered by the need for the U.S. to likely execute two back to back 2% upsets, beating one top side in the semifinals and then turning around and beating the other in the finals.  The math (.02*02= .0004) is ugly and puts the chances of that happening at around 1 in 2,500.  Unlike C3PO, however, I don’t think you can simply perform the math equation.  After all, if the U.S. were to pull off 1 such victory, pulling off another wouldn’t seem so hard anymore.  That being said, it’s a real stretch right now to think that the U.S. Men are capable of pulling off such a twofer.

2nd (2 %):  As discussed, a one off victory of Brazil or Argentina is very unlikely, but conceivable.  It would take the U.S. playing out of this world and one of those sides having a real off day.  A 1 in 50 occurrence, although, I’m sure some might argue that it’s even worse than that.

3rd (3%):  The assessed odds for 3rd aren’t much better than 2nd and that’s primarily due to the location of the championships in Greenland.  This is possibly the biggest sporting event ever to take place in that country.  If Greenland is in the semifinals they will be extremely difficult to beat in a 3rd place match with a World Championship bid on the line.  Chile would also be tough to beat.  Heck, Greenland even beat Argentina in 2016 so it wouldn’t be much of a shock for them to knock off Brazil or Argentina at home, meaning that one of those two sides would need to be beaten in a one off match for WC qualification.

4th (10%):  A fortunate draw could mean that the U.S. would only have to beat Uruguay or a similar team to reach the semifinals.  An unfortunate draw will mean beating Greenland and/or Chile.

5th-Last (75%):  If past history is a guide, the U.S. will likely lose 2-3 matches in group play and play for a consolation place

Fail to Qualify (10%):  In 2016, the U.S. didn’t even have to play in a North American & Caribbean qualification tournament.  That could also be the case in 2018.  Or an event could be held whereby the U.S. would need to secure a qualification slot.  I think the U.S. should be able to secure a slot against the likes of Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, but it’s not guaranteed.

As far as the PANAM Games go this tournament is actually a bit easier due to fewer teams from South America and Greenland not being allowed to participate.  The U.S. would still need to first beat Canada in qualification, but should they make the final tournament they will have better prospects of making the semifinals.  But, once there they would still need to then execute the double upset and it’s really hard to imagine the U.S. doing so.

But, while the odds for the near term are extremely long for the 2020 Olympics there’s still a fighting chance for WC qualification, particularly for the Women.  Does that possibility alone, in the near term, justify directing the Federation’s limited resources towards national teams?  And, what about the midterm and the lead up to 2028? In part 2, I’ll address those questions and more.

USA Team Handball Strategic Plan 2018-2028: Envisioning the Final Product

Envisioning what the final product might look like.

Sometimes when you start an effort like a Strategic Plan for USA Team Handball it can really help to have a conceptual idea as to what your final end product might look like.  So that one can perhaps better understand the types of questions that need to be asked and answered.

As a starting point, I’ve taken the best example and perhaps the most relevant Strategic Plan I’ve found, USA Field Hockey’s 2017-2024 Strategic Plan and re-imagined it as a USA Team Handball 2018-2028 Strategic Plan.  In many cases I simply replaced Field Hockey with Team Handball, but in other places I had to do some additional modifications. In doing so, I tried to limit my editorializing deciding to simply go with what had been envisioned by the USA Field Hockey strategy even if it didn’t necessarily fit my views or how handball is necessarily structured in the U.S.

Both the original and the Team Handball version can be found here:

USA Field Hockey 2017-2024 Strategic Plan: Link

USA Team Handball 2018-2028 Strategic Plan: Link

A quick, cursory review of the conceptual USA Team Handball Strategic Plan might result in a few top level insights.  Such as:

  • That a strategic plan is kind of a “motherhood and apple pie” document. It highlights basic foundational beliefs that can set the framework for more detailed initiatives
  • That such a plan shouldn’t be created by a handful of people in a vacuum because if that’s done it’s not likely to be reflective of the community as a whole. According to the documentation, USA Field Hockey spent months listening, discussing, reviewing individual meetings, surveys and focus groups to best understand what their members wanted.
  • That a Strategic Plan, if it’s to have any value can’t simply be a laundry list of everything that might possibly be done. I suspect that that a significant amount of blood, sweat and tears were spent identifying and selecting USA Field Hockey’s four key strategic initiatives.

From a top level perspective I think it provides a good glimpse of what a strategic plan for USA Team Handball might look like.  That being said here are a few thoughts regarding the similarities and differences between the two sports.

Team Handball and Field Hockey in the U.S. (The Similarities)

First off, I won’t claim to be an expert on field hockey, but here are some common themes/issues that I think the two sports share in the U.S.:

  • Both team sports
  • Both minor sports with low participation (Men’s field hockey is particularly relevant)
  • Both Olympic sports which garner significant interest due to their Olympic status
  • Both sports have very limited television exposure
  • Both sports have a very committed volunteer base
  • Both sports have had limited international success (Men’s field hockey is particularly relevant)

Team Handball and Field Hockey in the U.S. (Some Major Differences)

But, while there are some striking similarities there also are some major differences between the two sports.  No, simply doing a “find and replace” of field hockey and team handball clearly won’t suffice, because of these major differences:

  • Women’s Field Hockey is a sanctioned High School sport in several states and an official NCAA sport. Handball has no such status anywhere in the U.S. (Men or Women)  (Translation:  A solid grass roots foundation already exists and for the most part it’s not funded by USA Field Hockey)
  • USA Field Hockey has more members and revenue largely due to its Women’s membership base
  • The USA Field Hockey Women have pretty much always been respectable on the World Stage. They’ve only medaled once in Olympic competition (84 Olympics), but they’ve been in the 2nd tier of nations
  • Globally, Team Handball has multiple leagues and some athletes earning 7 figure salaries while field hockey has fewer professional options (Translation the pro to amateur gap is much less pronounced with Field Hockey.)
  • Team Handball has an emerging discipline, beach handball, while to the best of my knowledge there is only one type of field hockey that is being played and promoted.

A Few Peanut Section Critiques of the USA Field Hockey Plan

While I really think the Field Hockey Strategic Plan is a pretty well put together plan I thought it was lacking in a few instances.

  • There’s very little in the document regarding Men’s Field Hockey and little insight as to how the U.S. can grow the Men’s game and succeed internationally. Perhaps, this was by design and a strategic decision to avoid the far greater challenges the Men’s program has.
  • While I think they’ve identified 4 good initiatives there’s no guidance as to how resources will be allocated between those initiatives. This is the same fundamental problem USA Team Handball has in regards to development vs National Team support.

Help Still Wanted

This is an online collaborative effort.  Everyone’s welcome to look, but if you want to help identify the key questions, assess the pros and cons of different options and draft documentation contact me at john.ryan@teamhandballnews.com

Planning a Way Forward for Handball in the U.S.:  An Invitation to Contribute

Julie Andrews had it right: When you read you begin with A-B-C. When you plan, you begin with a mission and vision statement. (Sorry, that doesn’t rhyme)

Readers of this website are surely familiar with the many commentaries I’ve written over the years exploring different strategies to move Team Handball forward in the United States.

I like to think that these commentaries have served a useful purpose.  To get people thinking outside the box as to what might be possible.  Or, maybe to get people to think about the underlying objectives of what we’d like to do prior to charging forward with solutions.

All well in good, but I would suggest that the time is right now to do a bit more than “thinking”.  To turn that “thinking” into “planning”.  To start weighing different options so that informed decisions can be made on the best ways to proceed.

The impetus for this change in focus, of course, is the awarding of the 2028 Olympics to Los Angeles.  This is a significant event that can serve as the catalyst to forever change Team Handball in this country.  To build a sustainable grass roots base.  To field competitive National Teams.  To make Team Handball a sport every sports minded person in this country is aware of.  And, to turn at least some portion of that sports minded public into die-hard fans.

I firmly believe that all of this can happen.

But, I also firmly believe that it’s not going to happen by accident.   We need a plan.  A good plan that’s the product of input from multiple sources.  A plan that’s the product of a structured process that first lays out the vetted goals and objectives of the organization.  Then reviews the merits of multiple options going forward based on agreed upon metrics and how well those options match established goals.  And, then, and only then, moving forward with action plans to implement.

Make no mistake.  This is not an easy task.  Especially, if one considers the divergent views of the folks that make up somewhat nebulous American Team Handball community.  Herding cats is probably easier.

But, it can be done.  It should be done.  Sooner or later it will be done.  Five years ago the USOC paid for and organized a conference in Salt Lake City to coax USATH into taking on this task.  For reasons that have never been articulated this process was short circuited and well…  Let’s just say that we have what we have.

It’s not clear to me when the “sooner or later” will happen with USA Team Handball, but I’ve decided that simply waiting is not a good option.  2028 may seem like a long, long way away, but it’s not.

Here’s Where “You” Come in

I’m starting the process unofficially, but it’s a task that shouldn’t be the product of one person or even a few people.  It should include input from all corners.  Everyone who cares should have their voice heard.  That doesn’t mean every idea or suggestion you might propose will be implemented, but it should mean that it was considered.  And, you should be able to understand why it wasn’t implemented in the big scheme of things.  And, in theory, being a part of such a process should then give you “buy in” as to what was decided.

So to facilitate this process I’ve set up a Google Drive with a few documents that you can review and provide your input. To start out I’m looking for feedback on USA Team Handball’s currently existing Mission and Vision Statements as well as some help in identifying high level questions that should be addressed.  Not the answers to such questions (yet), just what those questions are.

For you “lurkers” out there the documents can be viewed here: Link

If you want to actively participate in the document, just send me an email at john.ryan@teamhandballnews.com and I’ll give you editing privileges.

What a Waste of Time?

Alright, I get it.  This is an exercise which is not in any way shape or form sanctioned by USA Team Handball.  It has zero authority and could be simply assessed as a waste of time.  “Fan fiction” for would be handball planners.

There’s some logic to that, but not if you believe it’s only a matter of time before this very necessary step is finally taken by USA Team Handball.  Because if you start such a process one of the very first things you do is review what’s been done before both for handball and for other sports.  And, if we get decent representation from the USA handball community it will have some level of legitimacy.  Adopting parts of it would seem to be a smart thing to do for anyone concerned with “buy in” from the most dedicated devotees of the sport.

So with all that in mind, I invite each and every one of you to roll up your sleeves and get to work.  To take your bar stool pontification and put it down in words.  To help lay the groundwork to forever change handball in this country.

Beach Handball at the Olympics? (Part 1):  Understanding the Math behind a Terse IHF Memo

IOC President Thomas Bach andIHF President Dr Moustafa in 2015 at a Beach Handball demonstration near IOC HQ. Beach Handball could be a welcome addition to the Olympic, but at what cost to the traditional, indoor court game?

All of the drama was removed from the IOC meeting last week in Lima, Peru, as it had been pretty much already decided to award the 2024 and 2028 Olympic Games to Paris and LA, respectively.  On social media and at the Handball-World site I was surprised and a bit puzzled, though, to see discussion regarding a decision by the IOC to add Beach Handball to the 2024 Olympic Sports Program.  Puzzled, because I could find nothing anywhere in multiple online media sites regarding a possible IOC decision for the dozens of other sports that would also like inclusion in the Olympics.

So, when the IOC did discuss the 2024 Olympic Sports Program it was with very little fanfare that they simply announced that the 28 core sports approved for 2020 were also approved for 2024 and that additional sports and sporting disciplines for 2024 would be decided in the 2019-2020 time frame.  First, the Paris Organizing Committee will propose their Sports Program and then the IOC will review and approve it.  So Beach Handball could still possibly be included, but so could a number of other sports.

Following the IOC meeting, the IHF released a short memo highlighting this, but also tersely stated the following:

“Furthermore, in case beach handball should become an Olympic sport at some point, the IHF will not tolerate any reduction of the indoor handball quota at the Olympics as was stated in the media.”

What’s behind this statement? And, what does it mean for the likelihood of Beach Handball ever being added to the Olympics?

Sports, Disciplines and Events

To answer this question it’s important to first understand the definition of sport, discipline and event when it comes to the Olympic movement as they are sometimes incorrectly used interchangeably.  For context, there are “sports” like Handball, Volleyball, Aquatics and Athletics.  And, then underneath those sports are “disciplines” which are distinct sub-sports that fall under the umbrella of the “sport”.  Aquatics, for example, has swimming, synchronized swimming, diving and water polo all under its umbrella.  Some sports like athletics and field hockey have just one discipline.  But, sports can also add disciplines like volleyball, which added beach volleyball to go along with the traditional indoor court game.  Finally, there are “events” which are competitions that result in a medal.  A sport can have very few events like handball, which simply awards a medal for Women’s and Men’s team competitions or it can have a lot of events like Athletics which has 47 medal events.  For more information, see this Wikipedia article: Link

Athlete Quotas and the Challenges of Hosting an Olympics

Secondly, it’s important to understand issues related to hosting the Summer Olympics.  In particular, the sheer size of it.  28 sports and around 10,500 athletes.  Venues for all those events and housing for all those athletes can be an enormous expense that only a few cities either want to or are capable of handling.  It’s also the most marquee sporting event in the world and every sport wants in and the opportunity to showcase itself on the world’s biggest stage.  The IOC recognizes this and that’s why they’ve put a cap on the total number of athlete participating at 10,500.

On the plus side, handball is already on the program.  It hasn’t had to fight its way in like baseball and rugby have.  Further, handball already has a pretty good sized contingent of athletes.  Currently, handball has 336 athletes (168 Men, 168 Women).  Or to put it another way, 12 Men’s and Women’s teams each with 14 athletes on the roster.

If beach handball were added to the program, though, about how many athletes would that entail?  Well, it depends on how many teams and the roster size of those teams.  Currently, the most commonly sized roster for international competition is 10 athletes.  So, if the beach competition was added with 12 Men’s and 12 Women’s teams that would mean adding another 240 athletes.  Combined with the 336 athletes for court handball that would push the total handball athlete contingent to 576.  Only Athletics (1900) and Aquatics (1410) would have more athletes.  Hey, I love the sport of handball, but I don’t think the rest of the sporting world and the IOC would be on board with that, because all those athlete slots would have to come from some other sport.

Reducing the numbers of teams and/or the roster size could reduce the number of athletes added for Beach Handball.  Perhaps the bare minimum would be 8 Men’s and 8 Women’s teams with roster sizes of 8 athletes.  That would add 128 athletes and raise the overall handball total to 464 athletes.  Such a plus up, though, would still give handball the 6th largest contingent behind Athletics, Aquatics, Cycling (528), Rowing (526) and Soccer (504).  Not as glaring, but still likely problematic.

More indicative of what might be accepted by the IOC would be a comparison of what volleyball and basketball plussed up when they added beach volleyball and 3 on 3 basketball respectively.  Beach Volleyball has 96 participants and 3 on 3 basketball has 64 athletes.  Both sports also top out at relatively lower numbers over all.  Volleyball at 384 and basketball at 352 athletes.

Slicing and Dicing to Get Two Disciplines

So, how could one solve this numbers problem if the IOC is not on board with a significant increase in the total number of athletes under the Handball “sport” umbrella? Well, it can only be solved by shuffling the numbers in the 2 “disciplines” under the said umbrella.  And, this would mean reducing the number of teams and/or the roster size of those disciplines.

Such a slice and dice combination could be done a number of different ways.  One possibility would be to reduce the Men’s and Women’s court tournament to 8 teams each with rosters of 13 athletes for a total of 208 athletes.  Then beach handball could also have Men’s and Women’s court tournaments with 8 teams each and rosters of 8 athletes for a total of 128 athletes.  And, that would result in an overall handball contingent of 336 athletes, the same that is allocated currently.

Such an allocation would be a “transfer” of athletes that would not require a reduction of athletes from any other sport.  There would still be some issues with the approval for a new venue, but one could envision simply expanding upon the already existing beach volleyball venue.  Regardless, there would be no cries from another sport that they are losing athletes, which is undoubtedly the biggest hurdle to address.

Laying Down a Marker

So, that’s the math behind the IHF memo.  Loosely translated, the IHF memo essentially states,

“We like beach handball.  We’d love to see it in the Olympics.  But, only if absolutely nothing is done to change the size and structure of the currently existing court handball Olympic tournaments.”

So, the cry isn’t from another Olympic “sport”.  The cry is from the other “discipline” within the same Olympic sport.

I guess Beach Handball could be added to the Olympic Sports Program with no reduction to Court Handball.  Maybe the IOC will approve a significant plus up to the overall handball contingent at the expense of some other sport on the Olympic Program.  Or maybe the IOC will shrug off its stated overall quota and let handball and other sports add more and more events to the Olympics.  Hey, it’s a big party.  What’s another 100 athletes here and another 200 there matter when an event already has 10,500 athletes?

Regardless, the IHF has laid down a marker stating their position.  It’s not clear, though, whether that’s merely the view of the current IHF President or a position that has been vetted by the IHF Executive Committee or Congress.  Further, one might cynically ask why the IHF has been aggressively promoting the inclusion of Beach Handball in the Olympics if it hadn’t fully considered the possible repercussions doing so might have on the traditional court game.

At least one nation, Germany, is expressing its view that the IHF should perform an evaluation on the two sporting disciplines so that strategic decisions can be made going forward.  Not surprisingly, from my automatic translation of the German Federation posting, German President, Andreas Michelmann, appears to support in principle not sacrificing any court slots for beach handball, but would still like a full review of the matter.

And, for good reason.  Regardless, as to one’s own personal feelings are concerning both disciplines this is a potentially a big opportunity for the sport that deserves further review. In part 2, I’ll do my own top level review and take a look at some of the pros and cons as it relates to the possible inclusion of Beach Handball in the Olympics.

Handball Makes ESPN Sports Center Top 10:  13 Hours Later: A Million Views, 140,000 likes and 2,600 Comments; Here’s One More Commentary

Montpellier’s Diego Simonet gets over a million views for his spectacular goal vs Metalurg

Montpellier’s Diego Simonet had quite the goal yesterday vs Metalurg in their opening match of the 2017-18 EHF Champions League campaign.  The EHF posted a video highlight of the goal and it was promptly reposted by ESPN’s Sports Center Instagram account.

13 hours later the video highlight had been viewed over a million times, liked 140,000 times and had received 2,600 comments.

From time to time I’ve written a few commentaries about handball’s very limited exposure in the U.S. and how increasing that exposure via TV isn’t just something that would be kind of nice to have, but that it is very most critical need for the sport in this country. I know I’m just “some guy” with opinions, but my goodness could anything more demonstrably show how valid that opinion is?

A million views in just 13 hours! Peruse the comments and the broken record of “what is that?” and “why isn’t that played here in the U.S.?” that’s asked over and over and over.

Now sit back and reflect that this is just one highlight posted to an ESPN Instagram account.  It’s not even clear to me whether the highlight made the TV Sports Center.  At least it wasn’t in the Top Ten Plays on the broadcast I saw Saturday night.

Now just imagine if ESPN showed handball on TV or even just on their digital “Watch ESPN” platform.  As I wrote 5 years ago from that day forward just about every discussion about handball in the U.S. would be preceded with either, “Well, before handball was on ESPN” or “Well, since handball’s been on ESPN.”  I’m not kidding.  It would be a monumental game changer.  Such a development would make everything USA Team Handball might want to accomplish easier and more effective be it fundraising or youth club development or national team recruiting.

And, before you “pooh pooh” such talk as simply wishful thinking look back at this post back in 2012 when arguably ESPN’s most prominent personality, Scott Van Pelt, wore a USA Team Handball shirt (that he had to make on his own) during the Olympics.  He and others had discovered the new sport, and perhaps with the right facilitation maybe a deal could have been brokered for U.S. broadcasts on some TV network.  Maybe, I wouldn’t be having this whimsical could of, would of, should of discussion.

It took a couple of years, but handball did land on a network in the U.S.  Unfortunately, though, it was beIN Sports US, which has very limited distribution and doesn’t promote the sport effectively.  I highlighted my frustration with beIN Sports, the EHF, USA Team Handball and other entities (including myself) in this commentary in 2015.

Two years later, things are actually worse as beIN Sports now doesn’t even bother to show the EHF Champions League Match of the Week on TV.  Although, you can view it on its digital beIN Sports Connect platform.  If you can figure out what’s channel the match is on.  For yesterday’s match between Barcelona and Rhein-Neckar the online beIN Sports TV guide said Ch 8, but I eventually found it on Ch 9.  I even watched for a bit until in the 2nd half the transmission got so garbled I gave up and watched NFL football instead.  Sigh…

I always like to think that it’s always darkest before the dawn.  That this crazy situation where handball can’t even be seen in the U.S. is just a temporary situation that will pass.  That ESPN or perhaps the new NBC Olympic Channel will pick up some handball rights.  Or that the digital TV revolution will bypass TV altogether and handball will have its own Roku or Over The Top (OTT) viewing options.

With the 2028 Olympics in LA now a certainty one can only think that it’s just a matter of time before handball finds a home in the U.S. Sports scene.  That the opportunity to promote the sport effectively will be such a win-win for everyone involved with the sport that this frustrating situation will seem passé and quaint.  I’ve been saying that now for decades, but sooner or later, I’m going to be right.  Let’s hope for sooner.

Commentaries on Handball’s lack of exposure and the importance of TV broadcasts.

  • 2009 commentary on Rugby TV broadcasts in the U.S.: Link
  • 2012 Olympic Commentary on how few people in the U.S. are fans of the sport: Link
  • 2012 Olympic Commentary regarding the Catch 22 TV paradox: Link
  • 2012 Olympic Commentary regarding Europe’s lack of engagement with the U.S. market: Link
  • 2012 Olympic Commentary regarding new European efforts to engage the U.S. market: Link

Side Note:  Back in 2013 I wrote an article on Diego Simonet’s debut with Montpellier and I speculated as to whether he might be the best Argentinian player ever.  I’ll go on record now that he is.  Sorry Eric Gull.  Question now, is whether he might be eventually recognized as the best player to come out of Pan America.  A much higher honor considering the number of Cubans that have made their mark.