Why a Residency Program at Auburn?: Reason #2: The U.S. Had its Greatest Success with Residency Programs… True Statement, but that success occurred when handball was only “somewhat professionalized”

The 1978 and 2002 USA Men’s Basketball World Championship Teams. The 78 team was composed mostly of players from “Athletes in Action.” The 2002 team was composed entirely of NBA athletes and the Championships were played on U.S. soil. Trivia Question 1) Which team placed higher? Trivia Question 2) Even though the 1978 team had no NBA players, they did have a future Olympian on their roster. Can you spot him? (Hint: It’s a relevant, trick question)

The 1978 and 2002 USA Men’s Basketball World Championship Teams. The 78 team was composed mostly of players from “Athletes in Action.” The 2002 team was composed entirely of NBA athletes and the Championships were played on U.S. soil.
Trivia Question 1) Which team placed higher?
Trivia Question 2) Even though the 1978 team had no NBA players, they did have a future Olympian on their roster. Can you spot him? (Hint: It’s a relevant, trick question)

 

This is part of a series of commentaries which seeks to explain why a Residency Program at Auburn is the best way forward for USA Team Handball.  In the last segment I used some personal experience to illustrate how a professional athlete can make short work of an amateur.  While relevant this experience still doesn’t tell the whole story because it happened nearly 24 years ago when handball was only “somewhat professionalized”.  The reality is that the pros now populating the world’s best national teams today are better athletes, better trained and even better equipped.  In other words, amateurs stand no chance whatsoever.

I’ve briefly highlighted on a number of occasions that the game of handball is more “professionalized” today, but I‘ve never offered a full explanation as to why this so.  I think most folks who’ve been around awhile and follow today’s game will acknowledge this.  But, it’s a little more complicated to come up with data that supports this notion.  It’s a simple truism that it’s pretty challenging to compare different eras.  Tactics change, rules change, training regimens change, the overall talent pool changes, etc., etc.  All those changes can make it pretty difficult to compare the teams of today to the teams of yesteryear.

Add in the biases one might have for either the good old days or the modern era and it can get even more complicated, heck maybe impossible for any definitive analysis.

A Basketball – Handball Comparison

All those caveats aside, what has transpired at the professional club and international team levels in the sport of basketball the past 40 years or so provides by proxy a window as to how handball has changed as well.

Let me be upfront:  It’s not a perfect comparison.  The sports have a number of similarities, but also some significant differences.  Still, if one were to compare major and even not so major team sports you’ll be hard pressed to find any 2 other sports with so many similarities.  Both are indoor court games that are generally played by tall and physical athletes.  The pacing of the games are also similar with an offense to defense transition and fast breaks.

In Europe, the sports are very similarly organized at the club and professional level.  In some countries basketball reigns supreme (Italy and Spain). In other countries handball takes precedence (Scandinavia).  And, in some (France, Germany) the sports have similar popularity.  We could argue about what metrics to use to determine primacy, but that’s not the point for this article.  No, my point here is to simply point out how the organization and structure for the two sports is remarkably similar in Europe.

Outside of Europe, though, there is no parity between the two sports. And, in the U.S. the difference in popularity, structure and organization is dramatic.  Basketball in the U.S. has a level of popularity and organization that approaches soccer in Europe.  While handball is mostly an unknown sport in the U.S.  The difference could not be greater.

Historical U.S. Basketball Performance

And, because basketball is treated in the U.S. roughly the way the rest of the world treats soccer, the U.S. has had unparalleled success on the world stage. Arguably, no nation has dominated a team sport the way the U.S. has dominated the sport of basketball.  There are some reasons for this.  For one, we invented the game.  Two, we place way more emphasis on the sport.   And, three, the USA is a huge country and when you couple that with the emphasis placed on the sport it creates an enormous talent pool of players.  The result is a slew of gold medals and a general consensus that anything other than first for an American team at the Olympics is a failure.  Why, even an embarrassment.

And, for sure there’s been some embarrassment over the years.  Here’s a condensed history of USA Basketball at the Olympics.

1936 – 1984 Olympics:  U.S. takes Gold medal at every Olympics except 1972 (controversial loss to the Soviet Union) and in 1980 (U.S. boycotted) U.S. teams consisted of college athletes, age 22 or younger, who would first come together as a team for the very first time a few weeks before the Olympics.  Why we could have sent 10 teams and probably taken spots 1 to 10, especially early on.

1988 Olympics: Soviets beat U.S. in semifinal.  Fair and square this time.

1992 – 2000 Olympics: U.S. starts sending NBA athletes to the Olympics.  Take that rest of world.  You might be able to beat a bunch of college kids, but you’ve got zero chance against our pros.

2004 Olympics: Team USA loses 3 games on the way to a bronze medal.

2008 – 2016 Olympics:  3 straight gold medals. USA Basketball revamps its national team planning.  More effort is placed on ensuring top pros and key role players participate.  Gone are the days of the U.S. team convening a few weeks before the Olympics.  Summer training camps are conducted each year and rosters now have a level of continuity.

Of course, this is just Olympic basketball history.  That’s all we Americans really care about anyway when it comes to International basketball.  But, the U.S. has been sending teams to the Basketball World Championships every time it’s been played since 1950.   Never pros until recently and at times USA basketball just sent whatever players they could find.  Check out this link for a history of the eclectic teams that were sent over the years:  Link

Trivia Question Answers and Why this is all Relevant to Handball

Now back to the photo.  The 1978 team was composed mostly of, Athletes in Action, a team of former college athletes that used basketball as a platform for Christian Ministry.  “Mostly composed” as the lone holdout was future 1984 Handball Olympian, Tom Schneeberger.  Scheeberger is one of USA Handball’s all-time greats, easily one of the top ten players to ever wear a USA uniform.  Also, an outstanding college basketball player at Air Force where he was a two time MVP and is 11th on the all-time scoring list: Link

This 1978 team was able to place 5th in the tournament, which was better than the worst ever ranking by a USA Team at the 2002 Men’s World Championships in Indiana.  That team featured an NBA roster, but lacked stars and could finish no better than 6th.   What the heck happened in those 24 intervening years?

So, here’s the answer and a parallel comparison with handball.

With, basketball, the U.S. could for many years win Olympic Gold with its best college athletes and could field a top 5 World Championship team with some decent former college players that weren’t good enough for the NBA.

With handball (in roughly the same time period), the U.S. could field respectable teams with athletes similar to the ones used to field those World Championship basketball teams.  (Or in the case of Schneeberger, the actual same athlete)  The Handball National Teams that were put together with only a few years of training in a sport that was entirely brand new to them.   Despite this enormous handicap solid teams were put together. Teams good enough to even take top European sides down to the wire at the 1984 Olympics.

From the context of today, some might ask how that was even possible.  Here are some top level reasons why the U.S. achieved a measure of respectability:

  • With few options outside of the U.S. Professional leagues (e.g. NBA) a sizable talent pool of athletes was available to choose from. In terms of raw physical ability the U.S. was rarely outmatched and often had an advantage.
  • Many of the athletes on the U.S. teams had played college sports which although amateur were more organized and professional than many club sports in Europe. Handball was new to these athletes, but they were experienced athletes used to playing on the big stage.
  • The residency programs while not perfect provided a quality training program where athletes could progress rather quickly.

But, the “good times” didn’t continue to roll for either USA Basketball or USA Team Handball.  With basketball, the wakeup call was the embarrassing 2002 WC on home soil.  USA Basketball learned they could just send any pros with little preparation.  It took 6 years to right the ship and since the 2008 Olympics the U.S. hasn’t lost an international match since.

Today, the U.S. is clearly on top of the basketball world again, but the domination isn’t as overwhelming as it used to be.  What happened? Well, in simple terms the rest of the world caught up.  The U.S. can no longer just put any 5 players on the court and expect to win.  Coaching, training, tactics, player skills, and the level of play in European pro leagues have all improved.  The U.S. still has the edge with its enormous talent pool, but the gap is not so huge anymore.  And, the number of foreigners now playing in the NBA is a stark indicator of that reality.

And, why is this all relevant to USA Team Handball?  Well, just as European basketball has improved dramatically, European Handball has done the same.  Handball and basketball are different sports, but the organization, training and professionalism have all marched forward at roughly the same level.  Good pro sports teams learn about what works in other sports and apply it to their sports.  Club teams like Barcelona even are structured with multiple sport disciplines all under one roof.

There’s very little doubt in my mind that if you took the top 16 International teams of 2016 and had them face off against the top 16 International teams of 1984 that you would have a clean sweep 16-0 victory for the 2016 teams.  And, this is true for either basketball or handball.

USA Team Handball’s Slow Adaption to the Changing Reality

USA Team Handball has been slow to adapt to this changing reality.  Heck, it’s pretty clear to me that most key decision makers are unaware that the reality has changed.  That the competition isn’t about at the same level or maybe a bit better, but that is a whole lot better than it was before.

To a certain extent it’s understandable.  Since the 1996 Olympics funding for USA Team Handball has taken a dramatic nosedive.  And, with that drop in funding the U.S. could no longer afford to train athletes with a quality residency program.  The U.S. wasn’t able to recruit and train the same types of athletes and this has been assessed as the primary cause for our dip in performance.

For sure the drop in funding didn’t help, but that shortcoming has obscured many from fully recognizing the steady improvement in our competition.  Many think that the problem of uncompetitive national teams can be solved by bringing back a residency program.  And, that if we improve upon the residency program model we could even do better than has been done in the past.

This, however, is simply wishful thinking that does not recognize the improvement in our competition, both in Europe and in Pan America.  The gap that could at one time be overcome with a superior talent pool and quality training is now a chasm.  The reality is that even if we could properly fund a residency program it couldn’t create a national team that could beat the top teams of today any more than USA basketball could still win Olympic Gold with a bunch of college kids.

This concludes my assessment of the premise that we should use a residency program model because it got us the best results in the past.  In the next installment I switch gears to take a closer look at the platform a residency program can provide to build sponsorship and grass roots development.

Team Handball Reality TV Show in Development

HBO's Hard Knocks Reality TV Show takes a closer look at NFL training camps.  Could a Team Handball reality show soon do the same?

HBO’s Hard Knocks Reality TV Show takes a closer look at NFL training camps. Could a Team Handball reality show soon do the same?

The latest USA Team Handball Board of Director’s Meeting Minutes from December 12 of last year include a short paragraph regarding a reality TV show concept centered around team handball.  Below is the text of the minutes:

Reality Concept – Bob (Djokovich) reviewed his attached document which goes back 20 months when the organization was approached by directors about a Reality Show.  The goal is to find ex-Pro and D1 athletes who learn the sport, win the Pan Am Games and then go on to do well at the Olympics.  The directors contacted USATH again six months ago and NBC also approached us about a similar process.  Since Rio, we have connected the producers and have pitched to NBC Execs and have a soft go.  We are currently looking for sponsors with the goal of starting to shoot the show in the February/March timeframe.  They want to attend our current events.  The Board received the original slides, which now have been updated and capture more of the intent.  When IHF President, Hassan Moustafa was given a preview of the slide deck on the project, he wanted the directors to come to Paris to see the finals of the Men’s World Championships in late January in Paris at his expense.  We are moving cautiously to make this happen and the USOC is aware of this project.

An NBC Executive Producer did in fact attend the recent World Championships and efforts are ongoing to get formal NBC approval to proceed.  The timeline, however, has been moved back to starting this summer at the earliest.  And, as with most TV projects, a number of steps are involved between the development of a concept and it’s airing on TV.  But, make no mistake:  This is a real effort with a solid chance of eventually making it on TV.

Commentary:  I, for one, am skeptical as to whether this show could accomplish the stated goals of winning the PANAM Games and qualifying for the 2024 Olympics.  Brazil, in particular, would be a really tough foe to beat for a bunch of handball newbies, even if they are very athletically gifted.  That being said this reality show would surely be very entertaining to watch.  If they get some good athletes they might not be able to beat Brazil, but given some solid training for a month or two they could beat every club team in the U.S. and probably our current national team.  It would depend on the athletes participating and it would depend on how seriously they take their training.

Setting aside the practicality of the show’s premise the real story is the potential impact the show could have in terms of promotional value.  A television show about team handball in prime time on a major TV network!  We get excited every four years during the Olympics when handball is discovered by thousands of people on secondary TV channels at odd hours of the day.  This exposure would dwarf that Olympic exposure and if the show is a success ratings wise it could trigger a grass roots explosion.

Preview of the 2017 Handball WC Semifinals:  A French Coronation?

World Championships Final Four:  A French Coronation in Paris?

World Championships Final Four: A French Coronation in Paris?

The Perils of Prediction

Well, let’s just say the Round of 16 and quarterfinals did not go as I expected.  In particular, Denmark’s and Germany’s departure at the hands of Hungary and Qatar busted my bracket pretty badly.  Qatar relied heavily on Capote and Saric and got just enough support from their supporting cast to send and a disorganized German attack packing.  Hungary got Nagy back, but it was the Dane’s lackluster performance was more to blame for their departure.  Finally, Spain survived a scare from Brazil only to be done in by a more determined Croatian squad.  So, of my final 4 only France (no big surprise) has survived.

All told, if one looks at the opening odds it’s a surprising final four. Here are those odds for the 4 remaining teams to win the championship and finish in the top 3

France: 1 to 1; 1 to 5
Croatia: 12 to 1; 9 to 4
Slovenia: 30 to 1; 11 to 2
Norway: 40 to 1; 8 to 1

A French Coronation?

Now, here’s the updated odds to win it all:

France: 5 to 12
Croatia: 5.5 to 1
Slovenia: 12 to 1
Norway: 4.5 to 1

In simple terms, or if you prefer percentages (like the website fivethirtyeight.com calculates) France should win this tournament about 70% of the time.  So, France is clearly a pretty big favorite.  That being said, here’s a case for each of the other sides to knock out France.

Slovenia lacks star power, but plays very well collectively. The players know their roles and they don’t try to do too much individually.  Several of the players have either played or are currently playing professionally in France.  They know the French players, know that man for man the French are better, but they also know their limitations.  If Slovenia can keep France from running off one of their typical 5 goal scoring blitzes, Slovenia can win a close game in the closing minutes through smart play.  The key, though, will be keeping in contact and not letting the game get out of hand.

Norway, has been the biggest surprise of the tourney.  Aside from rising start, Sandor Sagosen (headed to Paris SG next season) it’s a collection of no-name players, most of whom play in the Danish league.  Peter Bruun at Stregspiller.com gives much of the credit for the team’s performance to their coach, Chrisitian Berge: Link.  I’m inclined to agree with that assessment.  Much like Slovenia, Norway plays very well together collectively.  I’m not sure if they have the star power, but I think they can beat Croatia.

Croatia’s chances I think begin and end with the play of Domagoj Duvnak.  The 28 year old Kiel Centerback is the key linchpin in the Croatian attack.  If he plays well, he can shepherd a Croatian side that’s a bit thin in depth and reportedly ailing.  If he plays outworldly maybe they can spring an upset against France in the final.

Could France Beat France?

Ultimately, I think the only team that can beat France, is France themselves.  Clearly they are the best team in the tournament.  None of the other teams can even begin to match their depth at each position.  But, then again France hasn’t been fully tested yet.  Their depth is not as great as it used to be and they’ve got a new coach.  If a game comes down to the wire it’s at least conceivable that the pressure of being the host and expectations could do them in.

Conceivable, but I would have bet on a team like Denmark or Germany as being the side capable of keeping the match close for such a possibility.  And, those sides got bounced in the Round of 16.  My thinking now is that France’s superiority will show its face early on in both the semi and final and result in less than exciting games to watch.  But, if my past predictions are any guide we could be looking at some significantly different outcomes. I guess that’s why games are played on the court, and not on paper.

Preview and Odds for the 2017 Men’s World Championship

The Arch of Triumph lit up as a handball goal. The world's dominant team for the past decade is hosting the World Championship, but for the first time in years I'm predicting they'll come up short.

The Arch of Triumph lit up as a handball goal. The world’s dominant team for the past decade is hosting the World Championship, but for the first time in years I’m predicting they’ll come up short.

The 2017 Men’s World Championships starts this Wednesday with hosts France taking on Brazil in the opening match.  Here is some analysis and odds courtesy of the online betting site bet365.com: Link 

Odds to win the championship and odds to finish in the top 3

The Usual Suspects  
France                  1/1         1/5
Denmark             4/1         13/20
Spain                    6.5/1      6/5
Germany              8/1         8/5
Croatia                 12/1       9/4

These 5 sides are strong contenders for the title.  As the host France is an even money favorite and at 1/5 to medal they are a virtual lock to make the semifinals.  France would likely be the favorite if the championships were being staged in another country, but it certainly wouldn’t be as overwhelming.  Personally, I think France is the most vulnerable they’ve been in years.  They still are the best side, but they aren’t as deep as they used to be and the old guard is starting to show signs of age.  Perhaps newer players like Mahe and Remili will step up, but that remains to be seen.  And, this side will be under pressure with new coaches (Dinart and Gille) and the expectation that nothing other than gold will suffice.  Denmark, with an Olympic Gold Medal in its possession has the confidence to know that they can beat France as do Spain and Germany.

The Other Guys
Slovenia               30/1       11/2
Norway                40/1       8/1
Qatar                    40/1       8/1
Sweden                40/1       8/1
Hungary               60/1       11/1
Poland                  60/1       11/1
Russia                   60/1       11/1
Iceland                 70/1       13/1

These 8 sides are solid picks to make the round of 16, but making it to the semifinals could probably be considered a solid accomplishment for these 8 teams.

The Outsiders
Brazil                    200/1     30/1
Egypt                    250/1     40/1
Macedonia          250/1     40/1
Argentina            500/1     100/1
Belarus                500/1     100/1
Tunisia                 500/1     100/1
Japan                    1000/1  200/1

These 7 sides will  be looking to make the round of 16.  Advancing to the quarters would hinge on a major upset.  Making the semifinals would be a major achievement.

The Out-Outsiders
Angola                  2000/1  500/1
Bahrain                2000/1  500/1
Chile                     2000/1  500/1
Saudi Arabia       2000/1  500/1

These 4 sides have probably already booked their transportation to Brest and the President’s Cup.

Here a closer look at the odds (in parentheses) to win each group and my prediction as to the Final Standings

Group A
1) France (1/10)
2) Norway (8/1)
3) Brazil (18/1)
4) Poland (25/1)
5) Russia (14/1)
6) Japan (100/1)

I think Brazil will surprise here, taking advantage of a new look Polish roster and an inconsistent Russian team.  They also played well at the Olympics and the past few World Championships.

Group B
1) Spain (2/9)
2) Slovenia (7/2)
3) Tunisia (30/1)
4) Macedonia (20/1)
5) Iceland (15/1)
6) Angola (100/1)

Wael Jallouz and Tunisia will take advantage of the home crowd.  Expect more than a few Tunisian and French citizens of Tunisian descent in attendance.  Jallouz has shown at Barca how he can take over a game.  Expect him to do just that against Macedonia and Iceland.   Iceland might raise a cup at the WC, but minus Aron Palmarsson it may well be the President’s Cup.

Group C
1) Germany (19/20)
2) Croatia (21/20)
3) Hungary (13/2)
4) Belarus (50/1)
5) Chile (300/1)
6) Saudi Arabia (300/1)

I think this Group will simply follow the oddsmaker’s ranking.  Germany’s hard nosed defense will prevail over Croatia and Hungary.  Chile has an outside shot at upsetting Belarus for a round of 16 opportunity.

Group D
1) Denmark (1/7)
2) Sweden (7/1)
3) Egypt (30/1)
4) Argentina (50/1)
5) Qatar (7/1)
6) Bahrain (300/1)

Can Qatar with one of the world’s best coaches and goalkeepers continue their successful runs in international competition?  No, not with their depleted roster of court players.  Egypt and Argentina will pip Qatar and send them to the President’s Cup.

Projecting the Semifinals and Champion

A lot of handball will be played over the next 10 days so predictions at this point are real hazardous.  Still I’ll go out on a limb and project that France will come up short in it’s quest for a 5th title.  Followers of this website will note that this is quite a departure for me as I have consistently picked France to win every title for the past 10 years or so.  Not that was exceedingly brave.  As I declared over and over, if you have the best GK (Omeyer), best court player (Karabatic) and best defender (Dinart) you should win.  Throw in Narcisse, Fernandez and Abalo as a supporting cast and it was an embarrassment of riches.  But, father time is starting to kick in.  Dinart is now coach, Omeyer is 40 and Karabatic at 32 is starting to seem more human on the court.  Why Hansen and Duvnjak might even be better now.  Maybe the new supporting cast will step up, but I’ve got my doubts.  Maybe the home court advantage will give the old guard one more title, but again I’ve got my doubts.

Right now I’ll project Germany giving coach Sigurdsson a parting gift victory over France in the semifinals and Denmark knocking off Spain in the other. Then Denmark topping Germany in the Final.

USA’s Nico Mukendi Training with Spain’s #2 Club, Naturhouse La Rioja

Team USA's, Nico Mukendi, in action this past summer at the Pan American Championships in Argentina

Team USA’s, Nico Mukendi, in action this past summer at the Pan American Championships in Argentina

Team USA’s, Nico Mukendi is currently training in Spain with the professional club, Naturhouse La Rioja.  Naturhouse La Rioja, located in Logrono, is currently in 3rd place in Spain’s top professional league, the Liga Asobal and for the past few years has been considered the #2 club in Spain, behind perennial powerhouse FC Barcelona. La Rioja is also in 2nd place in Group C of the Champions League (Group’s C/D are a notch below the elite pro squads in Groups A and B.)

Mukendi, age 23, is a native of Hillsborough, NJ and has been with the Residency Program in Auburn since it was established in 2013.  He was identified in 2012 after he broke the record on a performance test conducted by Athletic Standard.  Since joining the program he has participated in several junior and senior national team competitions.  A back court player, he will be practicing with La Rioja informally for 3 days to help assess his development as a player.

Commentary:  This is a great development for USA Team Handball and hopefully he is just the first in a steady stream of players heading to Europe to be evaluated by top clubs.  More importantly, he is one of the few athletes that have joined the Residency Program straight out of high school.  This is important as it takes several years of training to develop technical handball skills and pro clubs are less interested in further developing athletes in their mid to late 20s.  More athletes with his combination of age/athletic ability are needed if the Residency Programs are ever to be successful.

Marca.com article (in Spanish): Link

Athletic Standard video on Mukendi: Link

Commentary on Handball Training Academies in Europe:  Link  (This commentary from 2014 includes a fake news story about Mukendi signing a professional contract in Denmark.)

EHF Magazine Features Brazilians in the Champions League

Brazil's 22 year old plays right back for Poland's Wisla Plock. 1 of 5 Brazilians featured in EHF Inside the Game feature.

Brazil’s Jose Toledo plays right back for Poland’s Wisla Plock. 1 of 5 Brazilians featured in EHF Inside the Game feature.

The European Handball Federation (EHF) weekly highlights show includes an “Inside the Game” segment which often includes behind the scenes interviews with players and coaches.  This past week’s segment focused on Brazilian handball players in the Champions League.  Currently, there are 5 Brazilians playing for Champions League Clubs.  They are:

  • Gabriel Jung, Barcelona, Right Back, 19
    Haniel Langaro, La Riolla (Logrono), Left Back, 21
    Jose Toledo, Plock, Right Back, 22
    Rogerio Ferreira, Vardar, Circle Runner, 22
    Thiagos dos Santos, Szeged, Left Back, 27

The video feature can be seen here: Link

Commentary: Four of those players are age 22 or younger and are playing and practicing with some of the top clubs in the world.  This is a testament to the grass roots programs that Brazil has established if they can develop talent that top clubs are willing to sign and further develop as players.

It will be very challenging for the U.S. to take athletes that are older than those players, that have barely played handball before, train them in the U.S. where there is not quality competition, and then beat Brazil in an Olympic qualification match.   And, trust me, “challenging” is a diplomatic choice of words.

All is not doom and gloom, however.  In the most recently posted USA Team Handball Board Meeting minutes it is noted that U.S. Men’s coach Javier Garcia would like to see the players do 1-2 years in Auburn and then head to Europe for competition.  And, that players need to improve in quality in order to facilitate their integration in teams overseas.

For me, this was a sign of a potential change in focus for the residency program at Auburn, away from National Team preparation and more towards athlete development.  Perhaps, not to dissimilar from my commentary two years ago suggesting that the national team residency program at Auburn be rebranded and as a development academy focused on younger athletes with greater potential.  The sooner we can get such a pipeline to Europe going the better our chances will be of competing against the likes of Brazil and Argentina.  Who knows?  Maybe, one day in the not too distant future we’ll see an “Inside the Game” feature on up and coming Americans playing on Champions League Clubs.

 

Trump’s Victory and its Impact on Handball in the U.S.

makehandballgreatagain

How will the trump victory impact USA Team Handball?

I could be wrong, but I would guess that the somewhat insular Donald Trump is not familiar with the sport of Team Handball.  Perhaps his Slovenian wife has educated him, but more than likely the only handball this native New Yorker is familiar with is the wall version more commonly known in the U.S.  One might think, therefore, that the Trump Presidency will have no impact whatsoever on the sport in the U.S.

But, that neglects taking into account the role that a U.S. President has indirectly or directly in the upcoming IOC host city selection for the 2024 Olympics.  And, should Los Angeles become the host city for the 2024 Olympics, make no mistake, that would be a huge deal for USA Team Handball.  For starters, the U.S. would automatically qualify both its men’s and women’s team.  Overnight this reality would improve recruiting dramatically.  Exposure for the sport would increase and sponsors that wouldn’t give USA Team Handball the time of day before would suddenly be interested in contributing to the sport’s bottom line.  Effortlessly, handball would get a nice little boost.  And with a smart strategic plan the Olympics could even be the catalyst that transforms handball from an unknown oddity to the next lacrosse or rugby.  This series of commentaries provides a broad outline of what that strategy might look like: Link

All well and good, but does a Trump Presidency help or hurt the U.S. chances?  Well conventional wisdom is that it has to hurt.  Donald Trump was able to surprise the pundits and the pollsters by energizing rural America to turn out in greater numbers than anyone expected.  The “coastal elites” were shocked with the result.  The IOC election, however, will hinge around the opinions of around 95 IOC Board Members.  A board that is top heavy with Europeans who probably can be considered to be a lot more coastal elite than salt of the Earth Midwesterner in their outlook.

But, that’s conventional wisdom.  A number of pundits like Olympics commentator, Alan Abrahamson, are more optimistic.  Here are some of the reasons supporting the notion that it doesn’t matter who the President is:

  • It doesn’t matter who’s in charge of a particular country and some pretty autocratic nations have won Olympic host city elections recently.
  • Obama was well liked, but the U.S was still humiliated when its 2016 Chicago bid lost in the first round of voting in 2009.
  • IOC electors know that the U.S. could very well even have another President in charge by the time 2024 rolls around.
  • France has its own Presidential election coming up and Marine Le Pen, if elected, might be even more unpalatable to an IOC voter.
  • Trump, if he does play an active role in the bid, is a better schmoozer than people give him credit for.

Still, I for one, have a hard believing that the reality of Donald J. Trump, President of the United States won’t be an overall net effect in the hearts and minds of IOC voters.  Certainly, I don’t see him working the room and changing votes come next September in Lima, Peru the way that Tony Blair did in 2005 for the London 2012 vote.

Betting Markets

Aside from punditry, there is also the betting markets where people can put money down on which city will win.  This site currently lists the odds as:

Paris .62 to 1
LA 2.25 to 1
Budapest 4.5 to1

So, Paris is a better than even money favorite and L.A. is a more than 2-1.  Since the election the odds have shifted a bit in the favor of Paris, but they aren’t much different than they were before the election.  And, strikingly these odds are quite similar to the U.S. Presidential election odds, which suggested that Trump would win 1 out of 3 times.  Maybe lightning will strike twice.  Let’s make handball great again.

 

Additional articles on LA’s prospects in light of the Trump victory:

LA Times: Link
Sports Illustrated: Link

 

France 38 – Belgium 37:  Huh? What?  How did that happen and what can be gleaned from that outcome?

Belgian Captain, Arber Qerimi, scores one of his 7 goals in their near upset of the World Champions

Belgian Captain, Arber Qerimi, scores one of his 7 goals in their near upset of the World Champions

ehfTV has a lot of matches available in its “on demand” bin and sometimes it takes me awhile to getting around to watching them. A couple of days ago I decided to check out the Belgium – France Euro 2018 qualification match.  I generally prefer to watch matches oblivious to the final outcome and I had avoided the final score of this match.  As if, it really mattered.  Belgium is one of the weaker teams in Europe.  Mostly amateurs and just qualifying for the Group Stage is a major achievement.  Meanwhile France has been consistently the best team in the world for the past 10 years or so.  I figured that I would watch a few minutes of this curiosity and then move along to the next match.  Well, that didn’t happen.  I kept waiting and waiting for a blowout that never happened. Why if Belgium hadn’t lost their team captain, Arber Qeremi, to a red card maybe they would have even won.  How did this happen and what can be gleaned?

The 7 Court Player Strategy for Huge Underdogs

Well, we’ve all seen the impact of the new rule allowing any court player to substitute for the goalie.  Most teams when down a man now empty the net and play with 6 on offense.  And, occasionally we’ve seen teams attack with 7 court players, but this was the first national team match where I’ve seen it pretty much used the entire game.  Most interestingly, it’s the first time I’ve also seen it implemented by an overmatched underdog.  And, Belgium player per player was clearly overmatched.  There’s no doubt in my mind that not a single Belgian player could make the French roster.  Heck, it’s doubtful that any Belgian player would make a roster depth chart that went 10 deep into the French national talent pool.

But, the 7 court player strategy evened out that lack in talent dramatically.  With the extra player Belgium was able to score consistently.  How else to explain 37 goals?  37!  And, they controlled the tempo and had France totally out of their game.  It’s a high reward, high risk strategy, but in this one game the rewards far outweighed the risks.

And, it’s surely a strategy to be duplicated (if, it hasn’t already) by overmatched squads everywhere.  What would Team USA have to lose against Brazil, for instance?  If you’re going to get scored upon anyway at the defensive end, you might as well dramatically increase your scoring percentage at the offensive end.  Sure, you might end up with an uglier score line than you would get with a more conventional game.  But, you also might take a good team down to the wire.

It will be very interesting to see how this tactic plays out in the years to come.  It’s surely to be tried again, but most likely top teams will be better prepared to punish this strategy.  Which leads to a big question mark regarding the French national team.

What’s Going on with France?

France’s inability to secure an easy victory against a team composed almost entirely of amateurs raises some big time questions.  Most notably, why wasn’t the team better prepared?  Why couldn’t the team adapt to the situation?  Here are a few possible answers to that question.

Answer #1) Coach Dinart and Coach Gille are not Ready for Prime Time

Let me go on the record and state what I think is a factual statement:  Didier Dinart is the greatest of all time defensive handball player.  In his prime, for sure, there can be no serious debate that anyone was better at clogging up offenses in the middle of the crease.  It doesn’t show up in a score sheet, but France’s success on the national level for a decade can be closely correlated to his presence.  Heck, to a large extent he created the position of defensive specialist.  Guillame Gille wasn’t quite the player that Dinart was, but he was a reliable mainstay in the backcourt for several years.

But, great players don’t necessarily make great coaches.  And Dinart and Gille have being given the reins to arguably the most historic national team dynasty without either having been a head coach before.  That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in my opinion.  Sure Dinart has been at Claude Onesta’s side for a couple of years, but that’s no substitute for striking out on your own at some club team and doing the day to day preparation and making the game time adjustments necessary to being a successful coach.  Additionally, and as a former defensive specialist myself I hate to say it, Dinart might well lack the expertise to make smart offensive adjustments.

I’m not sure how the French Federation came up with its succession plan, but I can guess that there’s a few head coaches in the LNH who’ve been plying their trade for years wondering why they didn’t get a shot.  Patrice Canayer of Montpellier certainly has a long track record.

Answer #2) Enough with the Co-Coaching Cop Out

Here’s a list of the great co-coaching duos from all major sports:  crickets, crickets, crickets.  There’s a reason for this:  It just doesn’t work.  There’s a reason virtually all teams have one head coach, businesses have one CEO and nations have one political leader.  You can have debate on the decisions to be made, but there can be only one decider.  And one person ultimately responsible for success or failure.  And, this person has to be clearly identified and given the authority to do their job.  France needs to pick one coach and go with it.

Answer #3) Maybe the New Additions to the Roster aren’t that Good

Finally, maybe the close game has more to do with the players, rather than the coaching.  France did a little experimenting with its roster mixing some newcomers with veterans.  Time was when it didn’t seem to matter a whole lot who was on the court as long as Karabatic was there to direct traffic and make everyone around him look better.  Heck, I’ve joked at times that I could be a decent left back on the French National team if Karabatic was at center.  Well, I think there are some cracks in this maxim.  Karabatic is still a great player, but at 32 he’s showing some signs of age and he’s not quite as unworldly as he has been in the past.  And, the new additions in the backcourt aren’t quite up to Jerome Fernandez and Daniel Narcisse quality.  Or even Accambray level for that matter.  Maybe they will be someday, but they’re not there yet.

Premature Obituary?

It’s usually a mistake to look at one match and to conclude that the house is on fire.  Still, a 38-37 win over Belgium for the defending world champs is a huge red flag.  For a decade or so, France has been the team to beat at every major tournament.  They’ll be hosting the World Championships in France in January, so surely they’ll be favorites again.  But, for once I’m not so sure that’s fully justified.

The EHF Champions League Group Stage:  Mostly Meaningless, but Still Entertaining

In the updated Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the entry for Earth was changed from “Harmless” to “Mostly Harmless”.  I’ll take a page out of that book and update the importance of Champions League Group Stage games from “Meaningless” to “Mostly Meaningless”.

In the updated Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the entry for Earth was changed from “Harmless” to “Mostly Harmless”. I’ll take a page out of that book and update the importance of Champions League Group Stage games from “Meaningless” to “Mostly Meaningless”.

ehfTV Commentator Tom O’Brannigain wrote an interesting commentary a while back taking issue with a German blogger Sascha Staat’s characterization of the Group Stage of the EHF Champions League as meaningless.  Staat’s commentary pointed out that there wasn’t much difference between placing 1st or 6th place, rendering many of the matches meaningless.  And, that this was particularly true for the German clubs that had to cope with the more competitive Bundesliga (HBL) while clubs like Barca and Kielce could coast along in their easy national leagues.

O’Brannigain, counterpoint was that it sure didn’t seem that way from his viewpoint watching the hotly contested matches.  He also pointed out that except for last season, the HBL has largely been dominated by Kiel.

Staat has followed up with a counterpoint which I largely agree with.  I hadn’t seen it, though until I was mostly finished with this commentary.  I’ll amplify some key points though as to why the matches are mostly meaningless, but still quite entertaining.

Round of 16 (if seeded after 5 rounds)

First off, as a reference point let’s take a look at what the Round of 16 matchups would be today after just 5 rounds of group play.  Below are the pairings and how the teams would be grouped for quarterfinal matches. (Barca and Kielce are in first place in Groups A and B respectively, so they would both get a bye to the Quarterfinals.)

Barca (A1) Bye
Szeged (B4) vs Flensburg (A5)

Kielce (B1) Bye
Veszprem (A4) vs Brest (B5)

Paris S-G (A2) vs the winner of Logrono (C1)/Besiktas (D2)
R-NL (B3) vs Bjerringbro (A6)

Vardar (B2) vs the winner of Nantes (D1)/Montpellier (C2)
Kiel (A3) vs Kristianstad (B6)

Taking a look at these pairings, I’ll say with around 95% confidence that the quarterfinals would be

Barca (A1) vs Flensburg (A5)
Kielce (B1) vs Veszprem (A4)
Paris S-G (A2) vs R-NL (B3)
Vardar (B2) vs Kiel (A3)

Honestly, I think the only 2 teams capable of crashing the quarterfinal party are Szeged and surprising Nantes.  But, even then it’s a long shot.  Of course, as Zagreb showed last year, anything can happen.  It’s just not likely, though, that an undermanned team will prevail in a 120 minute aggregate format.

While that’s the scenario for the current standings there’s sure to be some fluctuation over the course of the Group Stage.  Still, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to assess that in Group A, there is a significant gap in quality between the top 5 (Barca, Paris, Kiel, Veszprem and Flensburg) and the bottom 3 (Bjerringbro, Plock and Schaffhausen).  At least I will be very surprised if any of those last 3 teams crack the top 5.

Group B is a little harder to read, and overall I think it is significantly weaker than Group A.  With this group I think the separation line is between the top 3 (Kielce, Vardar and R-NL) and the bottom 5 (Szeged, Brest, Kristianstad, Celje and Zagreb.  Maybe Szeged or Brest are above the line, but I’ve got my doubts.

With Groups C and D (also known as the little kids table) I think whoever gets matched up against the 2nd seed in Group B will have a puncher’s chance of making the quarterfinal, particularly if they play Vardar, but it’s still a longshot.

All told, shuffle the standings for the top 5 in Group A and the top 3 in Group B, however you want I’m betting those 8 teams (Barca, Paris, Kiel, Veszprem, Flensburg, Kielce, Vardar and R-NL) will make the quarter-finals.  But, unlike the round of 16 every single one of those quarterfinal clubs will have a realistic expectation of making the final four regardless of who their opponent is.  There won’t be a gimme matchup for any club.

So what’s the point of all this analysis?  Well Staat is wrong when he says it doesn’t matter if you make 1st place or 6th place.  At least it matters, if you want a relatively easy round of 16 matchup.  If you’re a top team in Group A, you can be happy with 5th place, but you’ll want to avoid 6th place.  And, if you’re a top team in Group B, you’ll want to avoid dropping down to 4th place.  But, once you are firmly established in the top 5 of Group A or top 3 of Group B it doesn’t matter very much where you end up.  You’re going to get a Round of 16 match you should win and then you’re going to get a challenging quarterfinal.   But Staat has the right sentiment; Win, lose or draw doesn’t it matter a lot, as long as you don’t slip below the demarcation line.

Odds according to Nordic Bet

And, it’s not just me that’s come up with that analysis.  The oddsmakers also see a huge gap in quality as the odds of winning the title drop off dramatically after the top 8 teams.

Paris 2-1
Veszprem 3.4-1
Barca 4.5-1
Kielce 7-1
Kiel 7-1
Flensburg 11-1
R-NL 11-1
Vardar 12.5-1
Szeged 94-1
Plock 94-1
Brest, Celje, Zagreb, Nantes, Bjerringbro Silkeborg, Logrono, Holstebro, Zaporozhye, Schaffhausen, Bucharest, Medvedi 249-1
Kristianstad, Metalurg, Elverum, Presov, Besiktas, Braga 749-1
Still Entertaining

But, I’ll give O’Brannigain his due regarding the competitiveness of the matches.  Despite the lack of meaning, so to speak, there’s been a lot of quality, entertaining handball being played.  Players are playing hard and they clearly want to win.  There’s even been a few surprise losses to the top 8 teams, but I still have a hard time believing that those top teams will slide below the demarcation lines in their groups.  For sure they won’t rest their best players in a CL match if that’s in danger of happening.

Other Formats to Consider

Staat also has a point regarding too many teams (6 of 8) reaching the knockout stages.  This all but ensures a team with a losing record will advance.  But, the old format with four teams qualifying wasn’t much better.  This is because the groups had more 2nd tier teams, again ensuring that a top team would reach the Round of 16 unless they suffered a total meltdown.  So, basically the only real difference in the format is that the group stages have more matchups between elite teams.  Overall, this is a good thing even if there aren’t any real consequences to these showdowns.

There’s no perfect format for a league, but in principle when the match outcome has significant consequences you’re going get a more compelling match.  This is why the knockout stages of the CL are so compelling.  And, it’s why the Group Stage matches are not.

If you want to make the Group Stages more compelling you will need to have fewer clubs advancing, but the EHF would also need to make the groups stronger top to bottom.  And, right now the only way to do that would be to add some more German Clubs, which wouldn’t make very many people happy.  The German clubs don’t want more challenging matches in the first place and here you would be adding even more German teams to the fray.  Scandinavia and other leagues are already not happy with the creation of Groups C and D and under this scenario they would be totally pushed out.

At the other end of the spectrum, if you really wanted to get radical you could make the knockout stages more compelling by having more matches of consequence between the elite clubs. Why just play two in the Quarterfinals?  Why not a best of 3 or best of 5 NBA format?  Or better yet skip the Final Four weekend and give handball the full NBA treatment:  play a best of 7 for the semis and finals.  That would be phenomenal!

But, I know that won’t be happening anytime soon due to the number of matches that would have to be played and for how it would mess up the domestic league schedules.  Still, I can dream, can’t I?

Flashback Friday: A look back at past USA Team Handball meetings and some optimism going forward

club-symposium

Yes, We’ve been here before… As USA Team Handball gears up for what has unintentionally become a quadrennial meeting to discuss the state of handball in the U.S. here’s a bit of history regarding the past two meetings. And, a bit of sunshine optimism going forward.

USA Team Handball is holding a Club Symposium next weekend “to share the vision and programs being planned and for clubs to know that they are the pillars of the organization and your input is most valued in this planning process.”

Meetings similar to this were held in 2008 and 2012.  In June 2008, Dieter Esch hosted a Team Handball Summit meeting in St Louis which was essentially an open forum opportunity to educate him and newly hired General Manager, Steve Pastorino on issues related to handball in the U.S.  I attended and here’s my summary of that meeting: Link

The meeting was a positive sharing of information and I was optimistic about the future.  Alas, 3.5 years later both Esch and Pastorino were gone: Link

Jeff Utz replaced Dieter Esch as Board President and Dave Gascon took the reins as the interim General Manager. Working with the USOC they held a Strategic Planning Meeting in April 2012.  This meeting included a professional facilitator and was designed to be the kick off for the development of a comprehensive strategic plan for the organization.  There was lots of good discussion at the meeting and in my podcast interview Jeff Utz discussed the major focus areas for follow on work: Financial Stability, “Pipeline” Athlete Development, Promotion/Marketing and Governance/Management Structure. (This podcast interview is available for download  at the top of this post) These areas were later expanded to the following committees:  Link

Again, I was optimistic about the future of the sport in this country as USA Team Handball was finally beginning to think strategically about its future.  But, as I’ve pointed out before this effort never continued.  The committees were not empowered to do anything and were simply told to submit their brainstorming ideas to the Board of Directors.  In 2013, most of the committees were quietly removed from the federation website as if the strategic planning meeting had never occurred.  (For some reason, promotion/marketing and fundraising are still identified even though the individuals listed haven’t been involved with the sport for a couple of years.) For sure, no strategic plan was ever written.  My overall thoughts are summed up here: Link

And, so now we come to 2016 with a new meeting and new opportunities to move the sport forward in this country.  I know I come off as a real pessimist sometimes.  (Hey, if you attended both of those previous meetings and saw the outcome you likely would be too.)

But, it’s time yet again for a little optimism.  USA Team Handball’s new leadership, Board President, Dr Harvey Schiller and CEO, Mike Cavanaugh have now had a few years to take stock of the current state of affairs.  The Olympics have recently provided some added buzz to the sport.  There’s a solid possibility of a 2024 Olympics in L.A.  And, if not 2024, then surely 2028 is in the cards.  Some solid youth programs have been established in Chicago and other locales. Our Men’s Beach Handball team won a Pan American Championship and played in a World Championship.  Maybe there’s even a good TV deal on the horizon.  All these developments and possibilities could lead to what I think is an inevitable tipping point for handball in this country.  A tipping point by which the sport moves from quadrennial, marginal niche sport to a solid niche sport with a significant fan and player base.

I hope to be a part of the planning that speeds up the timetable for that inevitable tipping point.  Yes, time for a little optimism.

Why a Residency Program at Auburn?: Reason #2: The U.S. Had its Greatest Success with Residency Programs… True Statement, but Perhaps Some Key Decision Makers Don’t Fully Appreciate the Professional Aspects of Today’s Handball

Finland’s Mikael Kallman was the best player I ever tried to defend against. A Finn? Where did he become such a good player? It turns out it was this thing called the Bundesliga. Boy, was I clueless back 93. I’ve since been educated. Could key players in the USA Team Handball community also be in dire need of such an education?

Finland’s Mikael Kallman was the best player I ever tried to defend against. A Finn? Where did he become such a good player? It turns out it was this thing called the Bundesliga. Boy, was I clueless back in 93. I’ve since been educated. Could key players in the USA Team Handball community also be in dire need of such an education?

No one has volunteered to explain why a Residency Program at Auburn is the best way forward for USA Team Handball.   One reason touted, though, is that our greatest success occurred with residency programs and ergo, that’s what we should do now.  I agree with the first half of that statement, but not the second half.  In this commentary I highlight how many in the U.S. have a narrow view of the sport and don’t fully understand how the sport is professionalized in Europe

What’s the Bundesliga?

Time for another war story that might give you further insight as to why some folks in the U.S. actually believe a Residency Program can develop a national team capable of competing on the world stage.

The scene:  February, 1993.  The USA Men’s National Team is reviewing the tape of their match played the day before against Finland.  The U.S. was conducting a training camp in Finland in preparation for the upcoming World Championships in Sweden.  Finland has only ever qualified for one World Championship, back in 1958 and is considered a 2nd or 3rd tier nation.  (i.e., in theory, a team the U.S. should be able to beat.  U.S. National Team coach, Vojtech Mares, a former all-world player from the Czech Republic is savaging the team’s performance, a 30-22 loss.

Personally, I hadn’t played very well and that’s because I had to play defense against, Finland’s best player, Mikael Kallman.  As we watched the film I got to relive him beating me and the rest of my teammates leftwards, backwards and forwards for 11 goals.  Quite simply he had a combination of speed and power that I had never seen before.

In the 2nd half we were making a bit of a comeback and Finland needed a goal to stifle our momentum.  Kallman, who had been playing left back, moved to center back and spoke to the backs on either side of him.  I don’t know the Finnish words for “clear out”, but they had clearly been said as both backs shaded to the side to give him a bit more room to work against the slow American.

And, as Kallman started his move from 12 meters or so, I crouched down as probably as determined as I’ve ever been to stop someone 1 on 1 defensively.  No swim move on me this time.  I’m staying in front of him and by God, he’s going to get hit hard.  But, this time Kallman did something I’d never seen before.  He came toward me as usual, but instead of picking a direction to beat the slow American, he stopped at about 10 meters, jumped straight up off of both feet, cocked his throwing arm and threw a bee-bee into the upper corner of the net.

At which point, Coach stopped the tape and rewound to the point where he released the ball.  There right in front of Kallman was me, crouched ready to stop him in either direction only now just realizing Kallman was instead going to shoot.  My lanky arms were only just starting to rise for a shot block.  Coach continued the sequence in slow motion and my reaction speed was comical.  It was if a high school baseball player was batting against a 100 mph fast baller and started swinging the bat only after the ball was already in the catcher’s glove.

Coach looked at me and said, “John, what were you thinking?”

I started to respond, “Coach, that guy is really good and I wasn’t going to…”

Coach Mares, exasperated, cut me off, “Of course he’s good.  He’s the MVP of the Bundesliga.”

To which, I replied, “What’s the Bundesliga?”

Coach, then just through his hands up in the air as if to say, “What I’m doing here with these Americans” and “Oh, this is just hopeless.”

Really, I’m sure to Coach Mares I pretty much sounded like Libertarian Presidential Candidate, Gary Johnson, when he asked, “What is Aleppo?”

Ignorance is Bliss

So, I’ll defend my ignorance a bit.  This was 1993, pre-wide spread use of the internet.  There was no handball on TV.  Heck, there was no European sport of any kind being shown on TV.  I had never ever heard the word, “Bundesliga” before, let alone did I even know it was a German word.  We were playing in Finland after all.  I had no concept of how sports were organized in Europe.  Handball wise, I had some vague notion that there were handball clubs in Europe, but simply thought that they were just more organized versions of what we had in the U.S.  Heck, I even assumed that European national teams had residency programs similar to ours.  All really bad assumptions, that, but understandable given my total lack of exposure to any handball outside of an American context.

Of course, I can look back now and laugh at how totally clueless I was.  Kallman was the best player ever for Finland and had indeed been the MVP of the Bundesliga the year before.  The first non-German to win that award and only one of three Non-Germans to ever win it (the others are Nikola Karabatic and Filip Jicha).  I’d say he was in good company.  (For a pretty good example of his effectiveness check out this video from the 1993 EHF Club cup:  Link.  He’s number 3 in blue.  At the 22:40 minute mark on the tape you can see him draw a two minute after he goes by 2 defenders.  And, then at 23:25 mark is the jump stop shot that made me look foolish.  At least I made him shoot a little further out. I don’t feel so bad now…)

Regarding the Bundesliga, I’m now such a fan that I relish watching that league more than the Champions League, which really only gets interesting in the knock out stages.  Heck, I’ll go further.  A good HBL match, in my opinion beats an Olympic match.  Much the same way an NBA playoff game beats Olympic basketball.

But, all of my greater understanding and appreciation for professional club handball can mostly be attributed to the happenstance of living in Europe for five years and following the sport very closely ever since.  In fact, I suspect if that hadn’t ever lived overseas, I would be more supportive of a residency program because quite frankly, I wouldn’t know any better.  Ignorance is bliss…

Ignorance is also Dangerous to Long Term Strategic Planning

Flash forward to today and the internet abounds with lots of information regarding professional club handball.  EHF Champions League matches can be watched at ehfTV.com and it’s fairly easy to research your would be competition.  One would think that it would be nearly impossible for an American to be as clueless as I was 23 years ago.  But, trust me the average American is pretty clueless when it comes to professional club handball in Europe and the impact it has on today’s game.  How big it is.  How professionalized it has become.  How, it is the principle training ground for virtually all of the world’s top handball players. And, this might seem shocking, but it’s even largely true for the few Americans that actually care about the sport in this country.  Their context is the clubs in the U.S., the U.S. national team and the Olympics every four years.

But, what will really having you scratching your head is this:  It’s even true of some USA Team Handball Board Members, National Team players and other key players in the USA Team Handball community.  I guarantee you that some if asked could not name one of the top clubs in Europe.  Couldn’t tell you which nations have the top leagues or when the club season begins and ends in Europe.  Couldn’t even begin to tell you what the relative strengths are between national leagues or what it means to play in the 2nd division in Germany vs the 2nd division in Poland.  For sure, in some respects, such information could be considered trivial.   (Here’s a primer on European Club Handball: Link)

But, this overall lack of knowledge or full appreciation of European professional club handball has real consequences in that it enables smart people to think that a Residency Program is a feasible strategy.  Because if you think that handball in Europe is amateur or perhaps just somewhat professionalized it is somewhat reasonable to think that a group of determined and athletic Americans can rise up from rural Alabama and shock the world.

Of course, I can’t say for sure what the key decision makers know as it relates to the professionalism of the sport in Europe.  These decision makers have varied backgrounds and experiences.  Something tells me, though, that these decision makers have an impression that handball is just “somewhat professionalized” and nothing on par with American professional leagues.  I’m thinking a bit of education and exposure to what’s going on in Europe at the club level would result in some fresh perspectives and a change in direction.

“Somewhat professionalized?”  What does that phrase mean or imply?  In the next part of this series I’ll elaborate and explain how since the 80s and 90s the professionalization of the sport has resulted in amateur teams falling further behind.

 

Why a Residency Program at Auburn?: Reason #2: The U.S. Had its Greatest Success with Residency Program… True Statement, but How Glorious were our Glory Days?

The night I shut down Staffan Olsson… Glory Days, Glory Days…

The night I shut down Staffan Olsson.  I was his worst nightmare.  The Swedes thought they would have an easy time against the American.  We showed them…   “Glory Days, In the wink of a young girl’s eyes, Glory Days, Glory Days…”

No one has volunteered to explain why a Residency Program at Auburn is the best way forward for USA Team Handball.   One reason touted, though, is that our greatest success occurred with residency programs and ergo, that’s what we should do now.  I agree with the first half of that statement, but not the second half.  In this commentary I highlight the need for thoughtful retrospection on our past performances.

The classic Bruce Springsteen song, “Glory Days” tells the story of a couple of old friends running into each other a at bar and reminiscing about their “glory days” in high school.  This song is apropos to the discussion you might have with me on a bar stool talking about my handball career.  Here’s how I might sound after “I get my fill…”

 John Ryan “Glory Days” Talk: Oh, yeah, the 93 World Championships were great.  I will never forget how we went toe to toe with Sweden, in Sweden, no less.  They weren’t expecting the Americans to do that.  You should have heard their crowd gasp when Darrick Heath leaped in the air on a 9 meter throw and fired a bullet well over the Swedish wall for a goal.  I’m not kidding, you could hear the collective gasp.  Oh, and the home crowd was not happy about how close we were playing them.   Even heard a few boos.  Why if Robert Mayfield hadn’t gotten stopped by a lucky save on a fast break we would have been down just 2 goals at the half.  Oh, and I probably played my best game.  I shut down Staffan Olsson.  You know the coach for Sweden.  I don’t think he had any goals and the Swedish newspaper gave him a 1 Underkand (failing) out of 10 for his performance.

At which point, you might ask me what the final score was and at which point I’ll ask for another round…

And, here’s how some discussion regarding the 1984 Olympics, arguably the high water mark in terms of USA Team Handball performance might sound:

84 Olympics “Glory Days” Talk:  The U.S. Men were great.  Probably, the best team we ever had.  Did you know they were competitive in every single game?  They didn’t lose any match by more than 3 goals.  In fact, the four matches they lost were by a total of only 9 goals.  Against the Germans, the eventual silver medalists the U.S. lost by just 2 goals.  And, I’ve heard the refs screwed em.  As good as the Men were, the Women were even better.  We finished in 4th place.  So close to a medal.  Leora “Sam” Jones was unstoppable.  If only the U.S. team had had a bit more experience they would have surely medaled.  Why, with the home crowd behind us it’s not too crazy to think that Gold was out of the question.  If only we could give our national teams today a similar environment to train in.  With some decent recruiting and hard work we could put together some similar quality sides.

But does the “glory days” talk on the bar stool pass muster in the cold light of day?  Well, here’s a more analytical (some would say critical) assessment of those performances of yesteryear.

93 World Championships Analytical Assessment:  Just another typical lackluster performance by Team USA.  6 games played, 6 games all lost by an average of 16 goals.  The great game against Sweden? Well, we really did have a decent first half against Bengan’s Boys.  But, that World Class side was just going through the motions on their “off day” against the weak team of the group. That U.S. team did have some top notch talent like Darrick Heath who parlayed his performance on the World stage into a professional contract.  And, by golly I really did hear the crowd gasp on that jump shot, but that might have been because the Scandinavium was half empty since most of the locals stayed home for this meaningless pool play match.  That second half was downright ugly as the Swedes woke up and ran us out of the building.  They only beat us by 16 though, so that wasn’t so bad.  I don’t even want to talk about the embarrassing 26 goal loss we had against a very mediocre Norway team in consolation play.  Probably the ugliest handball performance I’ve ever been a party to.

1993 World Championship Results

Preliminary Group Play
USA vs Hungary 18-33 (8-16)
USA vs Sweden 16-32 (9-13)
USA vs Iceland 19-34 (7-14)

Consolation Play
USA vs Austria 19-31 (12-14)
USA vs Norway 15-41 (6-22)
USA vs S. Korea 28-35 (16-18)

1984 Olympics Analytical Assessment.  Overall, I think it’s pretty easy to assess that this was the best performance by the USA Men and Women at a World Championship or Olympic tournament. For the women there is no debate whatsoever:  1 goal from a bronze medal.  No other women’s team has even come close to such an achievement.  The men placed 9th as did the 96 Olympians, but no other team has played so many teams closely.

All this being said, it’s important to keep in mind that the 84 Olympics were also the Warsaw Pact boycotted Olympics.   Every American sports team did well.  There was no better time to be a McDonald’s fan:  Why you couldn’t even go to a McDonald’s without walking out with a free Big Mac or Quarter Pounder w/Cheese for all the crazy medals the U.S. won in sports that we never did well in.  While the U.S. didn’t medal in handball, at least part of their “success” can be attributed to a weaker field with the likes of the USSR, Poland, East Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia not participating.  And, while competitive the U.S. couldn’t quite knock of the European sides they played.  The men finished 9th out of 12 teams, a 1-4-1 record with a draw against 11th place South Korea and a victory over 10th place Japan.  In that bottom line context it sure doesn’t sound so great.

1984 Olympic Results (Men)

Group Play
USA vs W. Germany 19-21 (8-12)
USA vs Sweden 18-21 (6-10)
USA vs Denmark 16-19 (7-8)
USA vs Spain 16-17 (9-10)
USA vs S. Korea 22-22 (12-12)

9th Place Match
USA vs Japan 24-16 (9-5)

The women finished 5th out of 6 teams.  Yes, only 6 teams participated back in 1984 and a round robin format was used.  The U.S. beat China and Austria, and lost to Yugoslavia, S. Korea and W. Germany.  It has been often quoted that the women finished 4th, and this probably can be attributed to their last match which they narrowly lost to West Germany.  A win would have resulted in a bronze medal, but alas we lost a close match and actually finished 5th.  As with the Men, the Warsaw Pact boycott resulted in a significantly weaker field.   And, as Women’s handball was somewhat in its infancy the overall technical level of play was lower, providing an opportunity to the generally athletically superior USA team.

Arguably, it was a near perfect set of circumstances: A weak field, a smaller gap in technical skills and a home court advantage.  And, one that the U.S. came so close to capitalizing on.  But, we didn’t and barring a crazy European wide boycott at a 2024 LA Olympic Games it’s a set of circumstances that will never be repeated.

1984 Olympic Results (Women)
USA vs China 25-22 (9-12)
USA vs Yugoslavia 20-33 (10-14)
USA vs Austria 25-21 (11-9)
USA vs S. Korea 27-29 (16-11)
USA vs W. Germany 17-18 (7-10)

Final Ranking
Yugoslavia 5-0-0 10 pts
Korea 3-1-1 7 pts
China 2-2-1 5 pts
W Germany 2-3-0 4 pts
USA 2-3-0 4 pts
Austria 0-5-0 0 pts

Analytically, an Epic Pile of Losses

So, what’s the point of these comparisons?  Well, one of the arguments often put forward is that U.S. National Teams had their best performances by teams that were the product of residency programs.  Yup:  That’s a true statement.

What’s left unsaid, quietly forgotten or not looked at closely enough, however, is that those “best performances” were to put it mildly, not very good.  In fact, if you take a cold hearted analytical, composite look at historical U.S. performances you’ll quickly conclude that it’s essentially an epic pile of losses.   Here are the composite results for the U.S. Men and Women in Olympic and World Championship competition.

Men’s Olympic record: 4-24-1
Men’s World Championship record: 0-16-0
Women’s Olympic record: 4-19-0
Women’s World Championship record 4-24-0

On the world stage Team USA has a combined 12-83-1 record or a .13 win percentage. Of those 12 wins only two are against European sides.  The men beat Spain 22-20 in consolation play at the 1972 Olympics and the women beat Austria 25-21 at the 84 Olympics.  And, suffice to say neither of those European sides are anywhere near the quality of a top tier European side today.

A Time and Place for Glory Days Reflection

Does this mean that all of the athletes that participated in a residency program, put in countless hours of training and made enormous sacrifices shouldn’t be proud of what they achieved?  No, of course not.  Success is not always measured with wins and losses.  In many respects, if you take the handicaps those teams had in terms of experience and regular competition, the fact that competitive teams were fielded is somewhat remarkable.  It’s no wonder that these athletes many years later look back with pride and that the bonds between teammates are still strong decades later.  They are more than entitled to some glory days talk regardless of the results.

But, there’s a time and place for “Glory Days” reflection.  And, one of those places it doesn’t belong is when it comes time to strategic planning for USA Team Handball.  No, that’s when you got to get analytical, not nostalgic for achievements that simply don’t pass muster.  In short, you’ve got to take that critical eye and ask yourself:  Do we really want to try and recreate a residency program model if it never really worked very well in the first place?

Compounding the reality that the U.S. was never very successful under the residency program model is that the competition is also better today.  The next part of this series will tackle how the increased professionalization of handball makes it even more challenging for a residency program model to succeed today.

Why a Residency Program at Auburn?: Reason #1: Auburn is a great financial deal… Really? How Much “Value” is there really in Value In Kind (VIK) Funding?

Sunday newspaper coupons: It’s always a good idea to read and take into account the fine print associated with little asterisks. Here’s the fine print for this seemingly enticing coupon: “Does not include fees associated with athlete recruiting, room/board, stipends, scholarships and overseas trips for competition. Beard-Eaves Coliseum slated for eventual demolition. Offer valid only in rural Alabama.”

Sunday newspaper coupons: It’s always a good idea to read and take into account the fine print associated with little asterisks. Here’s the fine print for this seemingly enticing coupon: “Does not include fees associated with athlete recruiting, room/board, stipends, scholarships and overseas trips for competition. Beard-Eaves Coliseum slated for eventual demolition. Offer valid only in rural Alabama.”  Hmm.  You might want to think long and hard about cashing in that coupon if you don’t have the resources for what else is needed.

No one has volunteered to explain why a Residency Program at Auburn is the best way forward for USA Team Handball.   One reason touted, though, is the great financial benefit.  Here’s why that supposed financial benefit is in reality a negative.

The Premise:  Auburn University is reportedly providing very valuable “Value In Kind” (VIK) funding for the use of their facilities for practice as well as athletic training and some degree of medical support.  Anybody who has participated in a Residency Program knows exactly how important it is to have a legitimate practice facility and athletic trainers available to help athletes prepare for and recuperate from training.  These are big ticket items and they are critical to running a successful Residency Program.  The actual value of these items can be debated.  In USA Team Handball 2015 High Performance Plan Auburn’s support this VIK was listed at $400K and a recent recruiting notice on USA Team Handball’s webpage trumpeted a value of over $1,000,000.  (I’m thinking both numbers are a bit on the high side, but I’d have to price out gym rentals and medical options to be sure.)

And, USA Team Handball has not only obtained these services for “free” they have done so at a major college institution that’s part of the one of the most prestigious NCAA conferences.  Better yet, in October, 2015 Auburn was designated by the USOC as an official Olympic Training Site for Team Handball.  As one USA Team Handball Board Member put it, Auburn, “is a big value in kind and costs almost nothing for USATH.

This isn’t the first time that I’ve heard or read similar sentiments.  On the face of it, it seems like a proverbial no brainer, but let’s take a critical look at the “Value” associated with this Value in Kind (VIK) funding.  Or to put it another way:

How much is $1,000,000/yearly Value In Kind (VIK) funding really worth?

ANSWER:  $1,000,000?:  Perhaps you are thinking, “Is this a trick question? Duh, $1M is worth $1M.”  Well, this is really only true if the $1M is actual cash that can be spent anyway USATH wants to.  Or, alternatively, the $1M VIK provides something that USATH would unquestionably be paying $1M for anyway.

As I’ve elaborated on in numerous commentaries, though, it’s highly questionable to simply declare that a Residency Program at Auburn is an automatic no brainer. Something that the USA should spend or would be spending on anyway, so that the $1M VIK is indeed worth exactly $1M.  For sure, if $1M in cash magically appeared at the Federation doorstep I’d like to think that money would not be blindly poured into the residency program.

An appropriate analogy here is that big fat section of coupons that come with the Sunday newspaper.  All full of discounts and bargains for things you don’t really need.  I suppose every once in a while there is a coupon for something you regularly buy, but it is the exception not the rule.  For sure, everyone prefers cold, hard cash to a coupon.

ANSWER:  $0.00:  Well, all right you’re thinking.  Maybe it’s not worth $1M, but a Residency Program is still a great thing and what’s being provided doesn’t cost anything.  Oh, if only that were true.

Now, another analogy is appropriate.  Ever read about somebody being “gifted” something they can’t afford?  A fancy car or house that they can’t maintain or pay the taxes on?  What happens?  They end up selling the house or in some cases even refusing the gift outright.  Either that or they spend every penny of their limited income trying to maintain a big house they can’t afford.

USA Team Handball is currently in a similar boat.  A place to practice and medical support are nice, but if you’re going to run a Residency Program properly you will also need funding for recruiting, coaching, athlete housing, athlete board, overseas trips, stipends and scholarships.  As the board minutes highlight some additional funding has been raised for coaching, but all of these other needs are still left wanting.  The Residency Programs unfortunately are way too austere and it will take a lot more funding before the “austere” description can be justifiably removed.

ANSWER:  Negative $150,000/yr:  OK. So perhaps now you’re reluctantly thinking, well Ryan has a point, but even if there is a cost, it’s small or “almost nothing.“  Oh, again, if only that were true.  Up until last year, $120,000/year was being paid out of the Federation budget for coaching.  This might seem like peanuts, but for a Federation with a budget of only around $500K/yearly that’s about 25% of the budget.  Throw in National Team travel costs and “almost nothing” keeps getting a bit higher and higher.

Apparently, I’m not the only one to recognize this and if you read past Board Meeting Minutes you’ll see a few comments regarding Auburn’s need to fund itself.   Further, the Oct 2015 Minutes even highlight an “Auburn Account” and a “Colorado Springs Account” as if they were or could/should be separate entities.  Perhaps some aspects can be walled off from each other, but they can’t help but bleed into each other.  Funding for travel has come from the National office in the past and will likely come from there again.  Surely, there are other items as well that at least in part can be attributable to Auburn.

Certainly management man-hours have to be directed towards Auburn. The CEO for USATH, by the title’s definition is responsible for all aspects of USATH Handball operations.  And, one can rightly assess that a CEO is going to do everything in ther power to ensure that the most visible part of USATH operations runs smoothly.  There’s a cost associated with ever hour that is spent assessing the program, checking in with coaches, fundraising, etc.  And, this also applies to volunteer hours from Board Members and others.  It’s hard to put a cash value on what all these costs have totaled up to, but don’t kid yourself that it’s “almost nothing.”  You would have to review the financial books closely, break down each line item and the man-hours being spent, but I’ll peg the book costs plus the overall hidden costs the past few years to be at least $150,000/year.  That would total up to around $450,000 for the past 3 years.  And, it could very well be more.  It all depends on you would do the accounting.

ANSWER:  Negative $300,000/yr:  And, unfortunately we haven’t even factored in opportunity costs yet.  In my opinion this is the biggest cost of all.  Every dollar and man-hour expended towards trying to make the Residency Programs at Auburn work is a dollar and man-hour that could have been spent on something else.  Funding to expand an already existing and successful youth program in suburban Chicago.  Funding to send the handful of legitimate prospects that USATH might actually have to Aarhus, Denmark where they could get training, weekly competition and exposure to potentially sign a professional contract.  Funding to beef up the Northeast Team Handball League and to better support leagues in other parts of the country. Man-hours that could be spent physically sitting down with beIN Sports to work out a sponsorship deal for their EHF Champions League TV broadcasts.  Man-hours that could have been spent developing and implementing a promotion plan to maximize the buzz associated with the 2016 Olympics.  These are just a few possibilities.  Yes, take the “almost nothing” whatever it is and you could maybe double the cost to account for the potential lost opportunities that haven’t been pursued.

ANSWER:  Negative (Even More $$?):  But, it doesn’t stop there.  Right now, USA Team Handball’s income from various sources is only around $500K/year.  That’s paltry and relatively insignificant in the big scheme of things.   But, what if Olympics buzz and sponsorships start to roll in.  What if the budget was a more respectable $1M or $2M year? Even more? Where would that additional money go?  Well, as I highlighted in this commentary if you have an austere Residency Program there is a huge moral obligation to the athletes to make that program less austere.  The Federation might want to spend elsewhere, but it will be tough to justify doing so.  And, while some might look at such a would be windfall as finally getting the resources to do a residency program right, I would simply look at it as turning a minor loss into a major loss.

Lessons from the Past

Now let’s sit back and reflect for a moment on the Residency Programs of the 80s and 90s.  How many millions of dollars were spent over several years narrowly focused on training around (I’ll be generous here) 200 total athletes (Men’s and Women’s National Team’s combined)?  Depends on how many years you want to figure, and what % of the overall federation budget was being devoted on a year by year basis but I’ll estimate the total cost as somewhere around $5M to $10M over a 20 year period.  Factor inflation in and that dollar value balloons up even more.

What was the Return on Investment?:  Kind of hard to quantify, but let’s acknowledge that in terms of sustainable grass roots development for the sport “Return” was pretty low.  Really, it’s practically nothing.  Whatever buzz respectable/competitive performances provided didn’t last very long and didn’t have much of a trickle down effect.  In terms of the 200 or so athletes perhaps 30 of them have gone on to spread the handball gospel in a variety of ways, but for the most part they punched their ticket and moved on.  Kind of to be expected, though, because the objective of the Residency Programs wasn’t sustainable grass roots, it was to develop and prepare National Teams for competition.

Now, obviously the Federation had to field National Teams, particularly when our nation was hosting an Olympics in 1984 and 1996.  But, what if those Residency Programs had been scaled back and a greater portion of the overall budget had been spent on Grass Roots?  Let’s say only half of the scores of overseas trips were taken or that less experienced, less expensive coaches were hired.  And, then all of that time and money had been instead focused on some effective and sustainable grass roots programs.

Maybe…

  • We would have 40 solid collegiate programs today instead of 3 or 4.
  • Maybe there would be a solid foothold in one geographical location of this nation where youth programs have been thriving for 20 years.
  • Maybe we’d already have a real club championship worthy of TV Broadcast.
  • Maybe we’d be developing 2 to 3 USA based athletes/yearly worthy of a significant pro contract instead of 1 (Gary Hines) in the past 20 years.
  • Maybe International investors would have already seen enough growth to provide more financial assistance.
  • Maybe ESPN would be broadcasting Champions League matches and showing Sports Center highlights that would be feeding grass roots interest.

For sure these are all “maybes.”  No one can say whether any of these possibilities would have ever come to fruition.

What I can unequivocally state, though, is we’ve got almost nothing to show for all the resources that were spent in the past on National Team Residency Programs.   For sure, we need to provide some level of support to our National Teams, but the decision of how much to spend has to factor in the opportunity costs of neglecting grass roots.  It would be nice to have Residency Programs that indeed cost almost nothing, but don’t kid yourself for a second, the real costs are significant.  And, if history is our guide the lost opportunity costs will be staggering.