NBC Does Handball TV Right
At times, I’ve been accused of being a cynical complainer always looking to find something wrong and to rain on people’s parade. So, let me be unequivocal in stating that NBC did a phenomenal job broadcasting the sport of Team Handball at the Olympics. Every single match was broadcast via live stream and was then made available for viewing on demand shortly after each match was over. Every single match! With a HD picture! And, I could watch it on a Roku instead of lugging my laptop around with an HDMI cable. I’ve never had a better TV viewing experience for a major Handball tournament. Heck, I’m pretty sure no one in the world has ever had a better setup. Whoaa, hold on a second: Are you saying that we poor handball deprived Americans just had the best viewing experience, ever? Like better than what the Europeans get?
Yup, that’s what I’m saying.
And, that’s freaking almost impossible to believe. Twenty years ago we got 2 minutes of TV highlights. Now we get every second of every match whenever we want to watch it. In High Def. Holy crap! What could I possibly complain about?
I’ll whine about a few things.
- The Olympic Broadcast Service (OBS) live feed that NBC streams had only one knowledgeable handball commentator: Paul Bray. The rest… Like I said OBS has one knowledgeable handball commentator.
- The live stream dropped at times. Of course, there’s no way of knowing whose fault that is. My provider; my Roku, NBC, OBS, a glitch in the satellite, etc
- It takes a while for the stream to load up. More likely a fault on NBC’s end.
- There’s not much fidelity with my Roku remote when I rewind or fast forward. (OK. That’s not NBC’s fault, but it’s still annoying when you’re trying to replay a critical sequence)
- Soccer and Basketball get their own TV channel on Dish/Direct TV and other platforms. Handball should have one too. (OK, I’m really reaching here, but heck maybe we will get one someday)
What about the Actual NBC TV Broadcast?
Oh, yeah, I almost forgot about that. In fact, I did forget about it for much of the Olympics. Not because it wasn’t a quality produced broadcast. The team of Chris Carrino and 96 Olympian Dawn Allinger Lewis did a solid job mixing standard commentary with the educational commentary that is necessary for most Americans. Better than most of the OBS commentary for sure. But, while I generally prefer regular TV over streaming I just got use to my NBC Roku feed. Always there, usually reliable, no commercials interrupting the action, and no other sports to contend with. Why bother with regular TV?
Why Bother with Regular TV?
Wow. Think about that statement and the implications that go with it. I know millennials are “cutting the cord” for their TV viewing, but, it’s not something that old timers like me are considering much. For me, there are a couple of reasons. First, I figured it would be a hassle dealing with an unreliable interface. Rokus, Apple TV, Amazon Fire are OK , but it’s not as convenient as my Dish network TV interface. Do I really want to figure out for every show I’m interested in whether it’s on Hulu, Netflix or Amazon. And, then there’s the sporting events which are mostly on the major networks and not always readily available for streaming although that’s changing.
And, my recent viewing habits during the Olympics are an indication of how it’s changing. For 16 days I watched a lot of handball and I didn’t use old fashioned TV very much. Certainly, didn’t need beIN Sports and honestly I didn’t really need NBC (in a traditional sense) all that much. The times they are a changing…
Handball TV: Why Just During the Olympics?
So, now I’m wondering why does this awesome handball viewing experience only get to occur for 16 days every 4 years? Why can’t it be a year round experience? Wouldn’t it be awesome if there was a Handball Channel very much like the Olympic channels NBC provided? But, instead of choosing between Judo, Rowing, Handball and other sports it was set up like the picture accompanying this article with multiple handball viewing options.
- Click on the little HBL logo. Who is Rhein-Neckar playing in their first match as they look to defend their title in the German Bundesliga.
- Click on the little LNH logo. When does Paris Saint Germain play Montpellier? (Shouldn’t PSG go undefeated if they’ve got most of the best players from Gold and Silver Medalists?)
- Click on the little EHF CL logo. Every Champions League match is available (I know I can already sort of do that with efhTV, but I want it on my Roku.)
- Click on the 2017 IHF WC Logo. The World Championships are in January.
- Click on the PATHF logo. That’s neat, they’ve got the matches from this past June’s Pan American Championships. (I never saw Greenland’s upset win over Argentina. That should be interesting)
- Click on the USATH logo. What do you know; they’ve got last year’s collegiate championship match available.
I think you get the picture. Such a channel would be awesome and one that I would gladly pull my credit card out for. I’m a huge fan, though. How many fans world-wide would be willing to pay for such a channel? How much could they be charged?
How Long Will the Old TV Rights Model Last?
And, so now we come to the dilemma that every sports entity is going to eventually face. Right now TV rights fees are a major revenue source, if not the biggest revenue source for most sports entities. These entities see the potential of web streaming, but fear that fully supporting this new revenue stream may kill their cash cow. These fears stem around the pirating of video transmissions and the uncertainty as to whether viewers will be willing to pay prices to fully support this model. And, when they do allow streaming, does it then cheapen the value of TV rights deals?
These fears, for sure, are legitimate where significant TV rights deals are to be had. For U.S. sports it’s not clear how everything will shake out. The NFL for instance is signing huge TV rights packages because traditional networks see the NFL as the one thing that viewers will watch live, commercials and all. But, one can also see how the NFL could set up a Direct Ticket like package on Rokus and other devices that could be sold directly to consumers, cutting out the middle man entirely.
With handball, the situation is similar, but on a smaller scale. And, with only a handful of nations having big TV rights contracts the practicality of a digital Over The Top (OTT) channel would seem to increase. Why not go direct to the handball consumer if there is no big contract waiting? Further, with handball struggling to get on a good TV network in markets like the U.S. a quality digital handball channel would immediately sidestep that problem.
Indeed some niche sports like pro wrestling and mixed martial arts are already doing this. Although, if the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is being sold for $4 billion it’s hard to call it niche. And, success like that makes me think that a high quality digital channel that consolidated handball telecasts and provided that product worldwide just might be a valuable property. One that could take handball to another level.
Joe Healy resides in Houston, Texas. By day, he is an instructional designer. By night, he is a freelance sportswriter. Below is his account of discovering the sport of handball and his growth as a fan.
The Olympics have a funny way of creating seminal memories in our lifetimes.
People of a certain age might remember where they were when a young Romanian gymnast named Nadia Comaneci scored a perfect ten in the 1976 games in Montreal, the first time that score had ever been awarded in Olympic history. Others may vividly remember the exploits of Carl Lewis in 1984 in Los Angeles. For basketball fans the world over, watching the Dream Team in 1992 dominate their competition and introduce NBA basketball to the rest of the globe likely stands out.
For a different generation, Michael Phelps’ incredible Olympics in 2008 or Usain Bolt’s electrifying sprints will be the Olympic memories that last a lifetime.
For me, I remember where I was standing in my living room as an eight-year-old during the 1996 Olympics when Michael Johnson, gold shoes and all, broke the world record in the 200-meters to win gold. For better or worse, I also remember my beloved Team USA basketball looking absolutely lost and overmatched for the first time on the world stage at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, leading to a bronze medal, which was downright unfathomable given their dominance in previous Olympics.
My most recent such memory, though, was in 2012, and it’s a little bit more unconventional. It’s not a memory of a particularly outstanding performance, or one of a great upset that caught the world by surprise, or even one that determined medalists in the given event.
No, this memory is of the first time I saw handball.
It was one evening during the London Olympics. The prime time coverage here in the US had ended for the night and I was dozing off on the couch before heading to bed. I fired up the nascent NBC Live Extra app (as it was known then) and specifically looked for replays of sports from that day that the networks here in the US don’t generally cover.
And there it was. Team handball.
I’ll be honest. I don’t remember which two countries were playing. I know for fact that it was a preliminary game, and I know that it was early enough in the Olympics that that single game didn’t mean a whole lot on its own. None of that mattered, though, because I was transfixed from the very start.
I loved the speed of the game. I loved the quick pace at which it was played, with very few play stoppages. Most of all, I loved that it combined skills from some of my favorite sports, such as baseball and basketball.
I felt like I had discovered hidden treasure. Why had I never heard of this wonderful game? Is this a dream sport that I had concocted in some kind of Olympics fever dream that I’m destined to eventually wake up from?
I distinctly recall going to work the next day, telling co-workers about handball, and getting nothing more than puzzled looks in return. Unsatisfied with the the lack of awareness of those in my immediate bubble, if you will, I turned to the internet, and was heartened to find that the American sports internet, particularly those mainstream media members covering the games in person, were buzzing about handball much in the same way I was.
Not only that, but they had many of the same questions I had. Where has this sport been all of our lives? Why doesn’t America compete in the sport at the highest level? Where can I get more of this? I read just about everything I could get my hands on about the sport, including all of those pieces suggesting changes to the game to make it better and what Americans can do to become instant players on the world stage.
I followed the sport for the rest of those Olympics, watching the odd game here and there until the closing ceremonies of the London games came and went, and then something happened that I’m ashamed to admit. I kind of moved on and didn’t give handball much thought for a while. I didn’t pursue information on any of the top domestic handball leagues in Europe, I didn’t look into the next big international competition, and I didn’t spend any time getting a better understanding of the rules of the game or learning about the best players in the game.
Perhaps I was just an “every four years” handball fan.
At least, on that part, I would have been far from alone. With few exceptions, all of the interest in the sport from American media outlets dried up soon after the events ended, and any momentum that might have been gained for the US to get involved in playing the game seemed to dissipate almost overnight.
Fast forward four years to these Rio Olympics, and I’m here to tell you a switch has been flipped for me personally. Sure, I could go back to not paying the sport any mind in the coming weeks, but that feels unlikely.
Four years ago, I just dipped my toe in the water that is the world of team handball, but this time around, I’ve gone in headfirst. I’ve found myself watching multiple handball matches each and every day of the games, and I’ve paid much more attention to trying to pick up subtle nuances and rhythms of the game.
On top of that, I’ve spent a lot time (often while watching the matches, mind you) researching the recent history of the game and of the best domestic leagues in the world. I was also heartened to learn that the next world championship is just around the corner, in January of 2017, giving me another chance, quickly, to take in high-level international competition.
Perhaps the best evidence that I’ve become one of you, a certified fan of the sport, however, is that, first and foremost, I feel compelled to spread the word about this game and help others to discover it.
Beyond that, I’ve also found myself with stronger opinions on the sport, and I’ve started to really learn what I like and don’t like in my coverage of handball. This time around, I’ve largely taken a pass on (or rolled my eyes after reading) the articles that provide short-sighted suggestions on how to improve the sport or make it more accessible for an American audience, and I’ve done much the same with the pieces that have posited the theory that all it would take is a few ex-college basketball players to decide they want to pursue handball rather than chase down NBA dreams.
Ask those who pushed to make soccer a big deal in America, both with the NASL in the 70s and 80s and then again with MLS in recent years about how difficult it is to get a sport that few know of to become a phenomenon in the saturated sports market that is the US. That sport still has a long way to go in this country to be sure, but it’s come a long way.
Those wanting to see a similar spread of handball in the US would do well to take a couple of lessons from those brave souls looking to bring a largely foreign sport to these shores. Soccer is seeing its biggest period of growth now that organizers are simply selling soccer rather than an Americanized version of the game.
You’ve also got to grow it from the ground up. Just like putting games from a brand-new soccer league in football stadiums right from the start might have been a bit foolhardy, expecting handball to sweep the nation in its first pass would be similarly so.
It’s going to take some time, and it’s going to take great effort, but handball can get there as well.
And I’m here to help.
Yesterday, I took a look at the chances that the USA Women’s team could qualify for the 2020 Olympics. Today, I assess the USA Men’s chances.
The Competition: Brazil and Argentina: Two sides now of European quality
This past Olympics was a little unique in that due to Brazil’s hosting, 2 slots available for Pan American sides. Instead of an epic battle between Brazil and Argentina for one coveted slot, both teams were assured passage to Rio once they won their semifinal game. And, I really mean it when I say epic because these two rivals have battled each other for the coveted Olympic Games bid since 2003. Brazil won in 2003 and 2007, Argentina won in 2011, while Brazil won the relatively meaningless match in 2015.
And that’s just for the PANAM Games, Brazil and Argentina have also played each other in the final of the Pan American Championships held every two years, except for this year’s final which saw Chile sneak into the final by virtue of Argentina’s pool play upset loss to Greenland. For the record, Argentina won in 2002, 2004, 2010, 2012 and 2014, while Brazil took the title in 2006, 2008 and 2016.
And, by virtue of those Pan American final showdowns, the Brazilians and Argentinians are regular fixtures at the World Championships where they’ve shown steady improvements in performance, to the point where I argued after the 2015 World Championship that they are now essentially European quality sides: Link
Their performance at the Olympics does nothing, but further validate that assessment. Argentina was even missing their best player, Diego Simonet, (heck maybe the best player to ever come out of Pan America) was still able to keep games close, losing a heartbreaker to Croatia in the closing seconds.
The implications of Brazil and Argentina reaching this level of play are huge, because even the USA teams of the 80s never quite reached that level. Yes, the men played some competitive games at the 1984 Olympics, but that performance on home soil against a boycott weakened field doesn’t match the resume of what these two teams have accomplished the past few years.
Professionals beat Amateurs almost every time
Further, and this can’t be underemphasized, the Brazilian and Argentina sides starting lineups now consist almost entirely of full time professional athletes. It’s a mixture in terms of what level they are playing at, but many are playing for some top level clubs. Meanwhile, the US has just a handful of players, mostly dual citizens, who are playing in Europe at lower levels.
At the 2016 Pan American Championships in June the U.S. fielded a side with just one professional, Gary Hines, who plays in the German 3rd Division. The rest of the roster was composed of athletes training with the residency program at Auburn and veteran athletes living in the U.S., but not training on a regular basis. The men’s performance was typical of recent years, finishing 8th out of the 12 teams participating. They beat weak, really inexperienced sides like Paraguay and Colombia, and lost relatively close games to comparable sides like Mexico and Puerto Rico. Against eventual champion Brazil they lost 40-15. I did not see this game, but this is without a doubt a real drubbing that probably could have been worse if Brazil was so inclined. Team USA’s best match of the tournament was probably a 37-30 loss to Greenland. And, while that may get a few snickers to the uniformed, Greenland actually has a few players playing for top clubs in Denmark. They even beat Argentina 25-23 in Group Play. The fact that the U.S. played Greenland close at least provides a glimmer of hope for better results in the future.
But, only a glimmer of hope because the reality is that Greenland is not Brazil or Argentina. And, to qualify for the 2020 Olympics Team USA won’t just need one big upset, but two big upsets. This is because Brazil and Argentina are both very likely to win their respective groups at the 2019 PANAM Games. And, if the USA can qualify for the semis (a big if) they will need to first knock off one of those 2 sides in the semis and then turn around the next day and knock off the other in the final. Of course, upsets are always possible and that could change the matchups, but this is the likely scenario. And, while it’s possible to imagine amateurs beating pros in one big upset it’s really defying the odds to envision two such back to back upsets.
Yeah, but we’re Americans
So, to review the task at hand is putting together a team in 3 years time that can win the Gold Medal at the 2019 PANAM Games in Lima, Peru. And, this team will likely need to beat both Brazil and Argentina, two sides that the U.S. hasn’t beaten in 20 years. (And, I think those losses have all been double digit blowouts.)
I know what people are saying, particularly relative newcomers to the sport, “We’ve got the best athletes in the world. The game’s not that hard. We put our mind to it, we can do it.” You know, I actually see the logic somewhat. Honestly, you look at Argentina’s team and they certainly don’t look physically imposing. But, looks are deceiving and results are results. We’ve got 20 years of negative data that says otherwise.
Maybe, there will be a tremendous recruiting surge courtesy of the Olympics and we’ll get around 20 high quality athletes that are willing to move to Auburn immediately and train full time in austere conditions. Maybe, some billionaire will show up and change that austerity overnight into a full up residency program. Anything can happen. In all, likelihood though, we’ll get some decent athletes, but not quite as physically gifted as we need them to be, plus a little bit older than what we need. And, maybe we’ll get some more sponsorship, but it will still fall short of what we need to run a residency program right.
And honestly even if we somehow recruited the athletes and received the necessary funding I still don’t think we can get there from here in just 3 years time. Yes, as I highlighted with my earlier commentary regarding the Women’s team’s chances it’s time to focus on 2024 with some age appropriate recruiting and grass roots programs that might give us a decent chance of qualifying in 2023. And, who knows, maybe if LA gets to host in 2024 we could even put together a team capable of some upsets on home soil.
Go on twitter during an Olympic broadcast and you’ll find plenty of tweets from viewers wanting to know how they can make the USA team and play in 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. The USA coaches are also surely fielding a number of inquiries regarding tryouts: Link
Hopefully, among those queries are some high quality athletes that aren’t too old so that they will have some time to develop into quality handball players. Thing is, though, these would be National Team members should realize what they are up against. That’s because qualifying for Tokyo is a real long shot.
Can Team USA close the huge gap with Brazil?
The Pan American region gets 1 slot for the Olympics (For 2016, since Brazil was host the Pan American regions got 2 slots) and this is awarded to the winner of the PANAM Games handball competition, something the Men haven’t done since 1987 and the women haven’t done since 1995.
For the women it will mean beating Brazil, which had an up and down tournament at this Olympics. In group play they beat the bronze medalists, Norway, and finished first. But, in the quarterfinals they suffered a surprising and disappointing loss to the Netherlands which finished 4th.
Brazil will have a number of players retiring in the near future, but they have many up and coming players. In fact, an experimental B side, largely composed of new talent beat Team USA 28-14, the last time the 2 nations met in formal competition at the 2015 Pan American Championships. It can’t be definitively assessed how the USA would have fared against the top Brazil team, but scorelines from 2013 (44-10) and 2011 (50-10) might not be a bad indication. Further, according to online competition records, it appears the USA women have not beaten Brazil (or Argentina for that matter) since the 1995 PANAM Games.
What has happened since 1995? Well, all appearances are that Brazil has developed a fairly decent grass roots program that is identifying and developing talent well before most Americans even touch a handball. This New York Times article was written to highlight the shortcomings in Women’s Athletics, but for me, it instead highlights a pretty decent development program. For sure the U.S. would love to have even a handful of committed female athletes riding the bus an hour and half to play handball instead of some other sport. Handball even well enough, according to the article, to beat a boy’s team!
New York Times: In the Shadow of the Olympic Park, Women’s Sports Lag Behind: Link
So, Team USA would have to make up a considerable amount of ground between now and August 2019, when the PANAM Games will be held in Lima, Peru. And, remember, the USA women didn’t even qualify for the 2015 PANAM Games, losing to Uruguay in a 2 game series prior to the games. Next time around the qualification path should be a bit easier with Canada being the primary opponent.
Can we find the phenomenal talent needed? Can we train that talent in 3 years time?
Can it be done? Well, anything is possible, but 3 years is not much time to work with. It would be one thing if the USA had some young up and coming talent already training at Auburn, but for the most part the players are in their mid to late 20s (some even 30s). A roster overhaul is really needed. Heck, it was really needed 3 years ago when I wrote this commentary: Link
And, the prescription is roughly the same today. The USA would have to do some phenomenal recruiting and hope they can improve quickly enough to field a team that can qualify for the December 2017 World Championships. This means just 10 months to assemble a team that can snag the 3rd place slot at the Pan American Championships in Canada. A challenge, for sure, but conceivable as the quality of teams drops off fairly sharp after Brazil and Argentina. Then playing in a World Championships which is a huge opportunity for team growth and experience. Maybe a few players could be seen and signed to play professionally in Europe. 2018 and 2019 would then see a progression in growth whereby the US would catch up to Brazil to the point where beating them in a one off gold medal in August 2019 might be at least conceivable.
But, recruiting that top talent isn’t easy. Maybe in all the emails sent to USA Team Handball there are some real gems willing to put in the time and hard work necessary, but I suspect that the raw talent is a notch or two below what is needed. Why? Well as I’ve highlighted previously Div 1 athletes have more options than they did in the 70s and 80s.
Feb 2012: Air Force Basketball (Lessons for USA Team Handball): Lesson #2) Blue Chip Athletes from other Div 1 Sports are harder to come by nowadays: Link
As a more recent example look no further, then 29 year old, Danielle Page, bronze medalist for the Serbian basketball team. Serbia? Huh? Well, Page grew up in Colorado and played collegiately for Nebraska, before embarking on a pro career in Europe that eventually led to a Serbian passport. She is exactly the type of athlete that would have been a natural for the US Women’s National team after a middling NCAA career. Unfortunately, as her success story illustrates, those players have some pretty good alternatives that will preclude such a choice.
Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph (July 2015):Lewis-Palmer grad Page realizes Olympic dream with Serbian basketball team: link
Time to focus on 2024
Again, can it be done? Yes, but it’s so very, very unlikely. Even if we get the talent needed there’s just not enough time to catch Brazil. In my opinion, the U.S. should go ahead and try to qualify for 2020, but with both eyes squarely focused on the 2024 Olympics, which might even mean automatic qualification if LA hosts. And, if you are focused on the long term that means every single athlete being considered even for competitions in 2016 should be assessed as to how they might fit into a potential 2024 roster. Translation: Add 8 years to their current age and assess what the likelihood is that “life issues” will impact them between now and then.
And, seriously look at some alternative ways to spend resources on grass roots to create some talent similar to the Brazilian method. One solution: How about a high school girls handball league in the greater Los Angeles area, maybe even partially funded by LA 2024 sponsor? Link
The question, though, is whether USA Team Handball will take such a position or whether the US will continue to focus on near term goals that are likely unachievable.
Bill Simmons of HBO’s “Any Given Wednesday” gave a shout out on his most recent show to USA Team Handball in his “I believe” segment saying:
“I believe we need to find a billionaire to save USA handball. Some wacko who will bribe eight NBA players and bring us handball gold. Is it you?”
The video contains a stock handball photo a cartoon scene in shadow of someone tall getting a briefcase of money and as Simmons asks, “Is it you,” a picture of the Donald.
Simmons has been a fan of handball since the 2012 Olympic games in London when he wrote this commentary after a day at the handball arena: Link
The billionaire bailout is not a new conceptual idea to save USA Team Handball: This commentary from 2012 touches highlights this possibilty and Dieter Esch, the millionaire, who essentially took over USA Team Handball in 2008, but got frustrated and left in 2011.
Why Weren’t the U.S. National Teams at the London Olympics?: Part 4: A lack of funding: Where are the sponsors and donors? (September 2012): Link
USA Team Handball’s Esch – Pastorino era comes to a quiet end (Nov 2011): Link
In part 1, I just assumed that LeBron decided that becoming the best handball player in the world was his new mission in life. In this part, I address the impossibility of that ever happening for LeBron and the unlikelihood it will happen for the would be LeBron Lites out there.
Identifying and Recruiting the Cross-Over Athlete
Unsaid, but obvious in the hypothetical question of LeBron James becoming the best handball player ever is that convincing James to take on such a task is pretty much impossible for a number of reasons.
- Money. Fresh off an NBA title James resigned with the Cleveland Cavaliers for a 3 year, $100 million contract. The entire USA Team Handball annual budget is currently around $500,000. Athletes training with the U.S. currently even have had to pay some of their own travel expenses. That wouldn’t be a problem for James, but why would he walk away from $100M?
- Desire. James has been playing basketball all his life and it’s still his primary focus. He surely wants to win some more NBA titles and he hasn’t even ruled out a return to Team USA for the 2020 Olympics. Why would he give that up?
- Life Issues. The rigors of an NBA career are hard enough, but transitioning to handball would be pretty disruptive. Right now that could mean a move to Auburn, AL to train with the U.S. National Team or a move to Europe. Pretty disruptive on family life. It would also probably get in the way of other career goals like his reported desire to own an NBA franchise.
It’s pretty hard to envision a scenario by which LeBron could be convinced to take up handball. But, if the U.S. can’t get LeBron, what about LeBron Lite?
Well, the answer to that question depends on how “lite” you want to get. For those thinking that other NBA athletes or other professional athletes might be available, think again. Money, desire and life issues will preclude just about any professional athlete from making such a leap. And, we’re not just talking about U.S. based professionals, but Americans playing in Europe as well. Just about any player with D1 basketball talent can play professionally in Europe at some level. They aren’t making NBA money, but they are making a living. Plus, as any professional athlete knows their sporting career can only last so long. Many will be looking to cash in on their skills before they have to go get a “real job.”
What about other sports? American football is a good candidate, but players have options like the Arena and Canadian Leagues. Baseball players have multiple minor league opportunities and will hold on to the dream of making the major leagues as long as possible. There are other sports, of course: Lacrosse, volleyball, etc. But, with those sports there’s a smaller athlete pool and accordingly you’re going to draw athletes that clearly won’t overwhelm those Euros athletically. And the same can be said for the talent that will come out of the lower collegiate divisions in hoops and football. You’ll find pretty good athletes, but a notch below are best pros. That’s why they’re not pros.
What about the pro that had a decent career, made a little money and now wants to chase an Olympic dream? All good in theory, but you’ll need to factor in desire and life issues. If you’ve played on a big stage toiling away learning a new sport in obscurity might not be so appealing. And if you’re a 20-something year old adult, life issues such as getting married, having kids and contemplating what you’re going to do work-wise the rest of your life will become more and more important as you start getting closer to being a 30-something.
Bottom line: The LeBron lites will be decent athletes, but not NBA level. Hopefully, not too much below, but recent recruiting suggests otherwise. Yeah, if we’re lucky we might get athletes comparable to the athleticism of the Croatian handball squad. So much for overwhelming the opposition with superior athleticism.
For more on recruiting challenges in the US, read the “Moneyball Handball” commentaries at this page: Link
How exactly are you going to train the cross over athlete?
Another element left unsaid in the whole concept is just how exactly LeBron would become the best player in 6 months. The original quote is from the U.S. Men’s National Team Coach, Javier Garcia Cuesta, so one could imply that Coach Garcia Cuesta would take on the task. Currently, he is running the U.S. Men’s residency team program at Auburn, AL so one could further imply that LeBron would head to Alabama for 6 months of intense handball training. The team practices 5 days a week on the court and has additional strength and conditioning training. The number of athletes currently training isn’t clear, but for the last couple of years it seems to have fluctuated between 7 to 20 athletes. Most of these athletes are relatively new to handball and this past summer some didn’t even make the U.S. team that competed at the Pan American Championships. Further, in the competition the key backcourt positions were primarily filled by non-residency athletes.
So, if LeBron was to head down to Auburn, there would really be no one for him to observe and play against to learn how to play at the highest level. Now a lot can still be learned from a knowledgeable coach in a vacuum so to speak. Just learning 3 steps and how to properly shoot a jump shot for instance. But, becoming a world class player in essentially a vacuum? Sorry, it’s just not going to happen.
No, the only way it would even begin to happen is if LeBron was added to a roster at one of the world’s top professional clubs, like Paris-SG. In theory, he would be treated like an NBA “project player.” He would have individual sessions with a top coach and also be allowed to practice with the team as he got up to speed. With Hansen, Karabatic and Narcisse around he surely would pick up a lot and as I mentioned in part 1, I think he would become a pretty decent defender fairly quickly. Learning how to play backcourt, though, that surely would take a while even in the perfect circumstances I describe. This is pretty far fetched, but I bet if LeBron really wanted to pursue handball a top club would actually accommodate him. The publicity for sure would be awesome.
But, again, it’s not going to happen so we need to talk about how the U.S. would train some LeBron Lites. Right now, USA Team Handball seems to be locked into using the Residency Team model at Auburn University. For the uninitiated the Residency Model seeks to find the best possible athletes, put them in a central location and then train them up with handball skills. Further, the goal is to keep the national team together in preparation for national team competition.
For those new to handball or this website I’ve already spent quite a bit of time railing against the Residency Model. (Read the series of commentaries about the Residency Model and the Auburn Decision towards the bottom of the page: Link) A model that I participated in and one that really helped me become a decent player. Here’s the cliff notes version as to the major problems:
- It was only modestly successful under far better conditions. S. teams achieved a measure of respectability, but still couldn’t beat the top teams in WC or Olympic competitions
- European handball has become more professionalized. The Euros always had a technical skill advantage, but superior American athleticism could make up for that somewhat. This is simply not true anymore. Professional athletes will top amateurs almost every time.
- Pan American competitors have improved substantially. A team of athletic Americans with limited technical skills could at one time win the Pan American ticket without too much trouble. Now Argentina and Brazil are pretty athletic, plus have good technical skills.
- Lack of resources. The USOC used to provide substantial support to residency programs. Not true anymore. The current programs are so austere that athletes are essentially provided nothing. They are even asked to pay for travel to competition. Link
- Lack of competition: Training in the USA means that the USA athletes would lack meaningful competition. You can’t get better unless you play top competition on a regular basis. This would mean more costs to travel to Europe, but even then the professional club season limits the windows for meaningful competition.
- The location (Auburn) is far from ideal. A college town in a rural Alabama really limits the opportunity to create a regional hub for the sport.
- Athletes have more options. European opportunities have resulted in fewer athletes seeking an outlet like team handball.
Bottom Line: We don’t have the money to do it right, we don’t have the athletes to get us there and even if we did have the money and athletes about the best we can really hope for is a team that doesn’t embarrass at a potential LA 2024 Olympics.
Worse, when you focus most of your time, energy and resources on a residency program it also detracts from everything else, particularly grass roots efforts. The opportunity costs are immense. I fear that we will again look back and wonder why we sought a quick short term fix. And, yet again wonder what might have been if different strategies for long term sustainable growth had been considered.
Three years into the program little has been accomplished. Neither the Men’s or Women’s team have come close qualifying for an Olympics or even a World Championship. Ironically, the U.S. actually did better in 2012 qualification when no residency program existed. The athletes are hard working, but none have yet showed world class promise or significant interest from a 2nd tier pro team.
Honestly, it’s a bit frustrating to see newbies to the sport tweet that a bunch of D1 hoops players could win gold after a year of training. Frustrating, but to be expected. But, it is totally exasperating to hear our coach spout such nonsense, even if it is just to be a bit provocative to promote the sport. To see Federation leadership march blindly down such a short sighted path. I just don’t get it.
I keep thinking that a preponderance of evidence plus some thoughtful consideration of possible alternatives will inevitably result in a change of plans, but it hasn’t happened to date. And really, I would be thrilled to eat my words; to watch Team USA march on the court in Tokyo and stampede through the tournament like a wrecking ball. I really would. But, I’m an analytical type guy and there’s just absolutely nothing to suggest such a miracle. At least I’ve yet to read anything which made me stop and think that perhaps I’ve got it all wrong. Again, the open invitation for someone to educate is out there for anyone willing to string a few words together: Link
John Ryan and Christer Ahl review the final results of Men’s Group Play and preview the upcoming quarterfinals. Also, a mea culpa or two about the women’s quarterfinals this morning.
Updated odds to win gold (from bet365.com)
Subscribe in iTunes: Link
In Adam Kilgore’s recent Washington Post article on handball, “U.S. athletes run fast, jump high, throw hard — why are we so bad at handball?“, USA Men’s Coach, Javier Garcia Cuesta, was asked how long he thought it would take for LeBron James to become the best player in the world. Garcia Cuesta replied
“Maybe six months. This is just a hypothetical. He has everything. When you see him playing, your mouth drops.”
I’m thinking/hoping that Garcia Cuesta was just being provocative, but this quote has unfortunately given top cover to every back of the napkin postulation that all the U.S. has to do to be good at handball is convert a few basketball stars and maybe a few other stars from other sports, give them a few months of training and we’ll win the gold medal.
Reverse Angle Perspective #1 (Karabatic to the NBA)
So, let’s take a look at this backwards. Could we take the world’s best handball player, give him 6 months of basketball training and make that player the best basketball player in the world?
For my money, the best handball player in the world is Nikola Karabatic. While I think he is a heck of an athlete I think 6 months of solid basketball training would only make him a lower tier NCAA player at best. There’s a lot of handball that translates well to basketball, but there’s specific skills such as dribbling and shooting that take thousands and thousands of hours of practice to master. And, really there’s no way to predict whether any one individual is going to excel at the finesse task of shooting.
In short, this is a totally ludicrous notion which hopefully gives you a bit of perspective as to why handball fans are annoyed with the reverse postulate. Because if you think about it, it means you believe the following:
- That the unique handball skills required to be a world class handball player are either relatively simple to learn or perhaps so similar to basketball that there’s not much to learn.
- That professional handball players are marginally gifted athletes, a couple of notches below the NBA in terms of athletic skill.
Let’s take a look at each of these beliefs in a bit more detail.
Reverse Angle Perspective #2 (LeBron, the life long handballer tasked with learning basketball
For additional perspective, let’s ask the question of whether a handball player could become the world’s best basketball player again. But, this time let’s imagine that LeBron didn’t grow up in Akron, but instead grew up in the banlieue on the outskirts of Paris and in this alternate universe he became the world’s best handball player, the old fashioned way: Years of practice and experience in game situations. (Tsk, tsk, poor Nikola, 2nd fiddle to the world’s greatest year after year…)
Anyway, could this alternate universe handballer LeBron, also become the world’s greatest hoops player? In 6 months? At the age of 31? Anybody want to make that case? Buehler? Buehler? I didn’t think so. Because it’s pretty darn ludicrous. For sure, we know he’s got the raw skills to be the greatest, but anybody who’s played even a little bit of basketball knows there’s simply no way that can be accomplished in 6 months. Why, it would take at least 2 years for him to be NBA ready and even then he would simply be a stalwart defender, a Dennis Rodman like force with limited offensive skills.
Handball: A simple game to learn, but a hard game to learn really well
So, what makes folks who’ve never played handball, have only watched it for a few days think that the reverse could be done. Well, they must think the game of handball is pretty simple. And, it is a simple game, but deceptively so. Having played thousands and thousands of hours of both sports I will tell you first hand that handball is an easier game to learn. Basketball with its dribbling and shooting components is significantly harder to learn and requires more finesse. That being said, it’s one thing to get halfway decent at handball, but another thing entirely to learn the skills necessary to become world class.
For sure, LeBron would almost immediately grasp the fast break aspects of the game. They are remarkably similar to basketball and I can envision him flying through the defensive area and burying shots past the goalie. He’s also got great court sense in the open floor and I think he would be pretty good at delivering passes on the break. He would also figure out how to play defense pretty quickly as it is similar to basketball except that you can grab players in front of you and it’s more physical. (Yes, newbies, when hoops players play their first handball game they are always taken aback the first time they get hit hard at 9 meters. And, they are sore the next day.)
Where LeBron would struggle, though, is the same place everyone new to the game struggles: playing in a set offense. The world’s best backcourts run, jump and shoot from 9 meters with accuracy all at the same time they are aware of their surroundings for that smart drop off pass to the wing or circle. They make it look easy, but it ain’t. The timing, footwork and decision making required to do so against quality defenders effectively and consistently takes years of practice and game time experience. Try as I might, I never could do so and that’s one of the reasons I played the far simpler position of circle runner. And, that’s just at a club level.
Of course, I’m no LeBron James, but trust me wouldn’t learn how to become an effective offensive threat overnight especially against a professional defense. Christ, the U.S. has only had a handful of backcourts that were respectable from 9 meters and that was only after years of training. They too weren’t LeBron James, but they were still solid athletes with D1 talent. Sure LeBron’s learning curve would be better, but not that much better.
To sum up I think LeBron could play handball professionally as a defender immediately, but he would struggle offensively. Teams could play him at circle runner, but even at that simpler position it would take him a year to get comfortable offensively. Finally, at age 31 I’ve got my doubts as to whether he could really learn how to play backcourt effectively at the highest level. As his handball skills improved his athletic skills would also steadily decline. And, as he learned the ins and outs offensive attacks with limited technical skill would be meant routinely by stiff defense. LeBron’s 30 something body would be real sore.
The NBA: The World’s Greatest Athletes, but not that much ridiculously greater
I suppose it depends on your criteria, but I would argue that the NBA has the world’s greatest athletes. Probably, being an American and loving the sport of basketball since childhood has something to do with that, but I think a pretty solid case can be made that this is true. Take the 100 best players in the NBA and the 100 best handball players in the world and handball would come out short in terms of raw athleticism.
Some then argue that this superior athleticism would carry the day. They look at the handball national teams playing at the Olympics and think, “Those Croatian guys look like the Weber State (or insert your favorite marginal D1 school) basketball team. LeBron would jump over them and run circles around them.
To which I say, are you conveniently forgetting some not too recent history? Remember the 2004 Olympics and the U.S. Bronze Medal in basketball? The U.S. squad lost to Puerto Rico, Lithuania and Argentina. How did our superior athleticism work out in those matches? In a sport where we are also really, really skilled? Suffice to say I would say that the athleticism of many of the national basketball teams in the Olympic tournament is very comparable to the athleticism of the national basketball teams.
Take for example, Team Australia which lost to Team USA 98-88. Is there any doubt that the USA is more athletic, but that the Australians weren’t in awe? Or that the Australian team might even be a little less athletic than some of the handball teams in Rio? For sure, I don’t think France would be intimidated by Matt Dellavedova at Center Back. Andrew Bogut would be too slow to do much of anything on a handball court.
So in a sport where we’ve always been the best, for sure athletically, and probably technically too, we may dominate, but not by a crazy amount. To think that a technically weak LeBron would run roughshod over handball opposition because he’s a man among boys has no grasp in reality. The athleticism gap is there, but it’s not that great.
Chill out dude: It’s just a fun bar stool “What if” question. It’s never going to happen anyway.
Well, I would chill out. I really would. Except for the fact that the logic flows like this: Well, we can’t get LeBron, but we can still get some pretty good athletes a notch or two below. And, it will take longer than 6 months, but it won’t take that much longer.
And, then my friend, you will have the history of the U.S. national teams for the last 44 years or so. Marginal respectability in the 70s and 80s when the Euros weren’t fully professionalized yet. No respectability as the sport has become professionalized and we’ve gotten further and further behind nations like Brazil which have developed grass roots programs. The USA is not going to win any medals with a “LeBron lite” strategy of taking pretty good athletes in their mid 20s and training them for several years. And my very real fear is that despite overwhelming evidence that this strategy hasn’t worked, it’s where USA Team Handball is headed yet again.
In part 2, I’ll highlight some practical problems with first convincing athletes like LeBron to switch to handball and then I’ll address the complications with getting them up to speed on the finer points of the game. In the meantime, if you’re interested you can read some of my earlier commentary on handball in the USA: Link
Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post has written a nice story/commentary on Team Handball
Aug 2012 (Washington Post): U.S. athletes run fast, jump high, throw hard — why are we so bad at handball?: Link
So, far it’s the main stream media story about handball that has gotten the most traction. For sure, it makes a number of assumptions and provides some back of the napkin analysis that drives the few handball fanatic in this country a little batty, but hey it’s great publicity for our sport.
It definitely has some great quotes including a mind-boggling one from U.S. Men’s coach, Javier Garcia Cuesta, assessing that LeBron James could become the best handball player in the world in just 6 months. I’m guessing (really hoping) that coach Garcia was just being provocative, because he surely knows better or he has completely forgotten how long it took him to turn some pretty decent athletes back in the 80s into just competitive player. And that was when handball was far less professional.
Kilgore’s article is not the first article to propose solutions. Back in 2008 Sean Gregory of Time Magazine provided some analysis in.
Aug 2008 (Time Magazine): Hey, America, What about Handball: Link
Annoyed, I provided a detailed critique:
Aug 2008 (Team Handball News): Thanks for promoting team handball, but save us your naïve solutions: Link
Prior to the 2012 Olympics I wrote this commentary as a plea to the articles that were sure to follow
July 2012: Memo to the Main Stream Media: Please do your research prior to posting your Team Handball stories: Link
It didn’t do a whole lot to stop the flood of articles. Bill Simmons of Grantland and now the host of HBO’s Any Given Wednesday had a great article, but again with naïve solutions.
Aug 2012 (Grantland) London Chronicles Part 2: Handball, Handball, Handball: Link
To date, the only mainstream writer to get his handball facts straight for the most part has been Stefan Fatsis.
May 2009 (NY Times): Handball has it all, but an American interest: Link
I would assess this simply from his willingness to maintain interest with the sport beyond a 4 year cicada like presence. You watch, you learn, you appreciate and in the case of Fatsis you find every little excuse you can to promote this woefully under reported sport.
Sorry, if I come off a little petulant. In the end, I can’t complain too loudly. Any promotion is really good promotion when it comes to Team Handball. Every time someone sees the sport it picks up a new fan. At some point there will indeed be a tipping point by which the sport gets the following it should have in this country. And, once that happens it will only be a matter of time before we’re cheering on Team USA in an Olympics. So, if you must intrepid main stream reporters give us your wisdom, but at the same time please keep promoting the sport beyond 20 August 2016
In this podcast episode John Ryan and Christer Ahl review group play at the halfway point. Surprises, disappointments and predictions for the quarterfinals.