Projected U.S. Olympic Qualification Odds based on level of investment. Does this reality suggest a strategy that forgoes investment in the near to mid term in favor of maximizing national team performance in 2028?
In Part 1, I highlighted the long odds USA National face in the next couple of years. In Part 2, I project what the odds are for the 2024 and 2028 Olympic Games. I also get a little philosophical as to whether those odds suggest a re-evaluation of USA Team Handball’s near to mid- term priorities.
2024 Olympic Prospects
With under 2 years to get ready for the 2020 Olympics it should come us as no surprise to anyone with even just an inkling of handball knowledge that the U.S. Men and Women do not have a realistic chance of qualifying for those Olympics. Perhaps, some folks don’t fully realize to the extent of just how unrealistic it is, but most people are aware that it’s not very likely to happen.
But, even if there is virtually no chance to qualify there is still an obligation to make a good faith effort to do so. Further, one can make the case that efforts to qualify for 2020 will have the benefit of setting up a stronger and more realistic attempt to qualify in 2024.
For an Olympics qualification run that is less than 2 years away it’s fairly straight forward to assess how successful such a campaign might be. This is because the teams that compete in those qualifying tournaments will bear a strong resemblance to the teams of today. Sure, there will be some roster changes to both Team USA and its competition, but on the whole it’s pretty unlikely that there will be a dramatic drop off or gain in performance.
6 years out, however, is a bit more difficult to project. Will Argentina’s Diego Simonet at age 33 still be as big of factor? Or will Argentina even be better with some promising newcomers complimenting the wily veteran? Will the Brazilian women be as strong with less sponsorship and support then what they received in the run up the 2016 Olympics? Could Cuba’s economy improve such that they are competing on a regular basis?
And, what of the U.S. teams? Could the U.S. Women continue to improve with several newcomers joining the program to replace some veteran athletes due to retire? Could the U.S. Men show steady improvement with a mix of dual citizens and top athletes learning the game at Auburn? Or, might the U.S. teams simply tread water playing with a measure of respectability, but lacking the depth and talent needed to challenge the likes of Argentina and Brazil. Or, could the U.S. sink even further in terms of relative competitiveness?
Projecting the 2024 Competition
I could set up a table of possibilities as I did for 2020 qualification, but doing so would be pointless. There are simply too many variables to project out that far. That being said, I think some top level crystal ball projections can be made in regards to our competition.
- The Brazilian Men are poised to be very good for years to come. Multiple players in their early to mid 20’s are playing for top clubs in Europe. Their domestic league is also respectable and they’ve fielded Jr and Youth National Teams with great depth.
- The Argentinian Men are also solid, but lack the depth Brazil has. They’ve got Simonet, though, and if he’s playing well Argentina will continue to be a threat for a gold medal.
- No other Men’s PHF team appears to be on a trajectory to challenge Brazil or Argentina anytime soon. Chile and Greenland have decent teams, but their lack of depth is even more pronounced than Argentina’s.
- The Brazilian Women have a Golden Generation that is starting to age out. I doubt that their replacements will be as good, but on the whole they have tremendous depth. Brazil’s 2nd and 3rd teams could have taken silver and bronze for the last several years if they had been allowed to participate in PHF Tourneys.
- The Argentinian Women have yet to show that they can improve to the level of Brazil. Solid technical players, but they have to find a game changing athlete that can take them to the next level.
- No other Women’s PHF team appears to be on a trajectory to challenge Brazil, but several sides are probably capable of mounting a challenge to Argentina
- As an aside, the Cuban Men’s and Women’s programs are a real wild card. If properly resourced they surely could contend with other 2nd tier programs and perhaps even challenge for a PANAM Games Gold Medal.
Projecting Team USA in 2024
But, what about the U.S. Men and Women in 6 years time? Taking the court in Santiago, Chile, the likely host of the 2023 PANAM Games. As discussed, there are a lot of variables to factor in, but there is one simple thing that can be done: Just add 6 years to the age of every athlete in the current talent pool. If one does this simple addition to the Sr Team rosters for the past few tournaments, you’ll reach a quick conclusion: That there will likely be only a few hold overs between now and then.
With the U.S. Men the roster change will likely be pretty significant. The last major Men’s competition was the 2016 Pan American Championships I would assess that perhaps 4 or 5 players from that roster will be on the team in 2023. I would then add 1 or 2 players from the current team at Auburn and then 4 or 5 dual citizens that have shown promise in Jr Events. There’s some overlap with those 3 groups, but all told I think 10 athletes could come from our current player pools (Sr and Jr). And, that would mean 6 athletes that aren’t even playing or perhaps just started playing would be on a 2023 roster.
And, such a roster would have some major question marks. The biggest one being who would be the reliable, consistent scoring threat in the backcourt? Perhaps a 39 year old Gary Hines will still be starting at backcourt, but I’d like to think he’ll have gently been nudged into retirement by some up and coming players. Or at best he is a veteran reserve playing key minutes a la France’s Daniel Narcisse by then.
With the U.S. Women the change will be really dramatic. I would assess that from the 2017 Pan American Championship roster the only holdovers could very well be just 3 or 4 younger dual citizen athletes. Perhaps there will still be a couple of U.S. based players from the 2017 roster, but they will all be 31 or older and right in that age range where “life issue” decisions related to career and family could become more pressing. Yes, there could be as many as 11 athletes on the U.S. Women’s Team in 2023 who are not even playing handball right now.
Now at first glance, particularly to our European friends, the prospect of the U.S. National Teams qualification for the 2024 Olympics with much of the roster consisting of newcomers might seem pretty farfetched. But, it is possible to take a quality athletic talent who has never played the game before and turn them into a decent handball player in 6 years time. Possible, but not easy. And, not cheap either. It requires recruiting great athletes, providing them a quality training atmosphere and relatively frequent competition opportunities for those athletes. I’ve written ad nauseum that the program at Auburn has not provided any of those key components for the past 4 years. Don’t get me wrong. Those athletes and coaches are working hard and doing the best they can, but there simply has not been enough financial support to do the job properly.
Playing the percentages (or the percentage gain)
But, what if we could properly fund our National Team programs? Would it make a difference? Would we then have a real shot at Olympic Qualification?
Those are very important questions. Questions that should be asked, researched, and answered by USA Team Handball. The short answer is that, of course, it would make a difference and it surely would improve our odds of qualifying. But, the real questions are “How much would it improve our chances?” and “Is that percentage gain in improved chances worth the investment?”
For illustrative purposes, I’ll outline 3 possibilities in terms of investment to support or National Teams over the next 6 years and assess at a top level what our chances of qualification will be:
Minimal Investment: This is the status quo and would mean relying on dual citizens and the continued recruitment and development of athletes at Auburn under the current austere circumstances.
Modest Investment: This would be a modest investment in the neighborhood of $500K to 1.5M/years to beef up support to the residency programs. This investment would be used to improve the Residency Program with partial college scholarships, stipends for athletes and travel support for multiple trips/year for overseas competition. This should improve recruiting and also improve the development outcomes for those new athletes. Overall, this would be roughly comparable to the U.S. residency programs of the 80’s and 90’s, particularly as you get closer to the $1.5M end of the scale.
Robust Investment: This would be an investment of $1.5-3M/year and would be an all in effort to fully maximize the performance of our teams in time for the 2023 PANAM Games. The Residency Program would be further improved with select athletes receiving full scholarships and/or salaries. A full time recruiting director would be hired. Top athletes would be placed overseas via training arrangements with top European clubs. This would be an unprecedented level of support perhaps comparable to what Olympic Sports currently under the NCAA umbrella receive.
Taking those 3 possible investment scenarios into account here’s how I would assess the likelihood for USA qualification in 2024. (You’ll see that for illustrative purposes I also include the odds for 2020 and 2028)
Excepting, Brazil and to a lesser extent Argentina, the competition in Pan America is relatively weak. This means that a modest investment if properly executed could put together the 2nd best team in Pan America fairly quickly. The U.S. would still not be nearly as good as Brazil, but capable of pulling off a 1 in 10 upset of Brazil in a one off Gold Medal match. If more resources are provided with a robust investment I could see that being upped to a 1 in 5 upset possibility. However, I don’t see it going higher because 6 years, regardless of investment, is just not enough time to put together a roster of that caliber mostly from scratch.
Recall from Part 1 that Olympic Qualification for the USA Men, in most scenarios would require successfully beating both Argentina and Brazil. That’s very likely to still be true in 2024. For our current team this is really daunting and for 2020 Olympic qualification would require winning two 50-1 upsets or a 1 in 2,500 proposition. For 2024 I think a modest investment would improve our team such that odds of an upset would be in the neighborhood of 10-1, but again the double whammy is a real killer meaning the odds of doing it twice are still 1 in 100. A robust investment would further improve our National Team, but as with the Women, 6 years is just not enough time to reach Argentina and Brazil’s level. We could improve our odds for an upset to perhaps 1 in 5, but again that means performing a double upset which would be about a 4% possibility.
Significant Investment for Minimal Gain
So, if we have no further investment to beef up our residency programs we face really, really long odds. And, if we do provide additional investment we essentially change “really, really long” to “really long”. With the Men’s program such an investment would have almost no value. Spend a little or spend a lot, it just won’t move the needle much. With the Women’s program there is some small value, but it’s certainly nothing to get excited about.
Bottom Line: Significant investment directed at improving our National Teams with the intent of securing a 2024 Olympic Qualification slot makes very little sense. Even our current investment is highly questionable.
Now, if Los Angeles had been awarded the 2024 Olympic Games, the whole dynamic changes. “Really long shot qualification” replaced with “automatic qualification”. The discussion would then become how do we put the most competitive team possible on the court in 7 years time? And, that would logically lead to a near term strategy with some really aggressive recruitment. And, even I would advocate some investment in such a strategy. But, 2024 didn’t happen. LA got 2028 and that reality should lead to a totally different approach and strategy.
Why it All Matters
I’ve spent a considerable amount of time outlining the long odds. And, sure as the sun comes up every day, I will get some grief along the lines of “Why are you always so negative about things? Why always, with the glass half empty?”
My response is that I’m an analytical guy. I’ve looked at the data and I’m sorry, there’s just a lot of reasons to be negative. The glass isn’t half empty. There’s barely any liquid in the glass at all. Quite frankly, if you’re all sunshine and roses about our prospects for qualification in 2020 and 2024 you’re either lacking information to understand the big picture or kidding yourself big time.
There’s a time and place for optimism. Certainly when you’re getting dressed in the locker room against a superior opponent it’s appropriate to be optimistic. To go out there and give it your all. The odds be damned. Certainly, that was my attitude in my brief and unspectacular national team career.
But, when you are trying to map out a future for the sport in this country? Sorry, Optimism must take a back seat to reality especially when you take into account all of the shortcomings the sport in this country needs to address. Every dollar spent, every man hour directed toward near term national team support is a dollar and man hour that could have been spent on development and the building of a player base that could actually make the U.S. competitive in 2028.
Further, while USA Team Handball’s current incoming revenue is minimal (2015 was only $348K) that should change. Sponsorship support will increase with the lead up to the Olympics. The IHF could even kick in with funding support. Am I concerned that way too much of that funding will be directed towards near term National Team support? Propping up Residency Programs that are way too austere. That our once in a generation Olympic opportunity will be squandered? Yeah, I’m concerned. Big time. And, so should you.