Disclaimer: European Club Handball is quite simply and unquestionably the best in the World. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some glaring problems that should be fixed. In my first installment http://teamhandballnews.com/2006/08/whats-wrong-with-european-club-handball-part-1-the-disparity-from-top-to-bottom/ I addressed the huge disparity between the top and bottom teams in the Champions League and the National Leagues. With only a couple of upsets in group play and no surprises among the 16 teams that advanced in this year’s Champions League the analysis continues to stand up. In this installment I address the presentation and arena shortcomings.
It’s More than a Game
I know this might sound sacrilegious to purists, but in a world where customers have many other options for their entertainment, sporting and non-sporting, this is a harsh reality. I’ll give you a personal anecdote that highlights some of the problems.
Last season after France’s dominating victory over Spain in the European Championships I noticed that Montpellier (France’s top club team) was coming to the Paris region to take on Ivry in a key French League matchup. Knowing that Ivry’s gym only seats around 1,500 I figured I better order my tickets ahead of time, so I logged on to Ivry’s web page to get ticket information. Of course, you couldn’t get a ticket on line (maybe next year), but they did have a phone number and I found out that you could purchase tickets at the gym ahead of time. This is OK for someone living in Ivry, but Ivry is a 1 hour round trip from where I live in Paris. So, I took my chances and showed up 45 minutes before game time. Bad decision! As I soon found outside the gym where several hundred people waited in line behind one ticket booth and one person selling tickets. As you might expect, I and several other people were shut out as they ran out of tickets about 10 minutes after the game started.
So my experience with Ivry was negative outside the gym, but I’ve also not been impressed when I’ve gotten inside the gym for Handball and Basketball games in Europe. For many people like me just seeing a good match, and I’ve seen some great ones, is enough. But my wife and daughters and other more casual fans would be bored silly at these matches because they generally lack the amenities that are commonplace with an American Sporting experience. Whether it’s a snack bar with appealing food and drink, a jumbotron screen, a friendly mascot walking around for the kids, cheerleaders or simply a comfortable seat these sorts of things are usually lacking. And I’m just left scratching my head and wondering, “Have these people ever seen a regular season NBA match. It would just rock their world.”
“19250!” Or Yawn, That’s Just Another Night in Sacramento
As I highlighted in the previous section the game itself can be great, but everything else surrounding the game can be lacking. And the underlying reason is that the arena itself is usually a small aging facility that would have been torn down years ago in the US. In fact I would estimate that in the US there are probably around 250 arenas larger and newer than just about every club handball arena in Europe. Certainly ever one of the 30 NBA and 30 NHL arenas (I realize there is some overlap here) are superior and there are probably about 200 NCAA collegiate arenas in the same category. Maybe the US has overdone it, but the counter argument is that those arenas are often full. And maybe the Europeans are sensibly getting by with modest arenas that work just fine for their local clubs. There probably is a little of truth in both arguments, but mostly it depends greatly on your perspective. I will argue that at least some Europeans are coming around to the American perspective. Case in point: Here’s the title of a January 2006 article in French Magazine, HandAction, “19,250.” The title refers to the attendance at a Gummersbach-Kiel regular season game that was played at the Cologne Arena (arguably the only arena in Europe comparable to a typical NBA arena). More revealing then the pictures of the match at Cologne Arena, though, were the side by side pictures of where Gummersbach plays it other matches (against the bottom of the league teams) in a life-less gym that looks like an aircraft hangar.
Of course my American reaction to the title of the article was simple amusement. They get a crowd like this for one match and it’s a cause for celebration? Why that’s just a typical sell out crowd in Sacramento. And a little research does in fact show that the Sacramento Kings of the NBA currently have an ongoing streak of 317 consecutive sell-outs of their 17,317 capacity ARCO Arena. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacramento_Kings So it is a couple thousand seats short, but you get the picture. And trust me if you’ve ever been to Sacramento (or Portland or San Antonio), you’d probably agree with me that there are more than a few cities in Europe approaching this wonderful metropolis in terms of infrastructure and population base.
Now, there are a number of reasons as to why the amenities are lacking and the arenas are smaller. But, the underlying reason is that the overall structure of club sports in Europe with multiple leagues in multiple nations spreads the product out too thinly. The clubs only have so much budget and amenities and arenas aren’t where they are going to spend it. Case in point, is the Paris metropolitan area with 5 LNH teams (Paris, Ivry, Creteil, Pontault-Combault and Tremblay) all within an hour’s drive or less from each other. What if those 5 teams were to combine budgets and form one club? I’d expect that not only could they field one of the better teams in Europe, I’d bet they could they play their games in a nice little 5,000 seat arena and hire some more people to work the ticket booth. But even if you could get those 5 teams to combine, because they’re playing in the geographically restricted French League, you’d have to find 4 more teams, probably in smaller towns to play against and those teams would not provide good competition for the new big club. Of course, you’d have some Champions League games, but as its currently structured it doesn’t have enough games to support the needed revenue stream.
So, what’s the solution? I’ll save that manifesto for another day. Stay tuned.