World Handball Championships Cycle: 2 Year vs. 4 Year

At the last International Handball Federation (IHF) Congress, the European Handball Federation (EHF) proposal to switch from having the World Championships every 2 years to every 4 years was soundly defeated. This sparked some comments concerning whether the EHF proposal was a good idea and whether Handball should follow the lead of other sports. Herewith is my analysis and why the analogies with other sports are only partially valid.

Championship Cycles in Other Sports: Part of the EHF reasoning to change the format is indeed likely spurred by other sports. Here’s a short summary of how it’s done for some other team sports

2004: European Championships (June); Olympics (August)
2006: World Cup (June)
2008: European Championships (June); Olympics (August)
2010: World Cup (summer)

The World Cup, depending on your metrics, is either the #1 or #2 sporting event in the world. And as the Olympics is a multi-sport event, the World Cup is unquestionably the #1 single sport event. The World cup is held only once every 4 years and most of the Continental Federations also hold tournaments on a once every four years timetable 2 years after the World Cup. Some of these Continental tournaments are minor affairs, but the European Championships is a huge event. By contrast, the Olympic Soccer tournament is a minor affair with age restrictions on the players basically turning it into a Junior Championship. There’s been some noise made that the odd years should also have a meaningful summer time tournament, but with European clubs exercising more and more power it is unlikely that they would acquiesce to more national team competitions.

2004: Olympics (August)
2005: Continental Championships (summer)
2006: World Championships (September)
2007: Continental Championships (summer)
2008: Olympics (August)

The World Championships for Basketball is a significant event in Europe and other parts of the world, but in the US it is a minor event behind the start of football season and the baseball playoffs. And for all nations, it’s pretty safe to say that an Olympic Basketball Gold Medal is considered the top prize for national teams. The basketball model is essentially what the EHF was proposing for Handball, but with one important timing complication– The World/European Championships are played in Dec/Jan, vice the summer.

Note: I’ve broken this out for the Men and Women as the schedule impact is different. I’ve also focused on the European Championships as it is the only Continental Championship with significant attendance and TV coverage.

2004: European Championships (January)
2004: Olympics (August)
2005: World Championships (January)
2006: European Championships (January)
2007: World Championships (January)
2008: European Championships (January)
2008: Olympics (August)

2004: Olympics (August)
2004: European Championships (December)
2005: World Championships (December)
2006: European Championships (December)
2007: World Championships (December)
2008: Olympics (August)
2008: European Championships (December)

As you can see by these schedules, Olympic years result in 3 major tournaments within a 13 month period. Add a long club season into this 13 month window and you have the reason why the EHF proposed a change that would help limit the number of games played by the top players. Removing a World Championship, however would create a feast and famine cycle in which you would have 2 major events in roughly a 6 month span, then nothing for a year and a half. And which World Championship would you remove? The one just before the Olympics or the one just after. And would you do the same thing for the Women and the Men.

Both the soccer and basketball models are good for their sports, but for Handball to adopt either it would have to fully adopt them. If handball were to adopt the basketball model it would need to move the World Championships to the summer. If handball were to adopt the soccer model it could keep its January/December schedule, but it would need to deemphasize the Olympics. But as the Olympics are Handball’s best opportunity to showcase the sport to the world this is not going to happen.

Follow the Money: Something that hasn’t been mentioned with the EHF’s proposed change is that another solution to decrease the number of games played could be easily self-implemented by the EHF. Namely, the EHF could decide to only hold their full-fledged European Championship once every four years. This would also decrease the number of games played, but ….. it would also result in the EHF only having this profit making event once every four years. Not surprisingly, the EHF would prefer that the IHF take the financial hit. And, of course, the IHF has no interest whatsoever in having a big payday only once every four years.

The Solution: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The current cycle is just fine as far as I’m concerned and why would you want to eliminate an event that everyone wants to see. If the EHF really is concerned about the number of games they can fix that problem by canceling one of their own tournaments or shortening their club seasons. That being said, the underlying issue is money. As long as the World Championships continue to be primarily a European show, the IHF might be wise to consider some level of revenue sharing with the EHF and the top European clubs. This would make everyone happy and could avoid a sequence of events that one day might result in the top European players sitting out the World Championships.