Professional Handball in Miami: A big opportunity and a big challenge

[html] When I received an email from a French reader last week informing me that the French Professional League (LNH) Coupe de la Ligue Semifinals and Finals we’re coming to Miami next year, my first reaction was that perhaps somebody was aiming at payback for my April Fools Article . I even looked at the web addresses carefully in the links that were sent to me just to make sure that it wasn’t an elaborate web phishing trick.

Needless to say I’m excited about this happening. It’s not very often that one can make a bold statement like, “Out of 300,000,000 Americans, I’m the most devoted fan of the LNH,” with a high degree of confidence. Maybe there is somebody hiding in Butte, Montana with a lifetime subscription to HandAction magazine who has every match taped and Fedexed to him, but I doubt it. While living 5 years in France I didn’t go to as many games in person as I would have liked to, but I rarely missed an airing on TV. And even though I’ve been back in the States a year, I still follow the league as best as I can now. Really, I can’t wait to cheer against my favorite team in Miami.

Without question this is a big opportunity for USA Handball and Christian Zaharia and the LNH should be commended for their exemplary vision and willingness to take on this challenge. Hopefully, this match will further energize handball development in Miami and on the US East Coast. At the same time, maybe the LNH’s lead will entice the German HBL, Spanish Liga ASOBAl, and the EHF to take notice and pursue the 300,000,000 strong US market more aggressively, whether it be with similar matches on USA soil or a good TV contract.

The challenge of finding a European handball entity to take a chance on America has been met and that all by itself is a great accomplishment. But the even greater challenge will now be turning this opportunity into an unqualified success. Success will be measured in a lot of ways, but the most visually evident one will be the number of people in their seats. And while there was a lot of optimism expressed at the press conference regarding filling a 20,000 seat arena for two consecutive days of Handball in Miami, I have my doubts.

When the same event was played in Paris 2 years ago, I attended the final match, a captivating overtime game between Paris and Montpellier. Played at Paris Handball’s arena, the Stade de Coubertin, however, only about half of the 4,800 seats were filled. If they had played at Paris Bercy, the closest thing that all of France has to an NBA style arena, it would have been a cavernous emptiness. And I’ve been to games where the French National Team has played at Bercy and while there was a good crowd, there never was a sellout of all 15,000 seats. So if you can’t get a huge crowd in France, logic dictates it will be an even bigger challenge in Miami, where there is a much smaller fan base. A more realistic goal will be to fill the lower sections. Still a challenge, but potentially doable with an aggressive advertising campaign and an assist from the new USA Handball Federation.

And how could the new Federation help? Well, 11-12 April 2009 does coincide with the traditional timing for the USA National Championships. Miami has never hosted a Championship, so it would be logical for it to do so next year. The Federation would also do well, to coordinate the timing of the matches as to not conflict with the LNH games. As I think 2 matches are envisioned for both days, this would probably mean scheduling Nationals over 4 days (Thursday-Sunday) as opposed to the traditional 3 days (Friday-Sunday). Additionally, the Federation could look into playing some matches like the USA Club Championship Finale as warm up matches at the Miami Arena itself. Finally, the Collegiate Nationals have been held in a separate location in recent years. Next year that Championship too should be played in Miami.

If the National Tournaments are in Miami that would immediately add around 500 fans ( maybe more/maybe less). Not placing Nationals in Miami, however, could mean that those same 500 fans would not be there. As clubs plan their trips you could have a situation where a handball fan/player is forced to make a budgetary choice between flying to Nationals (location TBD) or Miami.

Perhaps it’s a little too soon to specify exactly what steps the new Federation should take. It’s a given, however, that they should engage proactively with the Miami organizers.  It’s also a given that any American who calls himself a Handball fan should find their way to Miami next April. I’ll be there in the front row. You won’t be able to miss me wearing my Mladen Bojinovich autographed jersey. [/html]