Putting Handball First

Readers to this website well know that I’ve often compared USA Rugby’s ongoing struggles to develop Rugby in the United States, to Team Handball’s efforts to do the same. Now a new publication, “Putting Rugby First“, www.puttingrugbyfirst.com is worth reading for anyone concerned with the state of Handball’s development at the International level. Putting Rugby First is an independent report that was commissioned by an undisclosed group of "concerned rugby supporters who wish to ensure that the great game of rugby reaches its full, global potential."

Here are some of the findings of the report and some commentary as they apply to handball:

– Rugby’s International Rugby Board (IRB) (Rugby’s IHF equivalent) needs to be more representative. Currently, the Foundation Union’s (the top rugby nations) have increased voting power and can effectively veto other nations.
Comment: The IHF does have a one nation, one vote policy. Although, maybe there’s something to be said for the Rugby model. Should Germany and the Cook Islands really have the same voting power at the IHF?

– Rugby should have staged the 2011 World Cup in Japan (vice New Zealand) to enhance an emerging market.
Comment: Well the IHF has placed the World Championships in Egypt, Tunisia, Japan, and now China (women 2009), so there has been some effort put forth in the past. The problem with staging a World Championship in say, the USA or Australia, is that the sport is currently, too little known.

– Rugby botched their opportunity to get on the Olympic Program.
Comment: Handball is on the Olympic Program and hopefully there to stay. This report should make it very clear, though, how fortunate Handball is to be already on the program instead of trying to fight its way on. I know you Euros out there are saying, of course, it’s on the program, but outside of Europe, Handball has very little pull. And it’s probably safe to say that the only reason the sport has now gained a little traction in a few places outside of Europe (South Korea, Brazil, Egypt, Tunisia) is that it is an Olympic sport.

– The IRB has contributed substantial funding to emerging rugby nations, including several million dollars to the United States
Comment: The IHF, on the other hand, has distributed a few balls here and there. Of course, the Rugby World Cup is played in outdoor stadiums and has turned huge profits. The IHF World Championships, on the other hand are played in indoors arena. Still the 2007 World Championships in Germany were hugely successful and had to have turned a significant profit—Where has that money gone? If the IHF and other Handball entities invested in the United States and helped Handball become more than the near “nothing” it is there, the whole Handball community would benefit in the long run.

– Rugby is only on TV in core rugby markets
Comment: This is also a shortcoming for Handball is most pronounced in the United States where despite more and more channel options, Handball still has not managed to find its way on TV. Consistent exposure of Handball on US TV would have a tremendous impact on the sport's development. The Olympics were a start, but this momentum needs to be carried forward.

– Rugby is losing ground to other sports in emerging markets
Comment: This problem is even more pronounced for Handball. One has to only look at the fact that basketball is more popular than handball in Iceland now. 30 years ago in China Basketball and Handball were little known sports. Now 300,000,000 play basketball in China and their National Handball teams are made up largely from cast offs from basketball and other sports.

The Handball powers that be (the IHF, EHF, G-20, and the major professional leagues) could certainly gain some insight from the “Putting Rugby First” publication. But more importantly, they should be asking themselves if maybe Handball should do the same thing. Here’s hoping those organizations consider commissioning some independent think tank to conduct a “Putting Handball First” study.

Here are just a few things such a report could address:
– Loss of market share in European countries and how to increase it
– Total lack of presence in major markets (USA, India, China, UK, Japan, Australia, Canada)
– Funding for marketing efforts (e.g. getting the sport on TV in more countries)
– Resolving competing interests between the clubs, EHF, IHF and National Leagues
– IHF organization: Is it too unwieldy? Does it represent the best interests of all nations? Are its actions transparent?
– Best practices to develop more competitive national teams outside of Europe

Of course, commissioning a report would only be the first step. The Handball World would then have to act upon the findings. But recognizing that there are shortcomings that need to be addressed would be a good start.