As I’ve pointed out before, it’s probably pretty safe to say that I’m the number one American fan of French professional club handball. Hey, there aren’t too many American handball fans to begin with and who else has spent 5 years recently living in France watching around 100 matches on TV. So, of course, I think it’s awesome that Cristian Zaharia somehow convinced the Ligue National de Handball (LNH) to move the Final Four of their Coupe de la Ligue tournament across the ocean to Miami. This is an unprecedented development and hopefully other professional clubs and leagues in Europe will follow the lead and make legitimate attempts to market the sport in the U.S.
So with that being said ,everyone should take note that this commentary isn’t about the tournament itself, it’s about national sports federations and and the basic concept of sanctioning. It’s also about underlying relationships, possible agendas and the basic concept of “playing nice.” And finally, and perhaps most importantly, it’s about knowing which battles are worth fighting and which aren’t.
[b]National Sport Federations and the Concept of Sanctioning (Part 1)[/b]
As reported earlier, USA Team Handball has major issues with the announcement establishing a new Handball federation, the American Team Handball Federation and the Miami Tournament organizers failure to request sanction for the tournament with USA Team Handball
USA Team Handball notice on Miami Tournament: http://www.usateamhandball.org/news/index.html?article_id=94
So let’s start with some official definitions:
[i]Federation[/i], according to the Merriam Webster online dictionary is defined as:
1: an encompassing political or societal entity formed by uniting smaller or more localized entities: as
a: a federal government
b: a union of organizations
[i]Sanction[/i], according to Merriam-Webster is defined as:
1 : to make valid or binding usually by a formal procedure (as ratification)
2 : to give effective or authoritative approval or consent to
I would argue, however, when it comes to sports these dictionary definitions don’t tell the full story. For instance, in a sporting context, the term Federation has almost a universal applicability to organizations that organize sports at the National and International level. Even organizations that don’t have the word Federation in their title, often refer to themselves as Federations. USA Team Handball is one example and so is the International Rugby Board (IRB). In almost all instances these organization are non-profit and focused on sports development and the organization of national and international competition. The only examples I could find of professional sports entities using the word Federation were the International Boxing Federation (IBF) and the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). And, rest assured most professional sporting organizations would not want the word Federation in their title. As Frank Deford, astutely points out in #3 of his 4 guiding principles of sports organizations: “Any sports organization that has the word "federation" in its title is probably a mess.”
List of International Sports Federations: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_international_sport_federations
Frank Deford commentary on Federations: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=93995199
The point of this diatribe is that names and what an organization decides to call itself are important. By establishing a new sister organization, and calling it the American Team Handball Federation (ATHF), the Miami tournament organizers were being a little provocative. Despite protestations from the ATHF about their “for profit” focus it’s very difficult to not see the apparent conflict of interest with another Federation with the words “America” and “Team Handball” in it.
To then further indicate that this new organization was “sanctioning” the Miami tournament was really provocative. So let’s take a look at the word sanction. Merriam-Webster’s 2nd definition, “to give effective or authoritative approval or consent to” is a fairly good definition in my opinion. The key question, though, is what exactly makes an organization authoritative? For instance, what prevents Team Handball News from issuing a press release sanctioning the Miami Tournament? Does it really mean anything to sanction something?
I think the answer to this question depends on the organization doing the sanctioning. In the case of Team Handball News sanctioning, it would mean nothing. And as the ATHF is simply a fledgling organization with one press release and a couple of interviews on our website, it means essentially nothing for them to sanction an event either. Even a USA Team Handball sanctioning has very little meaning. For domestic team only events, the USA Team Handball Competition Rulebook http://usateamhandball.org.ismmedia.com/ISM3/std-content/repos/Top/News/USATH%20Rule%20Book%202008-2009.pdf states “for all intents and purposes, a sanction is a confirmation that insurance applies.” (Article VII, Section 4) And while one of the main expectations of sanctioning is that the Federation will provide assistance (e.g. officials) there is no commitment to provide this.
For competitions with an International club, slightly different rules are laid out in the competition rulebook in Article VIII. Most notably, Section 1 which states:
“Section 1- Eligibility
Any organization (LOC) or person wishing to promote a match involving one or more foreign teams [u][b]must[/b][/u] first apply to USA Team Handball to receive sanctioning for such a match. Once the application process has been completed, USATH shall promptly review such requests. USATH shall grant such sanction unless it determines that holding or sponsoring the international competition would be detrimental to the best interest of the sport.”
In other words according to the rulebook, no organization can stage Handball event in the U.S. without sanctioning from USA Team Handball. And if you read the rest of Article VII, it’s all about fees to be paid to USA Team Handball for gate receipts and applications. Setting aside the possible rationale for this new section (I’ll comment on that later), I find it highly unlikely that a USA Team Handball competition rulebook has any authority over anyone outside of USA Team Handball members.
That being said I would guess that there are international protocols that apply. For instance, when the NBA staged matches in Paris I would be surprised if there wasn’t some type of coordination and approval process that took place with the French Basketball Federation. And it wouldn’t surprise me if there weren’t some types of fees that applied. Most likely there are some official agreements or regulations that cover national jurisdictions in FIBA’s regulations. Perhaps the same applies for the IHF as well, but beyond regulations covering player transfers I couldn’t find anything relating to cross country relations on the IHF website.
In terms of applicable Handball situations, British Handball arranged an exhibition match between two foreign clubs. As this was arranged by the Federation itself obviously there were no real sanctioning issues. In the forum section of our website one reader highlighted how the Danish Federation was able to stop a German Bundesliga match from taking place on Danish soil. I’m not sure how this was resolved, but one can speculate that the Danish Federation had some leverage due to the number of Danish athletes playing in the Bundesliga.
Whether USA Team Handball has sound legal footing and/or some leverage to force sanctioning is to be determined. Notably, USA Team Handball has been quiet as to what further consequences they might take should the tournament not be sanctioned. As an untapped market the U.S. might have some leverage in terms of its potential to help tap that market in the future. More likely, the best leverage that USA Team Handball might have is simply the threat to make things difficult through legal action. Of course, the Miami organizers and the LNH could decide to call their bluff. How this plays out in the planned meeting in Croatia remains to be seen.
But, how did we get here in the first place? And are them some hidden agendas that are actually behind this confrontation? Stay tuned for part 2.
Part 2: Underlying Relationships, Possible Agendas and Playing Nice
Part 3: Some Battles aren’t Worth Fighting