If You Build It, Will They Come?

Field of Dream (1989): Omnipotent voice to Iowa farmer, Ray Kinsella: “If you build it, he will come.” http://www.hulu.com/watch/12939/field-of-dreams-if-you-build-it-he-will-come

A Field of Dreams Was Built….

Field of Dreams is a movie classic that tells the story of an Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner) who is compelled by an omnipotent voice he hears in his cornfield to plow under the corn and construct a baseball field. His relatives tell him he’s crazy, but he ignores them and constructs a full scale field complete with manicured grass, dugouts and bleachers. Banned for life players from the 1918 Chicago White Sox then appear out of nowhere to play pick-up games.

I don’t think Cristian Zaharia, A.C. Tellison and Alain Smadja heard an omnipotent voice calling out to them, “If you build it, they will come”, but like the Kevin Costner character they set out to build their field of dreams. And make no mistake about it they truly built a Handball field of dreams. The setting at American Airlines Arena was world class and one that the international Handball world rarely sees outside of the occasional matches staged at the Cologne Arena. Certainly, no French clubs have ever played each other in such a fine facility. Aside from the facility, the organization of the tournament appears to have been flawless, at least from my on the floor observation. 4 teams, their staffs, officials and delegation were transplanted thousands of miles and 6 time zones away to a country that aside from the Olympics has never hosted a major Team Handball event. And yet it was as if the tournament was being conducted at the Bercy Arena in Paris. Trust me; logistically a lot of things could have gone wrong. Ask the Croatians about the flooring fiasco they had in Zagreb during the World Championships and imagine the snickering comments that would have been made if that had happened in Miami. The setting and seamless execution of this event are truly to be commended. Not to mention 3 competitive matches, one of which was an upset of epic proportions. All well in good….

But, They Didn’t Come

Writer Terrence Mann to Iowa farmer, Ray Kinsella: “Ray, people will come Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XDyM4CfExXU

But unlike the end of the movie where fans drive out to the middle of nowhere to see baseball played next to a cornfield very few wandered off the street to see these matches in downtown Miami.

Attendance is always a sticky and charged issue, whether it is the Montreal Expos or the National Mall during the Million Man March http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Million_Man_March. For sporting events, it is particularly relevant because it is an undeniable measuring stick that is difficult to hide. Not that teams don’t try. Sometimes they inflate the number through free and substantially reduced ticket giveaways and for TV purposes they’ll even let everyone sit in the lower sections. And we’ve all been to games where they announce the crowd total and everyone looks around and says, “Oh really.” It’s no surprise that the term “an announced crowd of” is universally acknowledged to actually mean “an inflated figure with little basis in reality”.

For the Coupe de la Ligue tourney this past weekend, the attendance figures posted in different media outlets have ranged from 300 – 4,500. For the first match, I would estimate the crowd to have been around 1,000, thanks to several hundred school kids being bused in and given a great opportunity to see world class Handball up close. For the last 3 matches, I would say it was around 300 – 500. I didn’t count the number of people there, but rest assured if I had, it wouldn’t have taken long. But there’s no real point in arguing on the exact figure. There might be disagreement on the severity of the adjectives (paltry, low, sad, disastrous, disappointing) used to describe the low turnout, but everyone (organizers, players, fans, and media) would agree that it was way, way too small for an event of this magnitude.

There are a number of factors that have been mentioned as having an impact on attendance. Here are a few:

8 ) The economic crisis resulted in fewer fans (both French and U.S based) choosing to pay for the trip
7) The Easter weekend presented some with family conflicts
6) The ticket prices were too high
5) Spring break in Miami prevented field trips from local schools
4) The location of Miami (on the tip of a peninsula) meant that virtually everyone had to fly there
3) The timing near the U.S. National Championships prevented some from attending due to the cost of two trips in close proximity
2) Insufficient advertising failed to inform potential attendees

All of those contributed to the low turnout, but by far the biggest reason is

1) Team Handball is virtually unknown by the vast majority of the citizens of North America and convincing people to invest time and money to attend a sporting event that they know nothing about is a very, very difficult sell.

I could give you a hundred anecdotes about just how unknown this sport is in the USA, but by far my favorite is the number of times I’ve been asked a question about the sport that is obviously related to the 4 wall version http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_handball which is similar in name only. Of course, this is to be expected by newcomers, but what really drives me crazy is the number of times that these questions come from friends and relatives who already know that I played on the U.S. National team and have a website devoted to the sport.

The local organizers may have forgotten or downplayed this handicap and perhaps the French league did not fully understand the magnitude of the challenge they were facing, but it should now be abundantly clear. Already, the French League President, Alain Smadja has talked about spending more on advertisement for next year’s event. This will undoubtedly help, but it will take much more than a good advertising campaign to get a good crowd.

The silver lining in regards to edition 1 of this American adventure is that the organizers and the French league have proven that they can transplant this tournament to the U.S. Undoubtedly they’ve learned a lot by going through the whole process once and organizing it next year will be simpler based on that experience. This should also give them more time to focus on a sound strategy to boost attendance. I’ve got some suggestions that may help, but I’m still a skeptic as to whether the challenge is insurmountable, given the current state of Handball in the U.S. I’ll discuss these suggestions and the challenges involved in a future post. Stay tuned.

Earlier commentary (May 2008) on the challenges of hosting the event in the U.S.: http://teamhandballnews.com/news.php?item.494