European Club Handball — What solutions are best for whom?

From a USA vantage point, it may be easy to be affected by the traditions of the concepts of NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB etc., but it may not be so easy to understand all the considerations involved in figuring out how European club handball should best be organized to accommodate its many constituents!

First one needs to appreciate the rich traditions involved in the European ‘pyramid’ structure within [u]each[/u] country with a proud National league at the top. The system is also based on annual promotions and relegations throughout the pyramid, totally unlike the ‘closed’ approach in professional sports in the USA. There is the same strong support from the fans and the communities for the individual teams in each country as there is for each team in a USA Pro league.

But there is also a strong tradition for European Championships and Cups for both national teams and club teams in handball, just as in other sports such as football. It is the evolution of the formats of the club team competitions that is interesting, as the migration of the best players to a select group of teams in a very few countries creates a major ‘imbalance’ on both the men’s and the women’s side. This affects the TV and marketing situation, it affects the financial situation of the clubs (both the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’), and it affects spectator interest.

The fans and clubs in the individual countries still see it as major matter of prestige to have [u]their[/u] team compete for the chance to play the other league champions, or for the opportunity to participate in of the other European cups. At the same time, the owners and fans of the top European clubs (from a very limited number of countries) see it as a vital business interest to have as much competition as possible against each other. Many Handball fans are torn, because while they want to support their local club they also have a great interest in seeing the big clubs playing each other, live or at least on TV.

So where do you strike the balance, and who has the right to decide? It has been taken for the granted that the EHF, as the ‘umbrella organization’ for all the national federations and their leagues should have this task. The top clubs beg to differ, talking about an illegal monopoly situation and point to European Union legislation. And EU does indeed take an interest in such matters, as has already been evident in the context of football regarding different proposals that FIFA or UEFA felt free to introduce.

Of course, one extreme is to say that all national champions must be allowed to play in the ‘Champions League’ and not just in some ‘pre-pre-qualifying’ event with a slim chance to get in. The other extreme is to say that the best 16 or 24 clubs in Europe (although with questions about how this is fairly determined) should be allowed to play in the highest competition, without regard for the resulting nationality distribution.

On the men’s side, the EHF has this year come up with a compromise, at a moment when the total number of teams in the Champions League is reduced to 24, which further complicates the issue. There are now 3 teams each from Germany and Spain, and 2 teams each from Denmark, France and Hungary taking up half of places. Then there are 7 additional national champions, with 4 slots set aside for winners of qualifying groups plus this year’s new feature: 1 slot for the winner of a ‘wild card’ group with the next teams in line from 4 top countries. Needless to say, a compromise never really satisfies everyone!

But then there is also the totally different idea, primarily pushed by the Group Club Handball (GCH), an association of a large number of the perennial top teams. Why should there be an EHF formula for selecting the lucky teams; why should not the ‘perennials’ instead be able to ‘break away’ and create a league outside the EHF, with independence financially and in other ways!? This happened already a long time ago in basketball and has been discussed in football.

And of course yet other ideas: why base such a concept on the existing group of perennials, many of which are located in small towns? Would it not make sense to allow some financially strong and otherwise attractive cities of Europe to have a team (‘franchise’) But what would it mean for the fans and the traditions, based on which the sport has thrived?

Of course, all the different approaches also have an impact on the survival of the national leagues. What would ASOBAL in Spain be without 4-5 of its top clubs? How long would the fans and media in country X put up with a ‘national’ championship when it is known to everyone that the 2-3 best teams are perennially missing, playing instead in a continental league? Or would these traditions soon be forgotten, as long as there is an opportunity to see the best players confront each other in exciting matches every week?

Because one thing is clear, it is not possible to have it ‘both ways’. Today’s situation is not really tenable. The EHF tries every which way to satisfy both the top clubs and the top federations, with a fair participation, while at the same time actually reducing the number of games in which the ‘overburdened’ top clubs and top players have to appear. Quite ironic! This is not said to dismiss the notion of ‘overburdened’. But what creates the excess: the matches on the national team, the Champions league, or perhaps (which nobody ever seems to argue) the excessive number of useless matches in the national league? I do not mean to offend the likes of Torrevieja, Balingen, Alcobendas or Wetzlar, but the only excuse for 18 teams in Bundesliga or 16 teams in ASOBAL is to earn the extra money through some meaningless additional home games!

In other countries it may be different. In Sweden, for instance, one reason for pushing strongly for a firm place in the Champions League was the concern about setting aside 10 potential match dates in the season calendar, just on the chance that [u]one[/u] club might qualify for the Champions League through the qualification process. The gaps would be wasted if the team did not qualify, so why not instead play 10 extra income-bringing rounds of league games for the benefit of [u]all[/u] the teams in a league that has a much more modest financial situation. Especially as the other EHF cups are simply money-losers.

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Despite the many seemingly conflicting arguments, the answer is at least clear to me: a drastic change is needed, as the ‘compromise solutions’ we have had until now do not make much sense. For me this means that a European League, playing throughout the whole season with 16-24 teams needs to be tried. EHF, the key national federations and the top clubs need to get together and work out the structure, the financial aspects and the administrative responsibilities. Yes, as noted above, this will have a major impact for those leagues providing several of the teams, and there will be an impact also in other countries, but there are so many benefits of this approach that it must be tried.

I know you will say that it is easy for me to argue for such change, as the personal impact for me is mostly limited to the issue of access to top games on international TV or web broadcasts, so I want to give you a chance to react, if you are immersed in the both national and continental competition in Europe: what do YOU think?

Does the approach I propose make sense? If so, do you have any views on how it should be arranged?
Or do you prefer the hybrid solution we have today or some other variation on it?
Or what about the idea that the European League should include the 16-24 best [b]national teams[/b], not the club teams, and how could that then be financed and arranged?
Or do you feel that the focus should really be on the individual [b]national[/b] leagues, with a much reduced continental competition?

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