USA Team Handball (Year 1 Report Card)

[color=#00ff00]Last September as missives criticizing the new USA Team Handball Federation ratcheted up in the Forum section on our website I commented that I thought folks were jumping the gun a bit too much on a brand new organization. Instead I laid out my expectations for the new Federation in a number of areas along with what I considered some reasonable target dates for completion.

Six months later in March of this year, I handed out some Mid-Term grades that chastised the new federation on a number of issues. A full year has now passed and I hand out some final grades. Several shortcomings have been corrected, but there’s still room for improvement. For ease of reading, I’ve left the original (Black) and six month report sections (Blue) in place. New text is in Green.[/color]

1) A clear and organized plan for USA club competition. (Target date: December 1, 2008). Successfully completing this goal would be to have a revamped competition rulebook that has been vetted, by and large, by the USA Handball community. This won’t mean that everybody will like everything in the competition rulebook, but it should mean that all the major clubs in the USA find it acceptable. As a minimum, every club should have a clear understanding as to what they need to do in order to participate in the 2009 National Championship Tournament.
[color=#0000ff]Grade: D
A competition rulebook was indeed provided by the target date, but the vetting process was less than satisfactory. An opportunity to comment was provided, but vetting was limited to the staff in the National office. Worse, the rulebook was modified in February and the residency requirement for foreign players were changed without any feedback from the membership. Faced with a protest on the last minute change, USA Team Handball backed down and reverted to the original wording. Finally, plans for teams to qualify were thrown out and teams were simply allowed to enter the National Championship tournament on a first come, first served basis.[/color]
[color=#00ff00]Grade: D
There’s no way to improve upon the mid-term grade for year 1. The good news though is that USA Team Handball appears to have learned from their mistakes as a committee was established and qualification has largely been turned over to the regions.[/color]
2) Announcement of the 2009 National Championship Tournament (Dates and Location) (Target Date: January 30, 2009). Sooner, of course, would be better, but this should allow enough time for teams to make airfare and lodging reservations.
[color=#0000ff]Grade: A
This requirement was clearly met. I should point out though, that the announcement for College Nationals was a little later than the subject date. Enough time to make plans, but I’m sure teams would prefer to have known sooner[/color]
[color=#00ff00]Grade: A
Nothing new to add here.[/color]

3) A well organized and successful National Championship Tournament. There are many elements that go into running a well organized and successful tournament, to include, facilities, the scheduling of games, fan attendance and convenience (lodging and gym location).
[color=#0000ff]Grade: TBD[/color]
[color=#00ff00]As has been addressed previously, the originally proposed format for the National Championship was very poorly designed. To the Federation’s credit, they modified the format and the feedback that I’ve received from those attending the tournament has been mostly positive. So an A- or B+ grade on the final execution is offset by a D grade in format/scheduling for an overall C result.[/color]

4) An improved website with the following content:
a) A club information page (Target Date: September 19, 2008). This page would include links to websites and Point of Contact information for all clubs in the U.S. You might notice that this target date is only a week away. This, however, should only take a couple of hours and quite frankly it should have been done a month ago.
[color=#0000ff]Grade: B
As I recall it took awhile for this page to get added to the website. Additionally, this page could use some more graphics such as an interactive map and club logos (where applicable).[/color]

b) Guidance documentation page (Target Date: September 19, 2008). Any overarching documentation (e.g. the by-laws submitted in the UTHF bid; competition rulebook) that highlights how the Federation conducts business should be posted on this page.
[color=#0000ff]Grade: D
The competition rulebook has been posted, but other documentation is clearly lacking. There’s more commentary on this topic in items 12 and 13[/color]

c) Club Resources page (Target Date: October 17, 2008). A “best practices” section of the website that provides information on how to best organize a new club is needed. This section would include Points of Contact for club development and information on how to request funding grants from either USA Team Handball or the USA Team Handball Foundation.
[color=#0000ff]Grade: B
A club handbook has been developed and placed on the website. It’s a workable document with some good information in it. However, I’d prefer like to see an interactive page on the website to address club development. Clubs could ask questions like, “What kind of goals should I buy?” and the Q&A would be viewable in a forum like section for other clubs to see.[/color]

d) An online store with discounts for members (Target Date: December 1, 2008). This service would be a welcome addition, especially for new clubs that need to purchase balls and goals.
[color=#0000ff]Grade: C
A bare bones online store has been up on the site for several months. There aren’t very many items available, however, and the functionality isn’t the best. For instance, I was confused as to how to purchase a yearly membership. Expecting to see a discount (price/year) for signing up for more than 1 year, I actually learned through email correspondence that it was actually more expensive to buy a multiple year member membership.[/color]
[color=#00ff00]Grade: A-
Well, it took awhile longer than I would have liked for the website to get up to speed, but it’s really taken shape in the past few months. It’s colorful and loaded with content. There’s still plenty of room for improvement though. I’d like to see a better online store, video content and more frequent postings from teams on trips. The bar will be raised for year 2.[/color]

5) National Board of Directors Fully Identified (Target Date: November 1, 2008): Another hallmark of the new Federation organizational structure is 7 independent Board of Directors with business skills who would contribute $50,000 each to USA Team Handball. The website currently lists only 2 members, Dieter Esch and his business partner, Brad Krassner. Additionally, the new Federation should make clear how it will identify/select other members of the Board, who are not part of the $50,000 club.
[color=#0000ff]Grade: F
The website currently identifies only 3 of the 7 independent members. A Mr. John West has been added in the intervening 6 months since I first wrote this. There is also still no indication as to how these Board Members were or will be selected. The By-Laws that were submitted when the Utah Team Handball Federation (UTHF) indicated that a nomination committee would be formed and that a Board would be selected prior to January 1, 2009. As far as I know there is no actual nomination committee and I would speculate that Pastorino, Esch and Krassner are the individuals actively seeking potential members. The Active Athlete members of the board have been selected via vote, but that is the only positive development that has taken place so far. The Federation website does indicate that the rest of the board members will be named soon. This is good news, but it has taken too long and with no transparency in the process. Hence the failing grade.[/color]
[color=#00ff00]See comments in 6) below[/color]

6) First National Board of Directors Meeting (Target Date: January 5, 2009).
[color=#0000ff]Grade: F
The first Board Meeting has now been called for 31 March, but it’s way overdue and it’s simply not appropriate for a Sports Federation to have operated this long without a Board of Directors (BoD) meeting. The BoD is supposed to provide direction and guidance for the management staff. Without that direction, the Federation may or may not be headed in the right direction. Bottom line: without an active BoD, the Federation has not been following its own by-laws and the spirit of its own proposal bid to bring in independent directors with business acumen.[/color]
[color=#00ff00]My stated criteria for 5) and 6) were very time specific and if I were to solely focus on meeting the dates (which were not made) the grades would continued to be failing. Instead I will provide an overall performance grade.
Grade: C
This overall grade is a tale of two semesters with the first semester being a rather slow start and the 2nd semester coming on pretty strong. There are a lot of initiatives that have been started by the Board, and in particular, the Chairman, Dieter Esch, who has been very active with his efforts to engage multiple handball entities in other countries. My biggest issue which I will address later in this assessment, however, is the lack of information being provided in terms of overall plan/vision.[/color]

7) Senior Men’s National Team Program Plan (Target Date: March 1, 2009). A well thought out plan on how the U.S. will organize and prepare the Men’s National Team needs to be clearly articulated. Such a plan should clearly identify strategies for player identification and development, training and competition schedules. A key element of this plan will also be a decision on whether to develop players in the U.S. or whether to foster opportunities for players to be placed on European club rosters.
[color=#0000ff]Grade: C
For all I know a plan has been developed. Certainly, there have been a number of tryouts and athlete identification camps. It has not been articulated, however, how those athletes will be trained and how Team USA will prepare for international competition. Several of the athletes identified at these camps also appear to be college graduates. Past experience has shown that molding inexperienced handball newcomers in the 22-26 age range into world class players is problematic in that those athletes tend to leave the program prior to fully developing as players. The Men’s team will travel to Puerto Rico in 8 months for the PATHF Div 1 Championships. What’s the plan, Stan?[/color]
[color=#00ff00]Grade: D
A year out now, there’s a fair amount of activity with player tryouts and player pools being announced. One can make inferences from these events as to what the overall plan is, but without actually seeing it’s hard to put all the pieces together. Maybe there is an actual plan with clearly defined objectives and metrics to track progress, but if there is one, it hasn’t been provided to the membership. Keep in mind this grade is not reflective of the programs that have been rolled out in the last few months. They look like good programs. This failing grade is simply reflective of the fact that there is no plan being shared with the dues paying members of USA Team Handball. The PATHF Div 1 Championships are now only a month away. How is that team going to be picked? What kind of training camp are they going to have? What’s the plan for 2012 qualification and development through 2016? Etc, etc. [/color]

8 ) Senior Women’s National Team Program Plan (Target Date: March 1, 2009). As with the Men, a well defined plan is needed. Additionally, if the Women, participate in the PATHF Div 1 Championships later this year a near term interim plan should also be developed.
[color=#0000ff]Grade: C
Again, for all I know a plan has been developed and the same concerns in regards to training athletes and preparing for international competition needs to be addressed. To the Federation’s credit, they did field a team at the PATHF Div 1 Championships. Some have criticized that move as a waste of resources and feel vindicated by the very poor showing of the women’s team. I was disappointed and surprised by the results, but support the concept of Team USA ALWAYS fielding a team for WC or Olympic qualification. Say what you want about the poor results, they should help inform USA Team Handball on where the program currently stands and how far it needs to go.[/color]
[color=#00ff00]Grade: D (See the comments regarding the Men’s plan as to why)[/color]

9) Youth and Junior Team Program Plans (Target Date: March 1, 2009). These plans will need to mesh with the Senior Team Plans. They will also require a substantial amount of thought as the U.S. has very few players in these age categories and limited resources to support their rapid development.
[color=#0000ff]Grade: C
Again, many of the same issues discussed with the men’s and women’s teams also apply. In addition, the youth and junior team program plans will require some “outside the box” thinking to be successful. Some player identification camps have been identified, but the overall plan has not been articulated. Additionally, resources are being spent on an under 23 team. While this may align with our collegiate programs international competitions are focused on under 21 and under 19 programs.[/color]
[color=#00ff00]Grade: C
Again, the problem here is simply the lack of a plan being shared with the membership. With youth teams actually touring clearly a lot has been accomplished in a short period of time. We’ve even got U18s training in Iceland for an extended time. I wouldn’t have thought that possible in less than a year.[/color]

10) Fully Staffed Regions (Target Date: January 5, 2009). A hallmark of the new Federation organizational structure is their plan to have a dedicated Regional Director and Coach for each of the 5 regions. I would expect that personnel will actually start to be hired and identified in the near future. And I would expect the regional staffs to have a very active and hands on role in helping new clubs to get on their feet and in organizing regional competition.
[color=#0000ff]Grade: C
The regions have not been 100% staffed, but a lot of people have been hired. From website reports they appear to be getting involved with their region’s development and organization. Could they be doing more? Sure, but there are some inherent challenges with the geographic size of the United States and the limited resources of USA Team Handball. I was never convinced that this organizational structure made sense with the current Handball demographics of the U.S. I also won’t be surprised if there is a significant reorganization at some point in the future.[/color]
[color=#00ff00]See comments in 11) below [/color]

11) Regional Board or Directors Fully Identified (Target Date: September 1, 2009). As with the National Boards, I would expect Directors to be identified in the coming months. As the Regional staffs have not been identified yet, however, this will take some time. Additionally, it may be challenging to come up with Regional Board Members due to the financial requirements.
[color=#0000ff]Grade: TBD[/color]
[color=#00ff00]I won’t give a grade on Regional Directors but will provide a few observations. Quite frankly, it’s hard to grade regional performance for many of the same reasons it’s hard to quantify successful grassroots efforts.
There are some metrics that could be tracked, though, like numbers of clubs, new members, new clinics conducted, etc. Anecdotally, there are signs that things are taking shape, but it’s tough to fully assess. As I mentioned before, I’m somewhat of a skeptic in terms of the regional concept due to the geographical challenges and limited resources. It also hasn’t been fully implemented as the Midwest and Northeast regions are without Regional directors and coaches, the Southeast has no coach, and there has been very little news in regards to regional boards. Resource wise, somehow the new Federation is employing what appears to be 10 full time staffers and 3 volunteers. This might seem like a small staff for an established sport federation, but it is practically a miracle to Handball veterans that remember a much leaner 3 man staff covering the whole country. Either these folks are working for peanuts or the Federation has quietly done an incredible job in the fundraising department.[/color]

12) Interim Over Arching Guidance Documentation (Target Date: September 19, 2008). To the casual observer, the new Federation appears to be currently operating with no formal written by-laws. By-laws were submitted during the certification process, but I suspect that these by-laws are not being followed to the letter. It should be clear to the USA Handball Community what “rules of the road” are being used to guide the new Federation. Simply posting the UTHF Bid by-laws would be a start, along with a general statement of accountability. Right now my assumption (in the absence of a Board of Directors) is that Dieter Esch is calling the shots, but that GM Steve Pastorino has been given a significant amount of latitude to do what he thinks best. This is to be expected in a start-up situation, but that construct should transition as soon as possible to a more formalized structure.

[color=#0000ff]Grade: F
Six months later this documentation and/or guidance has still not been developed. The UTHF Bid by-laws -link- have not been posted on the Federation website nor is there any other statement of accountability. A precursory look at several other Federation websites shows that most of them post their By-Laws for everyone to see. (For more on this topic see #13 below)[/color]
[color=#00ff00]See comments in 13) below [/color]

13) Finalized Over Arching Guidance (Target Date: February 2, 2009). Step 1 for the new board should be to approve new bylaws for the Federation. It should be clear to everyone what the roles and responsibilities are for Board Directors, Committee Members and Staff. Additionally, members at all levels should understand how they can influence and participate in the process.
[color=#0000ff]Grade: F
As far as I know there are no new bylaws being developed. And if by some chance they were being developed, it clearly isn’t being done with any transparency as I and other members of the USA Handball community are unaware of it. In essence, USA Team Handball is currently being run independently without any formal input or accountability to its members. Say what you want about the previous incarnation of USA Team Handball and its dysfunctionality, but there were committees and board members that were accountable to the membership. It was also often messy and in the end self-destructing. Because of that self-destruction, I thought that it made sense to give the new regime considerable leeway to clean up the ashes and rebuild the Federation with minimal interference. That time has now past in my opinion. It’s high time for more transparency and a clear understanding of how the outside business people are going to work with the USA Handball Community at large. And the key words are “work with”. USA Team Handball is a non-profit, amateur sports federation. It is not a for profit sports franchise (Real Salt Lake) or a modeling company (Wilhelmina) and that means there is accountability to that nebulous Handball Community. I am not calling for a return to the old way of doing business as clearly that was not working. All I’m saying is that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.[/color]
[color=#00ff00]The original criteria were date specific, so there’s no way the Federation can improve upon the failing mid-term grade. The new by-laws were published not long after the mid-term report.
Unfortunately, they did not clear up the concept of “at-large” members. These members have no “independent” requirement and depending on how you read the old by-laws and even some parts of the new by-laws it was strongly implied that there would be a membership vote to select these two “at large” members. As currently structured the Board is very independent and top heavy with newcomers to USA Team Handball or even to the sport of Team Handball. Of course, a strong case can be made that this is a good thing based on the dysfunctional board that was previously voted in by the membership. I would argue, though, that 2 members elected by the membership with a good understanding of the past would have had a useful minority role on this new board.

Additionally, the Board should consider the establishment of a Congress or some other entity composed largely of members from the “Handball Community” that could wield some level of influence with the Board. The Board would still maintain ultimate authority, but a Congress would give them a venue to get constructive input to their plans, as well as an opportunity to sell the community on their activities. Right now, my perception is that everything is pretty much being dictated to the membership and even if everything is 100% in the right direction, it’s somewhat human nature to react against a one way flow over which you have no influence. A Congress or some other entity would mitigate that and who knows they might even have some good ideas.[/color]

14) Strategic Plan (Target Date: March 20, 2009). The strategic plan would be a top to bottom plan that identifies the goals for USA Team Handball and how it plans to achieves those goals. This is something that should be developed with at large membership input, but may very well also require outside the box thinking.
[color=#0000ff]Grade: F
As far as I know, such a Strategic Plan has already been developed. But, if it has been developed it’s been done in-house without much membership input. So the negative grade is for 1) either not having a plan or 2) not sharing it with anyone.[/color]
[color=#00ff00]Christer Ahl wrote a commentary a while back taking the IHF to task for a lack of strategic direction. The thrust of this was the need to clearly define the overall goals and objectives before tackling what programs and processes need to be put in place to meet them. I maintain that the same is true for USA Team Handball. Perhaps the Board of Director’s and staff at USA Team Handball has already crafted and approved a plan. If so, it’s time to share that plan with the members. Even better, it would be wise to seek input from its dues paying members, some of whom have devoted large chunks of their life to the sport, on what should be in that plan. For a model as to how membership could provide input we could look to USA Table Tennis, which recently posted this notice in regards to their strategic planning:[/color]

15) Marketing Plan (Target Date: January 5, 2008). The new Federation has indicated that they will expend significant resources in this area. I don’t expect for them to provide the members at large a detailed copy of their marketing strategy, but I would like to see regular reports highlighting current ongoing efforts in this area. My metric for success in this area will be successfully getting Handball on TV in the U.S.
[color=#0000ff]Grade: B
The 2009 World Championships were on TV in the United States for the first time this past January. Granted, it was Web TV (ESPN360) and only available in a sliver of the American market, but this was still great news. The new Federation has also kept everyone informed of new sponsors such as Grundfos and SnapSports. Would I like to see more sponsors and ESPN prime time telecasts? Sure, but the trend is in the right direction.[/color]
[color=#00ff00]Grade: B
I’ll keep the grade the same for now. But, the bar will be raised for next year.[/color]

16) Fundraising. This is without a doubt the big kahuna, in that sustained success hinges on creating sufficient income to meet expenses. With the dramatic increase in paid staff (when compared to the previous Federation), as well as plans to field youth and junior teams there’s simply no way for the numbers to add up without significant new funding streams being developed. The metric for success in this area will be an Income side of the balance sheet showing significantly more $ than that of the $300,000 – 500,000 budgets common in the waning years of the previous Federation. I won’t expect the Federation to provide detailed information, but as a non-profit, top level budget numbers should be available for public review. Additionally, it will become readily apparent that there is a cash flow problem if there are staff cutbacks and/or the USA fails to send teams to International competitions.
[color=#0000ff]Grade: TBD/Unknown
Putting a grade on fundraising is difficult without seeing some budget numbers. Since this was written in September, the financial crisis also should temper everyone’s critique of this critical area. Finding sponsors to shell out money for an unknown sport is challenging enough in a flush economy. Getting them to fork over money at the same time they’re laying workers off might well be impossible. Additionally, some wealthy individuals with money to burn 6 months ago may have seen their net worth’s decline by 40%. Suddenly, a contribution to USA Team Handball is competing not only against other good causes, but against dwindling retirement and college education plans. So far the Federation appears to be weathering the financial storm as there have been no staff cutbacks and a team is still being sent on tour to Europe this summer.[/color]
[color=#00ff00]Grade: TBD/Unknown
I’m looking forward to seeing the first year financial statement for the Federation. They stopped hiring staff, but no one has been laid off. Additionally, the trips planned for the summer took place and more are planned, so it looks like the storm has been weathered pretty well. Much better than I would have thought. I also hope that the financial statements provided by the Federation clearly show where large chunks of income are coming from so that we can compare performance in this area from year to year.[/color]

[color=#0000ff]So, that’s it in a nutshell. Of course, the folks in Salt Lake City don’t take orders from me, so I’m not expecting them to jump all over my metrics. But hey, as soon as I send my $60 in for membership, there’s got to be some degree of accountability. And if my patience wears thin 6 months from now, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

Well, as you can see by this fairly negative review, my patience indeed is starting to wear thin, particularly in the areas of governance and planning. In my opinion, there’s been more than enough time to straighten up the Federation’s basic organization structure and to start articulating the Master Plan that will lead Team Handball in the USA out of the wilderness.

But, while my patience is wearing thin, I still have some left in the tank. The Federation is making progress in some areas, even if it’s not as much as I and others would like to see. Next week, the Board of Directors will also be meeting for the first time, and in all likelihood, these and other issues will be discussed in detail. If the Board of Directors functions like it’s supposed to, they could very well jump start the Federation with some good top level guidance and direction.

So, I’ve said my piece for now and I’ll be waiting to see how the Board of Directors takes charge. My hunch (hope) is that there could very well be a flurry of activity and increased levels of transparency in the next few months. Stay tuned[/color].

[color=#00ff00]Six months later, I’m pleased to state, unequivocally, that there truly has been a flurry of activity. Things are clearly headed in the right direction even if there is a long way to go.

I’m less pleased, however, with the lack of transparency. If you didn’t already notice the recurring theme for this year 1 report card is, “Where’s the plan, Stan?” It’s one thing to have a general goal to improve the state of Team Handball in the U.S. It’s another thing entirely to have several specific sub-goals to make that overall goal happen. And with each of those sub-goals clearly identified with detailed plans and benchmarks to track their progress.

The most glaring example of this shortcoming is probably in regards to the U.S. National Team programs with conflicting underlying messages being sent out in regards to youth teams and senior teams. In other words, does the focus on youth teams (rightly or wrongly) mean that 2012 Olympic qualification is being put to the side? What does that mean to a 25 year old handball player who might be a little long in the tooth in 2016 or even 2020? Or taking the other viewpoint, why spend any resources on 25 year old players if they’re not going to be around when we are truly serious about qualifying? There are sensitivities involved here, but it should be possible to clearly state what the goals are and how it’s planned to achieve them.

General Manager, Steve Pastorino, has indicated that an edited version of their High Performance Plan submitted to the USOC will be posted on their website once funding has been approved. Hopefully, this will clear up some questions. Right now without any goals or objectives laid out its wide open to interpretation as to how we’re doing. Blind supporters might be happy with any progress, even if it is woefully marginal while naysayers will probably complain that we still haven’t won a World Championship yet. All, I’m asking is that USA Team Handball starts to lay out its own plan with benchmarks. That way everyone can get on board with executing the plan. And at the end of the year we can all see what’s working and what’s not. And then USA Team Handball can issue a report which assesses the year in review and goals for the next season. (Better them than me!)[/color]