'Battle of Chicago' – what is the likely impact?

When Chicago now goes back to normal, after 'the battle has been fought', what remains as a lasting impact? This question has to be answered from several different vantage points, and most of the results will only be seen over the longer term.

Taking first the Polish perspective, I could not help getting the impression that for the Polish team it was mostly a matter of doing its duty in participating in a PR spectacle with a strong Polish connection locally. There have been comments in the media from both the coach and the team captain that 'the timing was all wrong' and that 'the game did not seem to have much impact'. I think that reflects more how the team itself regarded the whole enterprise. I did not attend any training sessions, but I watched the game where the Polish team seemed to run out of energy and enthusiasm after about 20 minutes. It seemed to be more of a necessary response to the enthusiastic crowd support when the Polish team began to reduce the deficit to a more respectable final result, after the German team got a bit sloppy towards the end. And the only show of real enthusiasm came AFTER the game, when the Polish players took the time to reward their supporters by chatting, writing autographs and joining the festive spirit around the court. The Polish team would be a welcome participant on future occasions, but one hopes they will then see it as a more positive opportunity.

The Germans seemed more able to combine 'business and pleasure'. For being a group of mostly experienced international players, they clearly enjoyed Chicago as the setting for a 'training camp', but the impression was also that they, and most definitely their coach Heiner Brand, knew that this was an important first opportunity for team building and serious preparations for the World Championships six months from now. With all the club duties during a hectic season, there are not many solid opportunities for the national team to get together, probably not until early January just before the World Championship gets underway. And, as Heiner Brand confirmed, apart from the handful of players who were missing in Chicago but are already well-established in the squad, it will not be realistic to integrate any newcomers into the team between now and January. Perhaps, as discussed in recent weeks, the 'unlucky' draw for the World Championship also serves as motivation… In any case, the German team seemed determined to make the best use of the overall experience and they certainly did their part in the PR efforts.

But clearly the event was primarily intended as a very special opportunity for USA Team Handball, in its efforts to create awareness and interest among potential players, spectators, media representatives and sponsors. Although the Chicago news media did not exactly interrupt their focus on baseball, basketball, football, and the continuing celebrations of the Stanley Cup, the ability to get almost nationwide TV coverage through Comcast was extremely significant. (I have already heard favorable comments in my local Washington D.C, area). But now the momentum has to be maintained, which means that the occasional big events in the U.S. will not provide a sufficient basis. Agreements under which top games from, for instance, Germany and Spain, are broadcast on a regular basis would be the key, and the federation is fully aware of that.

Another important aspect was that the Federation demonstrated its capacity to put on a big event successfully. This is of course something totally different from putting on a much more 'obscure and internal' event such as the National Championships. Now both the participants and experienced observers were able to conclude that this was a very promising start if one wants to look ahead to repeat events in the future, both in other locations and possibly in an expanded format. Such endeavors are much more demanding in terms of planning, management and execution than most casual observers will appreciate, and my long experience with both IHF events and with USA Handball enables me to say that a lot of credit should go to both Dieter Esch and his colleagues at the top level and to Steve Pastorino as the General Manager in charge of his team. If one wants to attract strong partners (teams, local organizers and sponsors) for future occasions, it is critical to be able to demonstrate this competence.

Finally, while the Federation is rightly emphasizing much more strongly than has been the case in the past, the need for solid grassroots efforts and a youth movement with targeted locations and programs, it is also necessary to demonstrate to both the existing top players and potential future Olympians that the national team level is not ignored. The level of competitiveness may not make a U.S national team a PR weapon at this time, but the time to begin nurturing a squad with focus on 2016 is now, not in 2014-15, and the candidates need to sense that. So this is why top events such as the 'Battle of Chicago' have a demonstration effect, but it is just as important, as the case was now through the USA-L.A. matchup, to offer an opportunity for the top U.S. players to share the limelight and begin to have a sense for what the 'big leagues' are all about. Congratulations, USA Team Handball!