Miami and Chicago: Assessing two European Handball Ventures in America

In April 2009, the French Professional league staged their league’s Final Four Cup in Miami. Last week, the German and Polish National Teams played an International friendly in Chicago. As perhaps the only person to attend both events in person here’s a comparison and contrast of the two events and some speculation regarding future ventures.

[u]Venue[/u]: The Miami event was held at the American Airlines Arena, the home of the NBA’s Miami Heat. It is a world class arena with a seating capacity of 19,600 and is a magnificent venue for any sporting event. The University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC) Pavilion, on the other hand is a more modest, somewhat aging facility with a seating capacity of around 7,000. Setting aside attendance, there’s no comparison as to which venue is better.

[u]Attendance[/u]: Of course, you can’t set aside attendance, though. In reality, it’s probably the single most important metric to assess the success of a major sporting event. The paltry number of fans (300 – 1,000) that showed up in Miami was made even more stark by a large cavernous arena. Aesthetically, for those in attendance and watching on TV seeing rows and rows of empty seats can take the energy out of an event. By contrast fewer fans were needed to fill seats in the more modest Chicago arena. Even still there were noticeable pockets of empty seats. Judging attendance involves some guesswork, but if the venue holds around 7,000 for sporting events, I would guess that there were around 4,000 – 5,000 fans in the seats. Far short of a sell out, but easily the most people ever assembled to watch a Handball event in the U.S. outside of the Olympics. In and of itself, that is a major achievement.

[u]Local Promotion[/u]: So, why were there fewer fans in Miami? The simple answer is that there appears to have been a fairly effective campaign in Chicago directly targeted at the Polish community there. Certainly, anyone in attendance could not miss the loud and boisterous Polish support in the stands. The Miami promoters sought out French supporters, but in reality there is no significant French community in the U.S. For that matter, there is not much of a German community despite the fact that are over 100 million Americans of German descent. In fact, there are only a few places left in the U.S. where assimilation hasn’t made “Little Italy’s” into nothing more than a place to eat Italian food. Clearly Polish Chicago is an exception to the nearly total assimilation of European ethnic groups in most parts of the U.S. Also, I didn’t conduct a survey, but I would speculate that a fair number of those Polish fans were there more to wave a Polish banner than they were to see a great handball match. Nothing wrong with that, though, and who knows maybe some of those folks left the arena as converted handball fans.

In terms of getting non-Polish fans in attendance, though, the Chicago effort appears to have been largely unsuccessful. The very low attendance for the U.S. – L.A. game is certainly an indicator of this. While Germany – Poland is clearly more of a marquee matchup American fans of Handball (without a Polish or German connection) would logically also have found time to arrive early and see the U.S. National Team play. There were fans that did this, but the number was around 300 – 500 or Miami like numbers.

[u]Quality of Competition[/u]: The U.S. – L.A. match was competitive, but the overall skill level of the players was a couple of steps down from professionals. The Germany – Poland match involved players with world class talent, but as a friendly months away from any meaningful competition the match was used by both teams as an opportunity to experiment with different player combinations. They played hard, but there was nothing really at stake. Last year’s French Clubs were a notch below talent wise, but as these teams were playing for a title, in my opinion there was more purpose and intensity in those games. Perhaps, though, there are only a few knowledgeable handball fans currently in the U.S. that can fully appreciate the difference between exhibition and competitive matches.

[u]Overall[/u]: I think most observers with an American perspective will agree that overall this event was clearly a success. Quality match, decent crowd and TV exposure: All positive outcomes. Some might argue that Federation resources could have been better spent on Grassroots efforts, but I think it makes sense to continue to stage promotional events like this in the future. There’s no denying that there are substantial cost in both time and money, but the overall promotional benefit is worth it and it should feed grass roots effort with increased interest from fans and potential players. Surely, somewhere out there, is a kid who saw the U.S. National play and is already making plans to give this game a try. It won’t surprise me either if this currently unknown individual when asked in 2016 or 2020 how he first got interested in Handball mentions seeing this event on TV in 2010.

Don’t get me wrong. An effective Grassroots program is still the most important element of the Federation’s overall program. Events like Chicago shouldn’t become the over-riding focus of the Federation, but they still need to be staged periodically to promote the sport.

[b]The Future[/b]

The buzz in Chicago is that a similar event will likely be held next year, perhaps with four teams. There are problems with scheduling that need to be addressed, but my sense is that this is an event that will be repeated. In terms of location, though, the Polish connection is a lesson that won’t soon be forgotten. Until there is a much larger base of handball fans in the U.S. it is probably imperative that such an event be staged in a city where national ties can be counted on to fill a good portion of the seats. This means there are only a few locales where such an event can be staged successfully. Chicago has proven itself and the next most logical candidate is New York City. New York City will likely add more logistical challenges as it is an expensive city to stage an event in. But as they say, “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.”

THN (18 Apr 09): Commentary on Miami Tournament:

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