USA Team Handball Development: Why it matters

Christer‘s commentary a few weeks ago on international skepticism regarding USA Team Handball did a good job of summarizing what he‘s seen from 32 years experience. I won‘t repeat his analysis, as it is a pretty good summary of the somewhat misinformed perspectives that Americans and non-Americans have on USA Team Handball. I will offer up though, my favorite non-American assessment courtesy of French Coach Claude Onesta, who when asked by reporter Stefan Fatsis at a 2004 Olympic press conference why the U.S. isn’t very good at handball, replied in perfect, dismissive French: “As far as I am concerned, there are a lot of games at which the United States does not excel.” He might just as well have said, “Who cares and so what?”

Here’s my attempt to answer that question and there’s probably no better way to do so then to first take a look at how much headway soccer has made in the U.S. in the last 30 years or so. Back in 1980 soccer was played in a few high schools and colleges, but there was no pro league and virtually no matches on TV. Perhaps the World Cup final was shown on TV via tape delay, but I certainly have no recollection of seeing it on TV.

In the past few weeks as I‘ve worked on this commentary, I‘ve seen constant reminders of how the World Cup actually matters in this country now. For instance, at an airport terminal I sat next to a father and son watching Paraguay – Italy via webstream on their laptop. As little as 12 years ago that World Cup match couldn‘t have even been watched on TV anywhere in the U.S. Now every World Cup game is shown live and European Club football is available on multiple soccer focused cable stations. Clearly, there‘s a significant percentage of Americans who actually care about all these games.

But, while there‘s a significant slice of Americans who now care about soccer, it still doesn‘t even approach the passion in the rest of the world. The vast majority of Americans still either don‘t care or like me, have just a passing interest. But while that percentage is small, we are still a nation of 308 Million affluent people. We can argue about what the percent is exactly, but let’s say it’s 5%. That’s still 15 million fans and advertisers and overseas clubs have started to take notice. You may be shocked to find out (as I was) that behind the host country of South Africa, the #2 country in ticket purchases for the World Cup matches was the U.S. Yes, a sizable percentage of those buyers were expats living in the U.S. and Mexico fans, but still this is a surprising development.

So if soccer has a 5% slice of America, where does Team Handball currently stand? Depending on what criteria you want to use to count up the faithful, the number of people who really care about the sport in the U.S. is very, very, very small. Shockingly, this number probably ranges from perhaps 300 to 2,000 people. And if you don’t count the Expats living in this county the number truly is paltry.

Yes, if you are a true handball aficionado and own an American passport, it‘s not a stretch to think of yourself as literally “1 in a million.”

This startling fact, is generally not fully conceptualized by non-Americans, be they fans, coaches or administrators. There’s a couple of ways to look at this. First, you can be dismissive and have the so what attitude: The sport of Handball has been doing just fine and dandy without American fans, it can continue to do so.

Or you can look at the reality that Handball might actually be plodding along (at best) compared to the progress being made by other team sports. And you can look at those examples of success like the NBA’s aggressive campaigns that have gained market share in Europe and China. Or the fact that millions of American care about soccer now and actually know what Manchester United and Barcelona mean to the sport.

Is it really possible that Team Handball can find its way to the upper tier of American Sports like basketball and American Football? Or perhaps even to the 2nd tier level of popularity that soccer has? Sure it‘s possible, but I wouldn‘t bet the farm on it happening any time soon. No, if that’s ever accomplished it will take decades.

But, what I would bet on is the prospect of changing “1 in a million” to let’s say “1 in 10,000.” Seriously, the fact that only 1 in a million people really care about handball in the U.S. is absolutely ridiculous. Call me an optimist, but I think that if you expose 10,000 Americans to Handball, you’re going to get at least 1 fully engaged convert. A modest goal, for sure, but one that would still mean 30,000 T-shirt, hat buying, sports channel subscribing, ticket buying Americans. Real fans spending real money.  That’s why it matters if you are a European administrator. Start with a few fans and then grow that base.

The key then is promoting the sport to as many Americans as possible. Signs are pointing in the right direction as the U.S. Federation has been successfully courting different European entities into seeing the light. Most notably Germany and Poland will be playing a match in Chicago in two weeks and it will be broadcast in several U.S. markets. Outside of the Olympics this is the best promotion of the sport since a USA-Brazil match was aired on ESPN in 1996.

A small step for sure, but a notable one. Here’s to that first step in changing “1 in a million” to “1 in 10,000”.

FIFA (30 May 10): US soccer fans ‘phenomenal’ SA support: Link
Wall St Journal (12 Jun 10): Can the U.S. Be a Soccer Nation?: Link
THN (26 May 10): AUDIO: Interview with USA Team Handball Chairman, Dieter Esch:  Link
THN (14 Jun 10): The long (and frustrating) history of international skepticism about U.S handball: Link
Video: American reaction to Donovan goal in 91st minute against Algeria: Link
USA Team Handball (24 Jun 10): Comcast to air Battle of Chicago in first-of-its-kind handball broadcast: