My Keynote Address to the IHF’s “For the Future of Handball” Forum (Part 1)

In an imaginary parallel universe I’ve been invited to speak the IHF’s “For the Future of Handball” Forum that will take place this Thursday, 30 September in Germany.

Below is my planned address.

First off, I’d like to thank Adidas and Mr. Moustafa for inviting me to speak at this “For the Future of Handball” Forum. While I’m pretty certain few people on the face of this planet have written or thought more on this subject I was still surprised to get the invitation. I’ve been told that I can speak candidly. Trust me I will.

[b]Game Structure and Development[/b]

I’ll first speak briefly on the development and rules of the game. The invitation asked the following questions on this topic:
• Would more speed be fine for the game?
• Is the flood of goals a curse or a blessing?
• Are referees able to properly observe the game, covering all activities on the field, or do quick attack series overtax them?
• Would referees of professional status, as far as feasible, show far better performances?

Now I’ll ask a question of my own. Do we even need to debate questions for which the answers are all too obvious? The answer is a resounding no. If you don’t intuitively understand that more speed and goals are good for the game then you probably shouldn’t be here. Likewise, if you don’t already know that referees are challenged at higher levels of play and are underpaid find your way to the exit door. No, the questions that should be asked in this area are in regards to video replay and adding a third official. I won’t wax eloquently on these issues. My suggestion instead is find someone with experience in these areas and have them lead a forum on where to proceed in these areas. I would also argue that you would be hard pressed to find someone more capable of exploring this issue than my colleague Christer Ahl.

[b]Handball on TV[/b]

Now for a topic near and dear to me: Handball on TV. First off, let’s be very clear. It’s time to stop the self aggrandizing declaratives about how the coverage of handball has “increased enormously.” While it has increased modestly this has not been due to effective marketing. No, it has been more due to an increase in the number of channels world-wide looking for sports to broadcast. Sorry, if I offend anyone here, but a monkey could get the modest increase in exposure this great sport has gotten. Instead of patting ourselves on the back, we need to acknowledge the harsh reality is that in most countries handball is actually falling further behind other sports that are more aggressively and successfully marketing their product. In the world’s most affluent market, the U.S., the sport has virtually no presence. The same is true in the world’s largest emerging markets (India and China). Even in European countries like France, the sport is relegated mostly to Cable and satellite with only Championship finals being offered over the free airways.

[u]Internet Web Streaming[/u]

Fortunately, the methods for distributing video content are changing and changing rapidly. Not too long ago the only way to watch handball was on a few terrestrial channels. In the last 20 years or so there has been a proliferation of Cable TV and Satellite options with dozens of channels for distribution. Now thanks to the internet it is now possible to stream video virtually anywhere in the world. To the EHF’s credit (and to a lesser extent the IHF) internet web streaming is now available for major Handball tournaments (sometimes free and sometimes for a fee). We are in the Wright Brothers stage of this technology and the viewing experience has been a mixed bag in terms of quality. Fortunately the trend is steadily toward a better and better viewing experience. To give you an idea of just how good of an experience it can be, Adidas and Apple have loaned us a couple of iPads. (Hand out iPads to audience to pass around) I’ve loaded a subscription to MLB.COM and you’ll see just how good a picture can be provided for a sport viewing experience. Yes, I know how boring Baseball is, but this should open your eyes as to the art of the possible.

But, right now the sports world is merely dipping a toe in the water as the fear is that web streaming is going to take away from lucrative TV contracts. Nowhere is this more apparent than the German Bundesliga’s decision to geoblock web broadcasts outside of Germany in the oft chance that a TV contract might be signed with the country. This is simply shortsighted. Sorry, I’ve got some news for everyone here. The days of these big TV contracts are numbered and it’s only a matter of time before webstreaming will be so ubiquitous that viewers won’t be able to tell it apart from other delivery options. This may sound like very bad news, but if the Handball community chooses to embrace this coming new reality it could very well be the best thing that could ever happen. How so? Internet web streaming will change everything in that it gives you the power to cut out the middle man altogether. Instead of paying someone to coax networks in multiple countries, why not provide a high quality product via the web to everyone. No geoblocking, no fighting for terrestrial broadcasts on free TV. Instead unfettered access to all, everywhere!

Now I realize that this envisioned future isn’t quite there yet. When will it be? 5 years from now? 10 years? Who knows, but think back 15 years ago to when you sent your very first email. Did you fully comprehend the significance of that event? Now extrapolate that to webstreaming and think about the coming revolution.

[u]Total Handball[/u]

So what should the handball world do to prepare for this eventual reality? Well the first thing that could be done is to take is to take a page out of the EHF’s game of the week concept. What if that wasn’t the just for the Champions League? What if it was for all Handball world-wide? What if one week it was the Women’s World Cup final and the next week a Spanish match between Barcelona and Ciudad Real and the next week a Champions League match? Why not pool resources to create a shared platform?

I would argue that such a conglomerate could put together a pretty good package. One that would be of interest to fans both in Handball’s base in Europe and in other parts of the world where the sport is less known. This game of the week, would be the marquee event and would be used to showcase the sport. To start it should be offered for free on the internet and sold to existing networks at a very competitive price. In Europe I think you guys understand what that price should be. In the rest of the World, though, you’re going to have practically give it away. In some instance like the U.S. you may even have to (horror of horrors) pay to get it broadcasted on TV. Why on Earth should you do that? Well that leads to my next topic: Marketing this great sport.

End of Part 1

IHF: Experts discuss the future of handball – Congress in Herzogenaurach: