In this new series of essays, I plan to make the case that it’s time for professional European Handball to dramatically restructure its organization to form a true, European Handball Super League. In short, it’s time to adopt the best features of the American sports model and create a top flight Pan-European league. In part one of this series I won’t go into the detail of what such a league would look like. Instead, I’ll first explore a puzzling dichotomy which suggests that maybe such a dramatic change wouldn’t be as upsetting to the European psyche as many think it would be.
Sometimes you can’t really appreciate how another country does certain things until you’ve lived there a few years. Living in France I learned a few things that surprised me and challenged some notions I had about the superiority of my native country. For instance, I’ll never forget the puzzled looks on the French Hospital staff who couldn’t figure out why we dragged our baby daughter to the Emergency Room in the middle of the night for a high temperature. Silly Americans, don’t you know that you call the doctor and he comes to your apartment for problems like that. Oh, and it costs around 40 Euros. Call me a left wing extremist, but I’m thinking if a few more Tea Party Americans experienced SOS Medecins instead of our wonderful Hospital Emergency Rooms at two o’clock in the morning they’d still be clamoring to repeal the Obama health care plan, but only because it doesn’t go far enough.
Of course, it works the other way as well. The U.S.A didn’t get where it is today, if we didn’t do quite a few things pretty darn well ourselves. And nowhere is this truer than how the U.S. organizes and manages professional sports. Pick any metric you like: attendance, player salaries, TV audiences, etc and without question the American system is overwhelming superior to anything in Europe or the rest of the world for that matter. Professional Soccer is the only sport that approaches American numbers and even then if you compare it to our predominant outdoor sport, American Football, it is still clearly: advantage USA.
I’ve written about this a few times before in a couple of articles on “What’s wrong with European Handball” and periodically in forum discussions that crop up on revamping the Champions League or National Leagues. I’ll have to say I don’t think I’ve won many people over. And with the overwhelming evidence I find it a little frustrating, so I chalk it up to my opening diatribe: If European leagues are what you grew up with you may to have to witness American structures personally before you start to rethink your version of reality.
Still, I find it somewhat bewildering that this “my sports league model is better than yours” argument is all backwards as Europeans should have the American model and vice versa. The reason I say this is that most European nations take great pride in their social programs which include universal health care, generous unemployment compensation and pensions. There’s a price, though, for these European safety nets, as taxes are higher and it’s tougher for an entrepreneur to start a new company. There are fewer rich people, but also fewer folks on the margins of society. Liberte, egalite, fraternite, if you will.
In the U.S. we have fewer social programs and there’s more of a let the strong survive mentality. If you’ve got a great idea or run your company better than your competition, well, then you will profit handsomely. Conversely, if you don’t do things as well, then you could go out of business. This is an over simplification of both models, as entrepreneurs can succeed in Europe and American have a safety net as well. The difference is principally a sliding scale with vary degrees of free market and more socialistic philosophies.
But, when we talk about our different sport structures everything is way out of whack as U.S. Professional leagues have hired Karl Marx as their economics advisor and the Europeans have hired Boss Tweed. In the U.S. we’ve instituted rules that limit how much players can be paid (salary caps), force strong teams to pay cash money to weaker teams (revenue sharing), and help ensure that the best new players join the worst teams (drafts). In Europe, it’s a dog eat dog world with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.
The results of these polar opposite structures are stark in their contrast. Nowhere is this more true than the competitiveness of leagues. In Europe, it’s all but preordained which teams have a chance of winning their respective leagues. In Germany, Kiel, Hamburg and Rhein-Neckar Lowen have the biggest budgets and despite some early season success from Berlin they will surely play for the title. In Spain it will be Ciudad Real and Barcelona. In other countries it’s even worse with one horse towns like Montpellier ruling the French league season after season. They were such a big favorite this year that you would have to wager $100 to win $10 if you wanted to bet on them to win the French Championship.
But, the point of this new series won’t be to simply rehash the shortcomings of the European model (Although, undoubtedly they will be highlighted again.) Instead this series will make the case that a modified American model could work in Europe. And not only work well, but work magnificently, dramatically increasing revenue, improving competitive play and perhaps most importantly raising the profile of the sport world-wide. In Part 2 of this series I will outline just how such a league would be structured.
SOS Medecins: http://www.sosmedecins.com/index.htm
THN Commentary (20 Aug 06): What’s Wrong with European Club Handball? (Part 1) The Disparity from Top to Bottom: http://teamhandballnews.com/2006/08/whats-wrong-with-european-club-handball-part-1-the-disparity-from-top-to-bottom/
THN Commentary (5 Dec 06) What’s Wrong with European Club Handball (Part 2): http://teamhandballnews.com/2006/12/whats-wrong-with-european-club-handball-part-2/