Promoting Team Handball in the U.S. (Part 2): How is Rugby getting promotion done right?

Should a promotional event like the Poland-German Friendly in Chicago be turned over to a private entity?

In Part 1 of this series I provided an overview of the Las Vegas Rugby 7s tournament and what a boon it was for promoting the sport of Rugby in the U.S.  In part 2, I explore how Rugby is succeeding and whether something similar can be for Team Handball.

Before, I tackle how the Rugby community is promoting the sport in the U.S. it’s worth pointing out that the Team Handball community hasn’t been sitting idly by.  In fact, there have been 3 noteworthy events in just the past two years which sought at one level or another to promote Team Handball in a similar vein.  Two years ago, the French Professional League staged its League Cup Final Four in Miami, last summer the Polish and German National Teams played a friendly match in Chicago and for the past 2 years, New York City has hosted an All Star Game and tournament in conjunction with New Year’s Eve celebrations.  I attended both the French tournament in Miami and the Chicago friendly match and am familiar with the New York tournament, so I think I can say with some authority that each of these events succeeded in some areas, but failed in others.

The Miami event proved that professional club teams could be convinced to come to the U.S. and play competitive matches with a championship at stake.   This is roughly the equivalent of American forays into Europe like the NBA’s recent trip to London to play regular season games that count.  Unlike the NBA games, however, the French Miami experiment was a dismal failure attendance wise and was not shown on TV in the U.S. 

The Chicago event proved that National Federations could be convinced to play a match, albeit a friendly one in the U.S.  The attendance was respectable, but still less than desired.  There was also good promotion with regional broadcasts of the match to many parts of the country.  It wasn’t live on a major network, but it was still the first U.S. TV broadcast outside of the Olympics in 15 years. 

The New York Big Apple Tournament is a smaller scale event, but arguably has done the best job in terms of promoting a U.S. event, to the rest of the world.  This is demonstrated by its successfully packaging of tours to get Germany to cross the Atlantic and the Eurosport broadcast of the All-Star game in Europe.  All well in good, but for a number of reasons it’s not been designed to capture the attention of the citizens of New York.

In contrast to these attempts, the Rugby 7s event is running on all cylinders. 

Good Attendance:  25,000 for each day of a two day event
Atmosphere:  A festival like event with fans from across the country in attendance. 
TV exposure:  Broadcast to a world-wide audience including 5 hours on a major network (NBC) in the U.S.

So, how is Rugby doing it and why can’t we do the same thing for Team Handball?

1) Rugby’s larger USA fan base gives them a running start on ticket sales and courting TV networks.  I asked several informed rugby folks a fairly simple question, “How many people in the U.S. care (really care) about the sport of rugby?”  The answered varied, but around 100,000 seems like a pretty good estimate.  And, of course, this is a very subjective question anyway.  After all what does it mean to “really care”?  But, this is a base to work with and if you already got 10% of that 100,000 excited, that means there’s fewer folks that you need to convince to pay good money for a ticket.  Contrastingly the “really care” Team Handball number is somewhere in the 300-500 range.  This woefully small number means that anyone looking to fill seats for a U.S. based event has to “convince” almost everyone to buy a ticket.  Doable, but it adds an extra degree of difficulty the Rugby folks don’t have to deal with.

In terms of TV, it’s the same deal.  While at the tournament I had the opportunity to chat with John Miller, President Programming, for NBC Sports and Versus.  As you might expect, my pitch was, “Hey when are you going to do something like this for Team Handball.”  The answer, I got was positive in some respects.  He’s familiar with the sport (never a given in the U.S.) and has enjoyed watching it in person at the Olympics.  But, it was negative in that he expressed that the base for Team Handball was too small compared to Rugby and that Rugby also had the advantage of being similar to American Football.   For sure, our base is clearly smaller, but I think it’s only a matter of time before a major USA network climbs on board.  Team Handball is just too good of a product to be absent from our TV screens and it’s only a matter of time before the right decision maker realizes that.  For more on NBC’s plans for rugby be sure to check out the short audio interview at the bottom of the page.

2) Rugby’s International Federation, the International Rugby Board (IRB), is investing heavily to promote and grow the sport, both world-wide and in U.S.  Oh my goodness, how they are investing.  We are not talking Continental challenge cup tournaments and balls to Guatemala.  We’re talking about funding the entire World Series 7’s circuit with additional assistance to the local organizing committees and national teams participating.  We’re talking millions of dollars being pumped directly into USA Rugby, both to help run the Federation and to organize meaningful National team competition.  We’re talking a Federation produced TV and Radio shown world-wide to promote the sport.

These aggressive efforts are now starting to pay dividends.  And no more so is this evident than in the inclusion of Rugby 7s in the Olympics.  Sometimes I think the world handball community doesn’t realize how fortunate that the sport is already on the Olympic Program.  Despite the fact the IOC is top heavy with Europeans, I have serious doubts as to whether the IHF could even begin to mount a lobbying campaign similar to what the IRB has done in the past 10 years.  The IHF occasionally talks about promoting the sport, but its efforts are paltry compared to the IRB. 

But, perhaps it is unfair to compare the two Federations.  Undoubtedly, the money stream from the IRB world cup that is held every four years is substantially greater than the cash flow the IHF gets every 2 years for its World Championships.  Still, I’ve never seen the IHF present any type of a coherent strategy or plan to develop the game worldwide.  Rest assured if USA Team Handball got a little more help from the IHF, its job would be a lot easier.

3) An independent company, rather than the USA Rugby Federation is responsible for the Las Vegas 7’s Tournament.   Whether it was a prescient strategic move or simply a desire to lighten the workload, USA Rugby sold the 7s program several years ago to an independent company, USA 7s, LLC.  Accordingly, USA 7s, LLC is responsible for organizing, promoting and conducting the Las Vegas Tournament.  There clearly is a relationship with USA Rugby, but USA 7s is calling the shots.  A small full time staff is developing the brand, courting sponsors, engaging with TV networks and even developing new tournaments like the collegiate 7s championships later this spring. 

The benefit to USA Rugby is that they’ve been able to focus on other aspects of developing the sport and the 15s program.  Handing off the 7s program means there is one less thing on their very full plate.  Of course, that’s also meant a loss of control and a little bit of criticism from the USA Rugby community.  In particular, critics have pointed out that USA Rugby has sometimes taken a little bit too much credit for an event they’re not really running and that perhaps it shows that others (e.g. USA 7s, LLC) are doing more than the National Federation to develop the sport. 

This may sound a little familiar to some folks in the USA Team Handball Community.   Although, anything that’s been done independently to date, like the French Miami experiment and the Big Apple tournament have not been anywhere near as successful as the Las Vegas Rugby event.  If an event like the Germany-Poland friendly were formally sold off it would have the benefit of freeing up the USA Team Handball staff to work on the many tasks that there currently aren’t enough hours in the days to do now.  The Federation would lose control, but could still benefit greatly.  The fact that the USA 7s tournament has shown that it can work suggests it may very well be worth a try.   After all, if no one cares who gets the credit, a lot can be accomplished.

So, I’ve further highlighted how Rugby is making marketing inroads while Team Handball is trailing behind with fits and starts.  In part 3, I’ll further address what it will take to adapt the Rugby model and apply aspects of it to further promote Team Handball in the U.S.

THN (28 Feb 11) Promoting Team Handball in the U.S. (Part 1):  Las Vegas Rugby 7s Tournament:  Undoubtedly, a model to follow:

THN (18 Apr 2009):  If You Build It, Will They Come?:

THN (26 Jul 2010):  Miami and Chicago: Assessing two European Handball Ventures in America:

THN (7 Jan 2011): 2nd Annual Big Apple Handball Tournament: A Definite Upgrade:

THN (3 Jul 2010):  USA Team Handball Development:  Why it matters:

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