Time for a True European Super League (Part 2): League Structure

In Part 1 of this series I highlighted the interesting dichotomy between the capitalistic league structures and socialistic government systems in Europe and why it might not be so outrageous to contemplate a European Super League. In this part, I provide an overview of just what such a league might look like.

Arguably, this is the best time of the year for fans of club handball. The National League races are nearing the final stretch and the Champions League has been whittled down to 8 of Europe’s best clubs. The home and away Quarterfinals and Final Four are sure to be a treat for Handball fans everywhere. That being said this very committed Handball fan is going to spend the next couple of months flipping back and forth between the NBA playoffs and the HBL/Champions League, wondering all the while, why can’t the Euros get their act together and create a “Super League.”

I’m not the first fan or executive to ponder this very question, but I think it’s worth pointing out that the term “Super League” is a grandiose term that means different things to different people. For Europeans, I’ve found that it usually means simply modifying/improving the existing European Champions League structure. Some want to have fewer participating clubs to weed out the weaker teams. Others want to add more games or change the playoff structure.

Simply tweaking the Champions League structure, however, will not solve the inherent problems with European Handball. I’ve written about this before (What’s wrong with European club handball?: Part 1 and Part 2), but the cliff notes version is that there are too many leagues with clubs haphazardly located in less than ideal locales.  This inefficient organizational structure, kind of, sort of, works for European soccer, but only because soccer is so popular in Europe that any crazy system will suffice.  But, for a less popular sports like handball inefficiency is a luxury that results in a substandard product that has European kids staying up until 3:00 AM to watch NBA games. No, real change will require scrapping the current structures (both Champions and National Leagues) entirely and replacing those structures with an American style league eventually reaching from the Atlantic to the Urals, and from Oslo to Cairo.  Anything less is merely applying band-aids to a broken leg.

There’s a lot of ways to skin the cat so to speak, but if I were king here’s how I’d do it.

The Franchises:

Western Conference

Southwest Division

– Madrid
– Barcelona
– Montpellier
– Paris

Northwest Division
– London/Reykjavik
– Oslo
– Goteborg
– Copenhagen

Eastern Conference

Northeast Division
– Hamburg/Kiel
– Cologne
– Berlin
– Rhein Neckar

Southeast Division
– Vienna
– Budapest
– Ljubljana
– Zagreb

How did I choose these locales? The following factors were considered:

1) Market size: Franchises for the most part should be located in major metropolitan areas.  Large cities mean more fans for arenas and more importantly, bigger regional markets for TV purposes. Also, two franchises shouldn’t be located too close to each other.

2) Tradition: Franchises should usually be located in regions that already have a significant number of Handball fans.

3) Growth opportunity: Some franchises should be located in select areas with strong potential for growth

Admittedly, this is only a top level assessment and you could poke holes in the selection of several of these locales. For example, Montpellier might not be in a big enough market. How can you snub clubs like Flensburg and Ciudad Real? (too small of market)  Kiel and Hamburg will never share a market? (sorry, traditionalists, the cities are too close to each other)  Can London and Reykjavik share a franchise? Does the growth opportunity of a London franchise offset the lack of Handball tradition there? And on and on. Still, I would argue this is a pretty good starting point for discussion.

Franchise location is simple on paper, but much more complicated in reality.  And, of course, no matter how you would slice and dice such a league plenty of folks will be upset that they weren’t invited to the party.  Exclusivity, however, will be needed to ensure that the product is of top quality.  And if everyone is invited to the party, we’ll be right back where we started.


The Regular Season: Each club would play 40 matches with the following breakdown:

– 4 matches each against division rivals (4×3=12)
– 3 matches each against clubs in the other division of their conference (3×4=12)
– 2 matches each against clubs in the other conference (2×8=16)

Most weeks would have 2 regular season matches played either on a Friday/Sunday or Thursday/Saturday schedule. Occasional matches would also be played on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday for TV purposes. Each team would be “partnered” with another team in their division to minimize travel costs. For instance, Barcelona and Madrid would host Budapest and Prague on the same weekend. On Thursday, Budapest would play Barcelona and Prague would play Madrid. On Saturday they would swap opponents. As the two opponents are nearby travel costs would be minimized. The regular season would run from September to March

The Playoffs: The top 2 teams in each Division would advance to the postseason. In the first round the 1st place teams would play the 2nd place teams from the other division in their conference.  The second round would be the Conference Championship and the Final Round would pit the winners of each Conference. I would have each series be played as a best of five game series. The format would be 2 games at home, 2 games away, 1 game home, with the “home” team being the team with the better regular season record. The Playoffs would run from March to May.

National Leagues and National Cups: Super League Clubs would not participate in either National Leagues or National Cups.  The schedule won’t allow for it and the clubs in the Super League should be far and away more superior so no one should want
to see those matches anyway.

National Team Competitions: There has always been some level of conflict between clubs and national teams in regards to player availability. Currently, National Federations have the upper hand as the World and European Championships are generally regarding as the marquee events. The creation of a true super league, however, would dramatically tip the scales
towards the clubs as fans would fairly quickly figure out that Super League competition is a better product. Don’t get me wrong, National team competitions can be compelling, but let’s recognize them for what they are: They are all-star tournaments crammed with too many games in too few days.  Even more bizarrely, they take place in the middle of the club season and are essentially a charitable transfer of assets from the clubs to the IHF, EHF and the National Federations.  A true Super League won’t stand for this and will flex its muscles like the NBA walks all over FIBA.  In my world, there would still be European and
World Championships, but those tournaments would be moved to the summer.  Players would certainly be free to participate in these events, but much like basketball, veteran top players would often opt out of participating. Only the Olympics and
to a lesser extent the World Championship would continue to receive high levels of participation by the top players.

So, I’ve now provided a top level overview of what a true Super League would look like, but, I’ve only touched upon some of the sacred cows that would be thrown to side of the road.  I know European traditionalists are already pooh-poohing the mere thought of the Champions League going away and National Team competitions becoming only a passing interest. In part 3, I’ll take on the usual arguments from the traditionalists who think they are happy with the wonderful way things are currently organized.

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