How should USATH decide where to locate our National Teams?

Edmond, Oklahoma: The future home of USA Team Handball. Really?

At the USA Team Handball (USATH) press conference held a couple of weeks ago I was a little surprised to hear that Edmond, Oklahoma is being considered as a potential location for our resident National Teams.  Having grown up on a farm in Iowa, I certainly don’t consider myself to be one of those snobbish types that views everything in between California and the East Coast to be “fly over country.”  There are some distinct positives about Midwestern locales like Iowa and Oklahoma.  Still, there’s probably more than a few reasons why I live in Las Vegas now as my gut reaction was, “Oklahoma? Really? This is the best we can do?”

Upon further reflection, though, I decided that a gut reaction wasn’t the best way to make an important decision like this.  No, an important decision like this should be carefully made, after a full evaluation of how well several locales meet key criteria.  And as I see it, here’s some of those criteria that should be considered:

Quality and Availability of Facilities: This may seem like a given, but experience has shown that nothing can be taken for granted here, especially when it comes to gym access.   Bait and switch, whereby the best gym facility is no longer available in the winter due to other athletic teams having priority has been known to happen.  With many gyms being sized for basketball, access to a full court is never a given either.

Local support: For the most part this criterion refers to how much support the host university will provide.  For instance, will the host school aggressively market itself as the home of the U.S. National Teams?  Will it help secure sponsorship?  Will it seek to host National Team matches on semi-regular basis and work diligently to bring in new fans?  Will it engage the local media?  Beyond, the school itself, what are the chances that a region would embrace being the U.S. Home of Team Handball?   The answer to this last question might actually work to a smaller city’s advantage as being that home could be a big thing in a small pond, vice just one more activity lost in the shuffle of a big city with lots of activities.

Ease of Travel: Where ever National Resident Teams are located players, staff and hopefully visiting clubs and national teams will need to travel to and from that location.  If you take into account all those potential trips we’re talking about some serious cash adding up over time.  For the foreseeable future it’s hard not to envision quite a few trips back and forth to Europe and geographically this clearly makes the East Coast advantageous in terms of money and time.  Certainly, the departure of the National Teams from Colorado Springs in the 1990’s to Philadelphia and later Atlanta was due in part to this factor.

Additionally, about half the population of U.S. lives in the Eastern Time Zone.  As it’s more densely populated in the East there are a number of locations where driving would be more of an option for athletes and teams traveling to the training center.  That doesn’t mean any location on the Eastern seaboard will do.  (If you’ve ever flown into Burlington, VT to get to Lake Placid, you know what I’m talking about.)  No, the location should be relatively near a major airport with a major hub for European flights being the ideal option.

Academic Opportunity and Quality: When it comes to our top sports, NCAA collegiate athletes will pick their college based on the coach, the team and the level of financial support (scholarship) they will receive from that college.  In quite a few cases an athlete will end up at a particular school simply because it’s the only one that offered a full scholarship.  For many of those athletes the academic opportunity and quality they get takes a back seat to the athletic opportunity.  When one goes lower down the pecking order in terms of NCAA sports, however, the value of the education at a particular school starts to become more important to the student athlete.  For Team Handball there will be a few potential athletes who’ll pack their bags and go to any college for the opportunity to develop their skills.  I’ll venture to guess, though, that the program will lose out on some prospects that aren’t willing to relocate to what is perceived to be a subpar institution.

Athlete Financial Incentive: Of course, the possibility of a scholarship will certainly be an enticement. As a minimum, the selected university should have some form of financial incentive.  In the case of public institutions, athletes should at least be able to get in-state tuition rates.  And for private school, there should be a minimum grant.  (Although, I would think that the costs of private schools may put them out of the discussion from the get go.)  Free room and board would certainly be highly desired as well, but barring that it would be nice to get some reduced rates and/or a guaranteed location for the team to set up house in one of the dorms.

Work opportunities: While I think the focus should be on a good college/university to sponsor the program, not all our athletes will necessarily want a four year degree.  Accordingly, there should be opportunities for professional training and 2 year degrees.  Additionally, I don’t think, that we should be overly concerned with ensuring that the location has multiple opportunities for young college graduates entering the work force.  As I’ve written before, I envision this National Team Residency program to be focused on athletes that are 23 and younger.

– USOC Support: The benefits of co-locating with an Olympic Training Center such as the ones located in Colorado Springs and Lake Placid shouldn’t be discounted.  Edmund is a designated Training site as are the facilities in Birmingham, Alabama that have been used previously.  It’s not clear what the what the difference is between a “center” and a “site” or what the overall financial incentive is for going with the USOC approved locations, but they’re probably significant.  Additionally, there’s the added benefit of having a big brother (USOC) around to help you out should there be problems with a location reneging on aspects of their arrangement

– Intangibles: There are some other factors that could play into this decision.  For instance, maybe there is another Dieter Esch out there somewhere who will donate several million dollars if the National Teams are located in Town X.   (After all, Salt Lake City didn’t just magically become the HQ for USATH, if you know what I mean.)

You can also factor in “gut reaction” into this fuzzy category.  For better or worse, there will always be locations that will garner instant positive or negative reactions.  Negative gut reactions can be overcome with the right sales job, but it’s certainly easier to not have to fight that battle.  And trust me, if Edmond, Oklahoma were to be the new home of our national teams, such a sales job would be a requirement for every athlete not living within 200 miles of there.  That doesn’t mean you can’t convince top athletes to move to Oklahoma. After all, if I’m not mistaken there’s a little town called Norman with a University that’s been doing it for years in sports like football and basketball.

So, that’s my list of criteria.  I’m sure there are others that need to be factored in.  Regardless, it can’t be understated just how big of a decision this could be.  The right deal in the right location could create a lasting hotbed for the sport with a local community turning out in significant numbers to support their U.S. National Team.  Conversely, a bad decision or a hasty one could wind up being a dead end that alienates a generation of potential athletes.

Youtube: Sarcastic home video “Welcome to Edmond”: