The Impact of the Financial Crisis in Europe

can we afford elite sports in the same way as before?

It seems that the economic realities across Europe, with substantial unemployment and uncertainties about the future cause different reactions among sports fans. Some seem to hope or believe that top level sports should somehow stay immune to the repercussions and simply continue to provide at least some enjoyment and escape from the daily struggle. Others are heard commenting that it is becoming increasingly awkward and unfair that sports stars and performers in the world of entertainment should be able to continue to ‘earn the easy money’ when so many are suffering.

It seems the reality is that while many clubs are trying to keep up a good front to avoid ruining their image, many big name clubs are suffering substantially in both handball and football. When you are start hearing about financial problems in top football clubs in Spain and Italy (leaving aside other reports of scandals there), then you might wonder how clubs in less lucrative leagues can survive. And clearly it would be realistic for handball to suffer even more, as the financial stability of handball clubs, in terms of sponsors and ticket revenue tends to be even more questionable. And indeed, there are not many clubs left in the mighty ASOBAL league in Spain, clearly ranked No. 2 in Europe, which are not encountering serious problems. Players are not being paid and contracts are dissolved. Smaller budgets and lower ambitions are the result.

The impression is that of a polarization. Just like the Germany economy is the ‘locomotive’ in Europe, the Bundesliga and at least the top half of its clubs are just going strong. It would probably not be far from the truth today to say that close to half of the top 20 clubs in Europe are from Germany. And then there are about ten countries with just one strong club each. Perhaps France and Denmark would disagree. But it means that the polarization is also becoming evident within many handball countries where there is no longer much excitement about who will win the national league. And the participation and the results in the EHF Champions League are instead becoming more and more important. I can see John Ryan beginning to speculate that the days of a true Euroleague are not too far ahead, a league with one German and one non-Germany group perhaps.

It is also becoming obvious in connection with the EHF Final Four that Germany is dominant, perhaps too dominant. Not just did they have the winner and one more team among the Final Four. Moreover, while the other teams complain about the unfairness of always playing the event in Germany and the pressure this puts on the referees etc., one can just turn around and ask: where else could this event realistically be played?? First of all, there are virtually no suitable arenas, and in any case, which country could guarantee four sold-out matches despite very expensive tickets, especially if no team from the organizing country was playing!?

And then the surprise announcement during the weekend: immediately after the qualifying groups had been finished and days before the draw for the tournament was going to take place, there was an announcement from the Netherlands that they were suddenly backing out from organizing the women’s EURO 2012 in December. So there is now a mad scramble for another organizer with such short notice, and one of the ideas seems to be a joint Scandinavian venture involving Denmark, Norway and Sweden, who all have strong experience from organizing such events. But it is really a shock for the Netherlands, where there are strong traditions for women’s handball and where the financial situation generally did not seem so disastrous. But the sudden loss of the major sponsor made the situation untenable. So here again is the question, what countries have the stability, infrastructure and spectator interest to handle such big events?  It seems that very few have a realistic chance.