Why Weren’t the U.S. National Teams at the London Olympics?: Part 4: A lack of funding: Where are the sponsors and donors?

If only it were so easy to get substantial funding from these sources.

In part 3, I provided an overview of USA Team Handball’s funding since 1993 and some background as to why the USOC has decreased funding since the 96 Olympics.  Continuing with the theme of funding sources, in this part I look at why the sport hasn’t received much in terms of funding from sponsors and donors.   (Links to Part 1, Part 2)

Sponsors:  As the concept of a “sponsor” might mean different things to different people, I’ll define it as any company that contributes funding to USA Team Handball for the promotion of their product.  (Note:  This is significantly different from the concept of a donor (discussed later) for which there is nothing expected in kind.)

Companies with Handball Specific Products:  There are a number of products that are directly related to the sport of Team Handball.  The obvious products include balls, goals, nets, flooring, shoes and stickum.  Companies with make these products have an incentive to sponsor USA Team Handball since the use and promotion of these products by the Federation is pretty much guaranteed to reach almost everyone in the U.S. that would consider buying these products.  Over the years, USA Team Handball had had a number of sponsorship agreements with companies that make these products, but I don’t have access to the documentation which shows how substantial these agreements were.  In recent years, USA Team Handball did score a $50,000 sponsorship deal with SnapSports (a maker of floor courts), but I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if in most instances the primary benefit was simply equipment being provided for national team use.  (Side note:  Another item, worthy of a lengthy discussion are TV rights and that will be covered in the next installment.)

So, first the good news:  USA Team Handball can pitch to these potential advertisers its phenomenal market reach.  Seriously, if you advertise on USA Team Handball’s webpage, you are probably going to reach nearly 100% of the U.S. Handball market.  But, now the bad news:  The number behind that 100% is probably in the neighborhood of around 500 people.  If these companies do the math, and they generally have people that really do the math (if they want to stay in business), this means that the dollar figures behind these sponsorships isn’t going to currently amount to much.

Companies with Sports Related Products:  There are a number of sports related products not specific to Team Handball that also might find merit with a sponsorship relationship with USA Team Handball.  The most obvious item is team uniforms, but other items such as protective undergarments could come into play.  These sponsors, however, are also pretty aware of the relatively few numbers they will reach through USA Team Handball.  USA Team Handball has generally been pretty successful in finding a uniform sponsor, although it’s not clear how much funding these deals brought in.  If the U.S. could find more success on the court and qualify for the World Championships and convince a U.S. network to air a few national team matches the uniform contract would certainly increase in value.

Companies with Generic Products:  There’s nothing to prevent Coca-Cola, Chevrolet, or some other random company from joining the USA Team Handball sponsorship family.  Well, nothing other than the same argument:  They’d be paying to reach only a few potential customers.  Still, despite this USA Team Handball has had some success in this area in the past.   If companies with Team Handball specific products have taken a pass on advertising with USA Team Handball, you might wonder why on Earth some other random company would give it a go?

The answer generally falls into a couple of categories.  First, some companies want to get aligned with the Olympic movement in any way possible and USA Team Handball can provide an entrée for doing so.  The most striking example was a substantial sponsorship (reportedly around $1M) from the Weather Channel during the 96 Olympics timeframe.  I don’t the full specifics of how this came to pass, but I suspect that the Weather Channel, based in Atlanta, wanted to join the Olympic family and was either coaxed or steered in USA Team Handball’s direction.   I’ll never forget the bizarre juxtaposition of seeing USA Team Handball promotional ads being aired in between weather forecasts and contemplating just how many people watching even knew what they were seeing.  Unfortunately, enticing these companies usually requires being in the Olympics which has proven problematic in recent years.

The second category generally requires someone in the company having an affinity to Team Handball.  How else to explain USA Team Handball’s current sponsorship from Grundfos, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of water pumps?  This Danish company clearly has an affinity to the sport because the likelihood of a USA Team Handball follower also having a need of a water pump is probably pretty small.  In many respects, the distinction between this sort of sponsor and a straight up donor is pretty negligible.

Donors:  If a sponsor provides money with the intent of promoting their product, a donor is someone or some company providing money with no real expectation of profit or promotion.  Donors support a charity, a movement, or a sports federation because they believe in the cause.   I don’t know how much money has been donated over the years, but I suspect that with the exception of Dieter Esch’s fairly recent generosity it hasn’t amounted to a whole lot.

Much like a presidential campaign there’s two ways to accumulate significant funding from donations.  You can either get a few people to contribute a lot or you can get a lot of people to contribute a little.

The millionaire donor:  During the Olympics, sports columnist Jack McCallum whimsically suggested that some altruistic millionaire should take it upon himself to fund USA Team Handball.

Not the first time somebody has come up with that idea as it is the simple solution to the big funding problem.  It seems somewhat silly, but it is at least conceivable.  After all, a lot of millionaires have purchased sports franchises and then bought players to win regardless of how much it costs their bottom line. The team becomes essentially a toy for them in the big scheme of things.  And even outside of professional sports, Paul Allen of Microsoft fame and T Boone Pickens have respectively, turned the Oregon and Oklahoma State NCAA Football teams into top programs.

From that perspective why not spend money turning around an Olympic sport?  The funny thing is, is this is sort of what happened to USA Team Handball on a smaller scale when Dieter Esch bankrolled the Federation from 2008-2010.  I say, “sort of” because Mr. Esch’s generosity had its limits, somewhere perhaps between $500K and $1M.  While his generosity was substantial, we would need Mark Cuban dollars for a full and complete turnaround.  And while I wouldn’t count on this happening, if there ever is someone with idle cash and a love for the sport, I sure hope USA Team Handball is ready to pounce with a pitch that will close the deal.

In the mean time, USA Team Handball could still make inroads with more donors being willing to contribute substantial, but still sizable donations.  Indeed this was the strategy behind the $50K cost for a Board of Director’s seat that Mr. Esch implemented.  And this was how Grundfos was brought into the fold.  Problem is, though, that more companies and businesses did not follow suit.  This could have been a salesmanship problem, but perhaps it’s more of a product problem.

Salesmanship Problem or a Product Problem?

One of the things that I’ve found amusing in online forums or in postgame discussions at the bar are critical comments directed at USA Team Handball for not raising more funds and/or being content to live off the USOC.  As if incompetence and laziness were the only things keeping us from going out in to the backyard to pick corporate checks off the fundraising tree.

I don’t have full insight into how much effort USA Team Handball put into fundraising over the years, but it clearly appears to have been a priority of the last GM and Board President.  Unfortunately, while they made good progress in establishing relationships with several European entities significant funding streams didn’t materialize.  Maybe they were simply bad salesmen, but I would assess their lack of success more to the bitter truth that there is little present value with the product of USA Team Handball.

It’s true that there are some incredible salesmen that can seemingly sale anything to anyone.   But in the midst of a struggling world economy even the Billy Mays of the world are going to come up short if the product doesn’t cut it.

So, given this currently reality how can we convince potential donors and sponsors to step forward and provide more funding to USA Team Handball?  Two answers:

1) Sell the future.  While the present value of USA Team Handball is paltry, the potential future value is exceedingly bright.  A nation of 308 Million people and only around 500 dedicated followers?  A sport tailor made for Americans?  For a long time sponsors and donors couldn’t see that potential future or thought it was a pipedream, but a number of developments have occurred in recent years to start turning some heads.  (To be discussed in the next installment)

In order to sell that future, however, USA Team Handball is going to have to convince the sponsors, donor and international partners that a clear plan is in place to make that future happen.

2) Improve the current product.  Of course, this is obvious, but it’s important to note that is not necessarily fully aligned with National Team performance.  No, the goal here is to improve the product from the viewpoint of potential sponsors and donors.  This means a number of things, but more than anything it means turning 500 dedicated followers into 5,000 and then 50,000 and then more.

So that wraps up the discussion on sponsor and donors.  In part 5, I further elaborate on some of the reasons the sport of handball is so little known in the U.S.