U.S. National Team Plans: Part 4: Residency Programs: Right time to start? (Planning Considerations)


20 years ago USA Team Handball conducted its own Philadelphia Experiment: A flawed, austere Residency Program for the Men’s National Team that was shut down after only one year. It provides a cautionary tale for the current administration as it apparently makes plans to restart Residency Programs.

In the first part of this series I tackled the basic question of whether Residency Programs were in principle a good strategy for developing U.S. National Teams.  In the next two parts I addressed the question of whether now was the right time to start Residency Programs.  Part 2 looked at prospects for qualifying for the 2016 Olympics and Part 3 addressed financial considerations.  Continuing the “Right time?” discussion I look at some planning considerations that need to be factored into any decision to start Residency Programs.

A Major Decision with Big Consequences

In most everyone’s life there are a handful of major decisions that have to be made.  What we decide for a career, where we choose to live and who we choose to marry are probably the three biggest ones.  Make a poor decision on any of those and be prepared to face the consequences.  No wants to spend their day doing a job they don’t like, residing in a place they don’t like or living with a spouse they don’t like.  In most cases we can recover from our decisions that haven’t turned out the way we wanted them to.  We can start a new career, move to a new city and divorce/remarry.  But, it goes without saying taking those steps in not always easy and without major consequences.

Starting Residency Programs is the rough sports federation equivalent of making all 3 of those decisions at the same time.  It is a huge decision and if USA Team Handball makes a poor choice there are some potentially big consequences.  And this isn’t just random conjecture from “some guy with a blog.”  No, USA Team Handball has been down this road before.  And the decision to pull the trigger sometimes has had disastrous consequences.

A Cautionary Tale:  The Philadelphia Experiment

As I gathered my thoughts for this series, I reflected on my own personal experience with Residency Programs.  Part of the trip down memory lane included a decision made almost exactly 20 years ago in 1993 to move the U.S. Men’s program from Colorado Springs to Philadelphia.  At the time the move was sold with the following rationale:

  1. The U.S. population is more densely concentrated on the East Coast and locating in Philadelphia will make it easier to recruit athletes and have them move to join the program.
  2. An East Coast location would make it easier for U.S. teams to travel to Europe and vice versa.  The costs of going to/from Colorado were an additional expense that sometimes precluded such travel.
  3. USA Team Handball would be embraced by the City of Brotherly Love and we would no longer be one sport of many at a crowded Olympic Training Center.  Philadelphia would become America’s home for Team Handball and everyone would soon forget Colorado.

Needless to say many members of the National Team weren’t pleased with the prospect of moving.  Pretty much everybody liked Colorado Spring and some had started to set down roots in the place.  The move was made right before the National Team headed to Europe for the 1993 World Championships with some players moving their personal belongings and others (myself included) hedging their bets until after the World Championships.  The team gathered in Philadelphia for a few days prior to flying to Finland for a training camp and I caught a glimpse of what the program would be like.  The dorms at LaSalle University were a bit run down and it wasn’t clear if there would be access to a cafeteria or even a gym.  In short there were quite a few questions to be answered.

When the team came back from the World Championship, I personally had to make a decision regarding my future with the sport.  For those that have seen my less than spectacular talents it may seem somewhat laughable to think that I had any real decision, but playing in the World Championships had been a revelation for me.  Somehow, the afterthought player who had actually failed to even make a regional Olympic Festival team a year and a half earlier had worked his way into the starting lineup.  Albeit, only on defense and for a team that didn’t win a single game, but trust me if you are passionate about the sport and you get to play on the world’s stage, you’re allowed to have illusions of grandeur.

I contemplated the possibilities.  Leave the Air Force; find an aerospace job in Philadelphia; go to the Olympics in 1996.  But rationale thought and reality kicked in.  I assessed the odds were too long and the consequences were too severe.  And, easing that decision along for this athlete was an assessment that the Residency Program in Philadelphia wasn’t up to snuff.  It would have been one thing to continue the dream in quality surroundings; It would have been another thing entirely to so in a crappy environment.

And while losing me as a prospect was no real loss, it does illustrate the type of negative impact a shaky Residency Program can have.  I wasn’t the only player to make a similar decision and I can think of at least two talented athletes (Luke Travins and Brian Parath) who probably could have made the 96 Olympic Team if they had kept playing.  Not to mention the fact that the year in Philly was in many respects a lost year of prep for the 1996 Olympics.  I was not there, but the hardship stories are legendary.  It’s safe to say that training really didn’t get into full swing until the Philadelphia Experiment was unceremoniously ended and a Residency Program was established in Atlanta in 1994.  Would have another year of preparation made a difference?  Perhaps a close loss to Sweden becoming instead an upset victory?  We’ll never know, but a consistent training program wouldn’t have hurt.

And, this is but one example.  More recently, the Women’s program trained in Cortland, NY.   The setup there was also less than desirable with the athletes there making all sorts of sacrifices in terms of living conditions and job prospects.  (This ESPN article highlights some of those conditions.)  Not surprisingly, the program struggled to find quality recruits and was not very successful.  Even more recently, the U.S. held a training camp in Edmond, OK and at a press conference the Federation highlighted the possibility of starting Residency Programs there.  Alarmed, I wrote this commentary on that prospect.

Criteria to consider in locating Residency Programs

My commentary included a top level list of factors to consider when evaluating locations for Residency Programs.  These criteria included the following:

  1. Quality and Availability of Facilities:  Ready and easy access to facilities
  2. Local support:  Will the Residency Program be embraced by the local community
  3. Ease of Travel: Both for teams visiting and recruiting. (Yes, there was some logic behind moving to Philadelphia)
  4. Academic Opportunity and Quality:  The desired athletes are college age and many will want an opportunity to pursue a degree.
  5. Athlete Financial Incentive:  Tuition, room and board, stipends, etc.
  6. USOC Support:  An Olympic Training Center would be ideal, but the USOC also has arrangements with other facilities too
  7. Intangibles:  Call this factor X; maybe there’s a benefactor out there willing to financially support a program
  8. Gut reaction:  Some locales simply by their name will make recruiting easier.

This is just a top level summary, there’s a little more detail in the commentary from two years ago.

Olympic Leverage

In all likelihood USA Team Handball will evaluate these factors and more and will consider multiple locations before making such an important decision.  So, what are the chances that it can secure an arrangement with at least some of them in place?  At this point in time (March 2013) I would assess there’s probably only one scenario whereby a decent arrangement could be started.  And that would be the USOC reversing long standing policy to let a minor sport with negligible chance of medaling in the near term set up shop (beds for 32 athletes, meals in the dining hall, weight room access and dedicated court time) at one of the Olympic Training Centers.  It’s certainly possible, but the prospects seem slight due to the competing demands from a lot of sports, many with smaller footprints and more feasible medaling prospects.  Perhaps facility access might be provided, but room and board is probably a stretch.

Entities with a loose affiliation with the USOC are probably a more likely prospect, but it’s also hard to see them offering up much more than a gym to practice and perhaps in-state tuition rates.  (This should immediately conjure up images of Philadelphia and Cortland.)  The problem is simply a lack of negotiating leverage– as in USA Team Handball has little if anything to offer up at this point in time.

But, maybe there is a point in time, in the not too distant future, where USA Team Handball might have a little leverage. Yes, I’m referring to the prospects of a USA hosted Olympics in 2024.  Hey, that’s over 11 years away, you might say.  Working back the timeline back from that future date, however, shows that host city campaigns and selection isn’t that far away.

2017: IOC selects 2024 Olympic host city
2015: Bid cities selected by nations start campaigning
Late 2014: USOC intends to select USA candidate city Link
Early 2014: USOC intends to narrow USA candidates to 2 or 3

So, might a U.S. city interested in getting selected to host an Olympics be willing to do a little bit more than they normally would to help a minor sport.  Maybe as part of a bid package San Francisco or some other city would include a training program for USA Team Handball at one of the local universities and job employment assistance with Silicon Valley companies.   (Finish your degree at Cal-Berkeley, work for Google and play Team Handball:  wouldn’t that be a nice recruiting pitch.)  With hundreds of millions of dollars on the line, it’s at least conceivable that competing cities will at least entertain possibilities that might make their host city bid package more attractive.

Besides the leverage possibilities in the host selection bid process the advantages of simply co-locating with the city that gets selected are also very significant.  Local sponsorship would certainly be easier to secure.  Start the program in 2015 and you would even have time to implement a Title IX High School program.  And those are just some of the possibilities.

The cart before the horse?

There’s no guarantee, of course, that the U.S. will get the 2024 Olympics, but surely the odds have never been better.  And, perhaps USA Team Handball can get a good deal at an Olympic Training Center without having to wait.  If it’s truly a good deal with good guarantees, why not?  But, if all USA Team Handball can get is a so-so deal for an austere program with a lot of question marks there’s a lot to suggest that it would be a smarter move to wait a bit.  To sum up, here are 3 big reasons to really think twice before moving forward with Residency Programs anytime soon.

  1. U.S. National Teams stand very little chance at qualifying for the 2016 Olympics Link
  2. USA Team Handball doesn’t appear to have the funding to fully support a program Link
  3. Leverage for a better deal might be just around the corner

So that sums up my concerns with starting Residency Programs.  In the next installment I tackle the issue of whether it makes sense to hire full time coaches at this point in time and whether USA Team Handball has hired coaches with the right skill sets to match its current needs. Part 5