Charting a Way Forward for USA Team Handball: Option 3: Develop or participate in a European based residency program to provide athletes more competition and opportunity for professional contracts


A wishful thinking future headline?  Maybe, but arguably an overseas residency program has the best chance of making a headline like this a reality someday.

A wishful thinking future headline? Maybe, but arguably an overseas residency program has the best chance of making a headline like this a reality someday.


Ask just about any athlete that’s ever participated in a U.S. National Team Residency Program what the biggest shortcoming to training in the U.S. was and the conversation will undoubtedly turn to the lack of regular competition.  Great training facilities and quality coaching instruction are vitally important, but if your competition opportunities for the most part consist of scrimmaging in practice against your teammates it will get real old, real fast.  For athletes new to the sport the lack of competition may not be such a big deal.  They’ve got their hands full learning the finer points of the game and keeping up with the veterans.  Couple that with the excitement and camaraderie with being part of a National Team program and they are usually just happy to be there.  For their more experienced teammates, though, who have reached a certain development level the lack of competition, particularly against more skilled players make it very difficult, if not impossible, to take their game to the next level.  Those athletes plateau and a grind sets it.
Of course, a national residency team can schedule competition, but if you’re living in a country with just a handful of amateur club teams scattered all over the map that means either traveling overseas or convincing teams to journey to America.  Traveling overseas can be done, but it’s not cheap.  Additionally, due to a crowded competition schedule in Europe there are only a few narrow windows during the year when it’s even possible for the U.S. to play matches against other national teams and top clubs.  And, it’s even tougher to get teams and clubs to journey to the U.S. as they have to bear the travel costs.
But, what if you moved your residency program to Europe?  Could you have your training and competition too?  This isn’t a newly discovered revelation.  Back in 1990-91, the U.S. Men even resided in Czechoslovakia and played an entire season in the top club league there.  Playing every match on the road they didn’t fare well, but the participants clearly improved as players.  I have no idea what that program cost, but it was surely an opportunity facilitated by the U.S. Men’s head coach at the time, Vojtech Mares, a legendary Czech player.
More recently, the Aarhus Handball Academy in Denmark has trained individual players and hosted the Great Britain national teams in the run up to the 2012 London Olympic Games.  As discussed in this podcast interview, athletes at the Aarhus Academy live in a college-like dorm setting and receive training both at the Academy and with a local club where they are placed based on skill level.  So, in addition to individualized skills training similar to what one might expect with a residency program these athletes also get the opportunity to compete in Danish club play.  Dozens of Canadians, mostly products from Alberta’s ever expanding youth program have gone to Aarhus after High School and four U.S. athletes, Julia Taylor, Sophie Fasold, Ethan Pickett and Ross Miner have paid their own way there to improve their game.
The U.S. is currently focused on a U.S. based residency program, but the potential advantages of an overseas based residency program merits further study.  Herewith, is some top level analysis that could be expanded upon at a later date.
More competition:  An overseas residency program will clearly provide more opportunities for competition.  Even a fully fledged residency program with a massive travel budget will be hard pressed to be able to match the competition opportunities available overseas.
Athlete exposure for professional opportunities: An added side benefit of a program like Aarhus would be the potential for a U.S. athlete to get noticed and secure a professional contract.  Heck, it’s not a side benefit.  Arguably, it’s the holy grail game changer that could forever redefine USA Team Handball.  As, I alluded to in my false news story it could be the pathway that realistically enables a U.S. athlete to start a significant pro career at a relatively young age.  Consider the possibility of a Darrick Heath like athlete playing for 10 years in the HBL or the next Leora Sam Jones playing 10 years in Denmark’s Liggen.  If the U.S. can get just 1 or 2 playing at that level we can realistically talk about qualifying for the Olympics.  Get a dozen playing and lookout Euros, the sleeping giant has awakened.
Loss of U.S. exposure and foothold:  Basing National Team Residency Programs in the U.S. establishes a foothold or hometown for the sport. Residency players can support development in the local community and a hub of activity and growth can ensue.  If an overseas residency program comes at the expense of a stateside program this opportunity will be lost.
Athletes may balk at an overseas program.   While living overseas presents athletes with better competition and opportunities for exposure to professional clubs, some athletes will surely prefer to live and train in the U.S.  This will be true for a number of reasons to include college opportunities, job prospects, family considerations and plain old homesickness.    Prior to make any major resource commitments the U.S. should do a full assessment as to whether it has or can recruit the athletes to populate the program.
At first glance it may seem cost prohibitive to even consider the possibility of an overseas residency program.  Intuitively, it’s simply cheaper for Americans to live in America.  This thinking, however, neglects some indirect benefits of a potential overseas program.
Outsourcing: If the U.S. relies on a residency program like Aarhus many existing costs centers will be dramatically reduced or even eliminated.  In particular, there would no longer be a need for full time coaches, freeing up $120,000/year which then could be spent on part time coaches, beefing up college programs and paying tuition for the Aarhus program.  Additionally, all of the other costs associated with maintaining a residency program would disappear.  While much of this is provided at “free” or dramatically reduced cost by Auburn there are surely incidental charges and plenty of man-hours being devoted to its operation.  
Lower Overall Travel Costs:  It’s counterintuitive, but an overseas location could actually lower the overall travel budget of the Federation.  The actual answer as to whether it would or not primarily hinges on where the bulk of USA Team Handball’s top players live and how much overseas competition is desired.  If most of the top players are playing professionally in Europe and if a lot of overseas competition is desired, the European option becomes more and more feasible.  The U.S. has already conducted training camps in Europe for this very reason.  The leap to doing it full time isn’t so far fetched, especially if more players can be placed with club teams with good training environments.
Cost Break Point and a Simple Calculation.  It should be readily feasible to come up with a per athlete cost for multiple residency possibilities, both stateside and overseas.  The Aarhus cost is relatively easy to determine and placing one athlete there for both the Fall and Spring currently costs around $12,000.  Determining the cost for an athlete at Auburn should also be relatively easy to determine.  This would be done by simply taking the total operating costs and dividing it by the number of players in residence.   A very simple determination ($120,000 in coaching salaries divided by the 20 or so players there) comes up with a cost of $6,000 per athlete.  While this is half the Aarhus cost it also doesn’t factor in that athletes at Auburn are currently responsible for room/board and even travel for some recent trips.  If you factor in those costs Aarhus is pretty comparable.  Not to mention that a package deal could probably be negotiated down a bit  Further, if you are a bit skeptical as to the long term potential of some of the athletes currently training at Auburn, the “20” number could be pared down to perhaps “5” or so at which point outsourcing residency programs to Denmark starts to look pretty good.  But, these are simple back of the napkin calculations based on limited information.  It would be interesting to perform the same calculations with better pricing data.
Timing for Implementation
The timing for implementation of an overseas residency program will depend on a number of variables.  These variables include:
2016 Olympic Qualification efforts:  USA Team Handball currently has around 20 athletes training on a daily basis at Auburn.  The Woman’s program has the bulk of its athletes training there as a unit and while qualification is a long shot it would be unfair to those athletes to substantially change development programs so close to the major qualification events in 2015.   After Olympic qualification runs its course, however, there will be a logical break point to re-evaluate what’s in the federation’s long term best interests.  The situation for the men’s program is significantly different as several key players are not based at Auburn and are already playing overseas.  In fact, with just a handful of promising, but inexperienced athletes training at Auburn a pretty strong case could be made to immediately enroll those players at the Aarhus Handball Academy.
U.S. Federation degree of control: The level of oversight USA Team Handball would have over an overseas residential program would impact how quickly a program could be set up.  If USA Team Handball wanted minimal oversight and decided to go with an existing programming like the Aarhus Academy implementation could proceed very quickly.  USA Team Handball, however, may prefer greater oversight to include hiring its own coach or coaches to run the program.  Such an arrangement, while desired, will require some negotiation and coordination may delay implementation.
Program location:  Again, going with an existing location, like Aarhus could proceed quickly.  The U.S. may, however, prefer other locations for a variety of reasons and setting up a new program at a TBD location will likely include several logistical obstacles.
Size of program:  Sending a handful of athletes can be done fairly quickly, but if the U.S. intends to set up a program that will allow the U.S. to train regularly as a team this will likely take more time and coordination.
Overall:  In a nutshell the timing for implementation would hinge mostly on available funding and desired level of effort.  A simple transfer of athletes to an existing program like Aarhus could be done immediately or wait to the conclusion of 2016 Olympic Qualification.  A more extensive program would likely take a couple of years to implement and probably couldn’t be implemented until 2016 at the earliest.  The best course of head may be to review the different possibilities and how an overseas program might be integrated with U.S. based programs.  At the same time USA Team Handball could begin discussions with European based entities and the IHF as to how they might support such a program.