Charting a Way Forward for USA Team Handball: Option 6: The Title IX Field Hockey Strategy (Part 1): How Women’s and Men’s Handball Differ

Best finishes at World Championship by select non-European nations.  Should the U.S. try to climb both of these mountains or select the one the provides the greater chance of success?

Best finishes at World Championship by select non-European nations. Should the U.S. try to climb both of these mountains or select the one the provides the greater chance of success?

Developing Team Handball in the U.S. and fully funding Men’s and Women’s National Teams is expensive. But, what if the USA Team Handball decided to focus its limited resources primarily on just developing Women’s Handball and supporting its Women’s National Teams? In part 1, I highlight the difference between Men’s and Women’s handball development and structure world-wide and the argument for the U.S. to focus its resources on Women’s programs.

Men’s and Women’s Sports: Vastly Different Mountains to Climb

With the U.S. one of the favorites in the currently ongoing Women’s World Cup it routinely begs the question. Why is the U.S. Women’s soccer team amongst the elite while the U.S. Men have just basically earned a good measure of respect?

  • Women’s International soccer is a relatively new sport. While the Men’s World Cup has been played regularly since 1930, the Women didn’t even bother to hold a World Cup until 1991. Instead of playing catch up to nations that have been playing regular high level national competition the U.S. Women got in on the ground floor.
  • Most nations don’t take Women’s sports as seriously as they do Men’s sports. Not only is Women’s soccer a relatively new sport most of the World’s nations simply don’t take women’s sports very seriously. At the extreme end of this spectrum some Muslim nations either don’t allow or strongly discourage women’s sports. While few nations take it to that extreme in many places in the world the cultural norm is that sports are for boys. This is changing at a semi-rapid pace, but it wasn’t too long ago that even Western European nations were almost devoid of girl’s sports. In particular, here’s a striking anecdote: In France, one Paris based club only added a girl’s team at the insistence of Americans living in Paris. In fact, a good argument could be made that no nation takes Women’s soccer as seriously as the U.S. does.
  • A U.S. law, commonly referred to as Title IX has strongly encouraged U.S. Colleges to provide scholarships for women in many sports, including soccer. It’s pretty hard to understate the tremendous impact this law has had on the development of the Women’s game. With several thousand young women playing competitive college soccer the U.S. has the largest developmental league in the world. And, all of this is funded by universities and hasn’t cost U.S. Soccer a dime.

And, many of these same advantages also apply to other sports. Here’s a comparison of the best performances by U.S. Men’s and Women’s teams in the 9 Olympic team sports:

Best Team USA Performances since 1950
Men Women
Olympic World Champion- ships Olympic World Champion- ships Official NCAA Sport?
Basketball 1st 1st 1st 1st Yes
Ice Hockey 1st 1st 1st 1st Yes
Volleyball 1st 1st 1st 1st Yes
Water Polo 2nd 1st 1st 1st Yes
Soccer 9th 8th 1st 1st Yes
Field Hockey 11th 3rd 3rd Yes (Women)
Curling 3rd 1st 4th 1st No
Rugby 7s 13th 3rd No
Team Handball 9th 15th 5th 11th No


It can be debated as to whether the USA Men’s or Women’s basketball team has been more dominant over the years, but there’s little debate in the 8 other sports: Across the board, the USA Women have performed better overall with more championships and more consistent top 3 finishes. And, if one looks at the places where neither the USA Men nor Women have done very well you’ll also see a “no” in the collegiate column. This lack of competitive collegiate leagues and the “free” development/scholarship funding to go with it has put those sports at a significant disadvantage.

Historical Climbs up the Team Handball Mountain (Other Nations)

While the U.S. hasn’t had much success against the European Handball hegemony other nations have had more luck climbing up the Team Handball Mountain. Notably, two Women’s team’s South Korea and Brazil have planted flags at the summit winning Olympic and World Championship Gold. To date, however, no Men’s teams have had that level of success. The South Korean Men did earn a silver medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and Tunisia took 4th when they hosted the World Championships in 2005. And while those sides have maintained a measure of respectability those results were clearly boosted by the home court advantage.  Not to mention the fact, that both Tunisia and Egypt have pretty strong development and leagues on the men’s side that are pretty comparable to European nations.

The reasons for those 1st place successes on the Women’s side are more directly attributable to the Women’s game being far less developed than the Men’s game. There are Women’s professional leagues and clubs in Europe, but the overall number is significantly less then the Men. The reason is simple: There is less interest from players/fans and, accordingly less money to go around.  Don’t get me wrong, the Women’s players are hard working and dedicated.  They just don’t have the resources that the top Men’s clubs have.  And, this also applies at the lower levels where there are fewer semi-professional and amateur clubs. All this adds up to a significantly smaller and relatively less skilled player pool feeding into Women’s national teams. If there are a 25 Level 10 players (10 on a scale of 1 to 10) playing Men’s Handball today there may be just 5 Level 10 Women’s players. If there are 75 Level 9 Men’s players, perhaps there are just 20 Women’s players.   And, on down line the same disparity applies. These numbers and levels are totally arbitrary, but make no mistake there is a big different in terms of both quantity and relative quality.

So, what does this mean to anyone calculating the feasibility of scaling the mountain? Well, it means that the Men’s mountain is Mt Everist and the Women’s mountain is Mt McKinley. For sure both mountains are scalable, but which is going to cost you more money, take you longer to train for and which is going to have a better chance of success?

The Women’s Handball Mountain: A Faster and Easier Climb

In purely logical, analytical terms it’s a true no-brainer. Assembling a competitive women’s team that could medal in an Olympics or World Championships is a significantly easier task. Not an easy task, for sure, but one as demonstrated by Brazil and South Korean that can be accomplished. One might even envision the possibility of accomplishing it primarily through a traditional Residency Program. It would take a substantially increased budget and phenomenal recruiting, but it might be feasible.

Whereas on the Men’s side with the level and depth of professionalism that exists in Europe the equivalent task is truly daunting. Honestly, expecting amateur athletes new to the sport in their mid 20s to take down sides populated with players playing professionally for the top European clubs is fantasyland. It’s roughly the equivalent of the German Basketball Federation recruiting 2nd and 3rd division Handball players, moving them to a college town in Bavaria for 2-3 years to learn the game of basketball and then expecting them to take down National Teams populated with NBA players. No, climbing the Men’s Handball Mountain can only be done the hard way with years spent developing grass roots and targeted programs that can get some Americans playing professionally.

Can the U.S. Just Choose to Climb One Mountain?: The Field Hockey Example

Coupled with the logic that the U.S. could become more competitive on the Women’s side faster and with less overall effort, are the current fiscal challenges the U.S. Federation faces. Right now there really isn’t enough funding to properly fund even one residency program, let alone two. If USA Team Handball, however, chose to cut the Men’s program that money could be immediately put to good use on the women’s side. Right now that might be just the salary of a Men’s head coach, but even that salary and the accompanying man-hours could be put to good use towards recruiting or an annual junior women’s camp and European tour. And, if fundraising efforts improve that additional funding could be fully dedicated towards operating a full fledged Women’s Residency program, instead of two austere programs that just can’t quite cut it.

All well in good, you might say, but USA Team Handball isn’t a private corporation where a handful of owners can just arbitrarily decide what’s best for the business. For sure, there might be more than a few Men’s Handball players that would find such a decision to be pretty bogus.

There is, however, some precedence from another Federation: USA Field Hockey. In terms of funding, the Men’s and Women’s programs there is a dramatic disparity with the U.S. Men’s program consistently get the short end of the stick in terms of coaching, training and competition opportunities.

Now clearly, there are some circumstances with USA Field Hockey that don’t apply to USA Team Handball. In particular, Women’s participation in Field Hockey dramatically dwarfs Men’s participation. Whereas, with USA Team Handball the opposite is true. In fact, there’s probably less than 100 active women’s player in the U.S. with U.S. passports. Also, Field Hockey support decisions are surely driven by performance and the Men’s team has never been competitive, having only participated in U.S. hosted Olympics and having never qualified for the World Championships. Whereas in Team Handball, the Men’s and Women’s National Team’s performances have roughly been equal over the years. Overall, I’d give a slight edge to the Women, but the difference is not dramatic.

But, it’s not clear to me whether these current circumstances preclude a possible Board of Directors strategic decision to provide more funding to the Women’s program. And, if one factors the possible Title IX aspects of such a decision it could become a validated reality in a short period of time. For instance, if USA Team Handball strategically worked a funding initiative with the NCAA, the South East Conference (SEC) and other entities to establish Team Handball as a Women’s NCAA sport it could create a greater number of Women’s players. (It’s not a coincidence that Field Hockey is a sanctioned NCAA Women’s sport and it also has a greater number of women’s players.) In theory, USA Team Handball would then be bound to support its women programs with greater support at the National level.

Information on USA Field Hockey Demographics, Funding and Strategic Planning:  Link

All good in theory. In part 2, I will take a closer look at the pros and cons, costs, risks and timing for implementing a Women’s focused strategy.