One of my favorite websites, fivethirtyeight.com recently posted an article that immediately got my attention:
America Loves Curling, Until it Forgets about it for Four Years: Link
It got my attention, because I’d just written a commentary which highlighted the exact same problem for team handball. In the 538 article, the author, Neil Payne used Google Trends data to quantify just how much America forgets curling. Google Trends is a tool in which you can plug in different search terms and get graphs as to how much search traffic that term gets comparatively over time. No big surprise: Curling sees a massive spike in interest every February of an Olympics year. And, a small surprise: Curling’s interest spike is bigger than any other winter Olympic sport. This was measured as a comparison of Google searches in Olympic months vs non-Olympic months.
It’s an interesting use of Google data so, if you know me, I had to do some of the same analysis for handball. (And, oh what an interesting rabbit hole it is.)
First off, I quickly discovered the semantical mine field the sport’s name has in the U.S. Another form of handball similar to racquetball is more popular in the U.S., but Google doesn’t seem to be capable of fully distinguishing between the two. It’s possible to enter several different terms into the Google Trends engine:
- Handball (search term)
- Team Handball (search term)
- Handball (sport)
- American Handball (sport)
Further, you can compare the relative results of each term as well as results for individual countries or world-wide data.
For starters, I looked at U.S. internet searches for “handball” since 2004.
At first glance, it followed what I expected with sharp spikes in August of Olympic years. But, then I noticed a significant spike in November of 2009 followed by a slight bulge in the data for the following months. At first, I thought it might be some great article on handball in the mainstream press, but then it dawned on me: It was my old friend Thierry Henry and his infamous “hand of frog” handball in a World Cup Qualification match vs Ireland. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fLUxMRYJAso
This bulge appears in both the “handball” and “handball (sport)” search suggesting that Google can’t tell the difference between a search for the sport of handball vs a search for a soccer related handball. Further, if one does a comparison of searches for “Handball (sport)” vs “American Handball (sport)” one will see handball kicking American handball’s butt.
As much as I would love for this to be an accurate comparison of the two sports popularity, there’s little to suggest that it has any basis in reality. We’re making some serious inroads, but such a disparity just can’t be accurate. For sure, I could see handball beating wall handball in searches, but not by a factor of 100 to 1. No, the conclusion should be that Google Trend data for “handball” in the U.S. ends up being an aggregate of handball, wall handball and soccer handballs. What does that mean then? Well, it means that the Olympic spikes for handball searches in the U.S., big as they are, are actually even bigger than what the data shows. That, the baseline hovering around 10 would probably be closer to 2 or 3 if Google could figure a way to take out wall handball and soccer handballs from its data. The 538 article highlights that Curling has the biggest spike of winter sports with a relative spike of 80 when compared to non Olympic months. For handball the data shows a gain of only around 60, but it’s probably at least 80, if not more for the reasons described.
Handball vs Other Sports
The 538 article also compares Curling to several other winter sports. I did several comparison of handball vs other sports and here are a few charts.
Here’s handball compared to 2 other “lesser known” Olympic Team Sports. Both Water Polo and Field Hockey see similar jumps and both are more well known in the U.S. Field Hockey, since it’s an NCAA Women’s sport and a more commonly played high school sport has a higher baseline with more peaks and valleys. You can do your own comparisons, but be forewarned if you put a popular sport like basketball or volleyball into the mix, the handball line will almost entirely morph into the zero line.
I decided to make myself feel a bit better about handball by seeing how well it would do against arguably the most obscure Olympic Sport, Modern Pentathlon. And, handball wins that battle, but again we’d probably wouldn’t win by as much without wall handball and soccer handballs padding our numbers.
Finally, what about a Handball vs Curling comparison?
What does this comparison tell us with the gigantic Curling Winter Olympic spikes and our tiny little Handball Summer Olympic spikes? Well, it shows how you much curling benefits from being in the Winter Olympics where there are fewer sports to compete against. Seriously, what other explanation could there possibly be for handball losing to curling so soundly? It really makes you wonder how much handball would “blow up” if it was staged during the Winter Olympics instead of the Summer Olympics. With the NHL players gone handball might even have gotten better ratings than the hockey competition. And, it would be so easy to make happen. A whole month of professional club handball is already sacrificed every year (Men- December and Women- January) so the world’s best players would be readily available. Think the Curling venue was a happening place with the South Korean Women playing for Gold. Imagine what the crowd would have been like for handball? We’ve highlighted the potential of a summer/winter switch before.
But, while it would make so much sense don’t expect the IOC to give up its snow and ice requirement for Winter Olympic sports any time soon. There will be Nigerian bob sledding teams before that ever happens.