Expatica Americana (Part 2): Understanding this “51st State” and its Handball Demographics

Expatica Americana: When it comes to handball our 51st State is Kind of Like the Faroe Islands.

In Part 1, I reviewed some definitions and addressed misconceptions that some folks might have with our Handball American Expats.  In this second part I take a closer look at the demographics of what in some respects is our 51st state.

The Demographics of Expatica Americana

Just exactly how many Americans don’t actually live in the United States?  Would you believe that number is 9 Million strong? According to this State Department document that’s how many there are.   I, for one was surprised at the sheer size of this number.  Put it this way, if Expatica Americana was a country in terms of total population it would rank 97th amongst the countries of the world.  Almost twice as big as handball power Denmark.  27 times bigger than always respectable Iceland.  If Expatica Americana was really a state (instead of an unofficial one) it would be ranked 11th in terms of population.  Why, it would even have 12 congressional districts and 14 Electoral votes.  Easily enough to swing an election in what would surely be a deep blue state.

From a handball development perspective, having 9 million Americans living in other countries where handball is possibly a more important sport is a good thing.  A certain portion of those living overseas will have kids and those kids will grow up in a handball environment.  Free development of players!

For a number of reasons, though, this population unfortunately is not roughly the size of New Jersey (8.9M) with kids from Hackensack to Newark playing the seven aside game with passion.

For starters, this 9 million number may not even be accurate.  Bewildering, it seems the U.S. government actually has no real clue as to how many Americans live outside the United States.  Or, if it does know, for security reasons they won’t say what that total is.  Other official and semi-official estimates put the total number at anywhere between 3-6 million.  Maybe it’s actually 5M or roughly the size of South Carolina.

The Demographics of Expatica Americana in “Handball” Countries

And, then, of course handball is mostly a European game with North Africa thrown in for good measure.  That draws down that number based on this compilation of multiple sources to around 1M or roughly Rhode Island’s size.  A small state, but that’s still 3 times the size of Iceland. 

Finally, however, we’ve got to further break down that number to separate the “just visiting” to the semi-permanent to permanent Expat Americans.  Because the reality is that there’s a big difference between moving to Europe for job/school reasons for a few years and moving to Europe and deciding to stay there.  To stay there and raise a family and potentially a handball playing American son or daughter.

I wasn’t able to find any hard data on how many Americans are doing that, but I’m going to suggest that number is only around 5% of the 1M, if that.  Taking that 1M down to 50,000.  1/12 the size of Wyoming, our least populous state.  The population of Casper, Wyoming or more appropriately in handball terms, roughly the population of the Faroe Islands. Pretty small, but even a small handball country like the Faroe Islands can rise up and win a major title.

The Real Demographics (Past)

But, maybe the prospect of a Faroe Islands size cohort isn’t even accurate.  Maybe it’s even a smaller pool of potential handball players.  Certainly, from an historical perspective it was a lot smaller.  If one looks back to the 70s, 80s and 90s there were only a handful of expats on our national teams.  I’ve been told that there were a few “naturalized” Europeans in the early days of USA Team Handball, but until Terje Vatne, who first played handball in Norway and who played for the U.S. in the 80s and 90s I don’t think there were any expat players. 

There could be a number of reasons for this.  First off, this was before the internet, so finding “handball American expats” was a lot more challenging.  Think about it:  An American playing handball in Europe wanting to play for the U.S. would first have to know that playing for the U.S. was even possible, then they would have to track down an address to mail a letter or call information to find the USA Team Handball phone number.  And, further complicating things would be the semantic issue of handball being a different sport in the U.S.  It’s comical to think about this earlier era and this problem, but make no mistake it was a real problem. 

Despite these handicaps, USA Team Handball did make attempts to find players and during my short stint with the U.S. National Team a couple of expat players got a quick tryout right before the 1993 World Championships.  Apparently, USA Team Handball sent a letter to European Federations inquiring about dual citizens and a Norwegian and Swedish player answered the call.  They showed up at our training camp in Finland a couple of weeks before the championship and they were both decent players.  I don’t remember their names.  The Norwegian was young (maybe 18) and a decent left back.  The Swede played center back and while a little undersized he had very good technical skills.  If he had been practicing with the team longer I think he probably would have made the team. 

And, that last sentence leads to a reality which surely limited dual citizen participation.  Namely, if you have a residency program where players are practicing and bonding together on a daily basis, bringing in some new players to take their spot on the roster is not good for team cohesion.   And, back in 1993 we were talking only 2 roster spots.  Today, with more and better quality expats available for the Men’s team such an issue has been rendered moot.  One just has to compare the Men’s national team roster from the 2018 North American Championship to the 2019 PANAM Games to quickly come to that conclusion.  And, while it’s quite appropriate to simply select the best players available, it becomes a more complicated decision if it also calls into question the validity of your national team development concept.

The Real Demographics (Present)

Which leads to a discussion of the current reality.  Exactly, how many expats does the U.S. have at its disposal?  Well, it’s relatively simple to add up the number of such players that have played for the U.S. Men’s and Women’s national teams. 

My unofficial tally is that there have been 48 expat men and 18 expat women that have been played for the U.S. Sr, Jr (U21) or Youth (U19) national teams in the past 10 years.  This number is surely not 100% correct as I may have missed a few names or mistakenly identified athletes as expats/non expats.  Here’s a couple of charts that further breaks down the data

Handball American Expats by Country

No major surprises here.  Germany, the country with the world’s most handball players and with several U.S. military bases, by far contributes the most athletes.  Scandinavia also has decent representation, although, one might think there might be more Danish-Americans lurking out there somewhere.  Israel’s representation at first glance might be surprising as handball is not a major sport there and the population of Israel is just 8M.  But, since there are such strong ties between Israel and U.S., there are 200,000 Americans living there to work with, roughly double the number of Americans living in Germany.

Handball American Expats by Birth Year

This table provides some insight as to the actual numbers of Handball American Expats that might be available to play for the U.S.  In particular, if one averages out the birth years (1995 – 2001), roughly 5 expats have been identified each year.  This is probably indicative of what might be expected on average since this covers the period of time for which more Jr and Youth competition opportunities became available.  For the women, there is less data to work with, but roughly 2 athletes by birth year appear to be available on average each year.

Of course, average means that some years there will be more and some years there will be less.  Further, I haven’t gotten into detail as to relative quality of these available athletes.  Having had more opportunities the past few years to actually see the U.S. Jr and Youth teams play, though, it’s clear that these athletes cover the spectrum.  Some have been high quality athletes that aren’t too far from making a European side, while others have been lower tier club players that have only been selected because there simply wasn’t much competition to make the team.

So now, that I’ve taken a closer look at the underlying demographics of our handball American expats, we’ve got a pretty decent handle on what this key cohort looks like.  In Part 3, I’ll look at the implications of this small talent pool and why it’s kind of like Hickory High, the fictional 1952 Indiana State Basketball Champions in the movie, Hoosiers.