USA National Teams on ESPN:  Unprecedented Coverage and a Window to the Future

Unprecedented Coverage for USA National Teams; All thanks to ESPN’s web streaming Channel: ESPN 3

Trivia Question:  Prior to the 2019 PANAM Games when was the last (and only time) that a U.S. National Team match was aired in its entirety on a major U.S. television network?

Answer:  1996:  A friendly match between the U.S. Men and Brazil was aired on ESPN.  And, this was only due to a contract that the USOC made with ESPN that packaged the TV rights for all Olympic qualification events with a stipulation that every single Olympic sport would get air time on TV.

Flash forward 23 years later and we have ESPN airing seven U.S. National Team matches in eight days.  The USA Women’s semifinal and bronze medal match and all five Men’s games at the PANAM Games.  Yes, ESPN 3 is not ESPN.  It’s not ESPN 2 or ESPN U either.  It’s a “digital” Over the Top (OTT) streaming channel; not a traditional or “linear” channel.

Still, U.S. handball fans were treated to the best video production of U.S. matches ever.  Multiple cameras and a HD stream on a pretty reliable platform.  I watched a dozen matches and recall only a couple of times when there was a bit of buffering or pixelation.

A Window to the Future

This was unprecedented coverage and a window to the future.  I know that I’ve been saying this for a long time in one way or another.  The 2016 Olympics was the most recent example.

The Olympics are over.  Thanks for watching.  See you in 2020. How about sooner?: Link

If the U.S. had qualified for Rio, every USA match would have been on TV because NBC aired every single handball match on their OTT streaming channels.

My desire for an OTT “Handball Channel” has not been met, but more and more sports are migrating to OTT platforms. ESPN’s “ESPN+” has the most subscribers (2M+) and it was recently announced that it will be packaged with Hulu and a new Disney streaming channel.  If you have ESPN+, and you have surfed through the channels it doesn’t take much imagination to envision a “Team Handball” icon next to the cricket and rugby icons.

Another, lesser known OTT Sports Channel, DAZN, has also entered the U.S. market, but for the time being it’s mostly showing boxing.  That’s likely to change and there have even been reports that DAZN will bid for NFL Sunday Ticket package.  More relevant to handball fans is the 2020-2030 EHF contract which DAZN bid for and won in conjunction with Infront, meaning that the Champions League and European Championships could be coming to DAZN a year from now.

It’s hard to accurately predict where exactly our sports viewing experience is headed, but if Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime are a guide it’s headed towards more and more sports streaming.

Room for Improvement

While it was great to have the matches on ESPN 3 there’s still room for improvement in some key areas

  • English Language Commentary: While ESPN aired all the matches they essentially had no role in their production which was handled entirely by the company that the Lima 2019 committee hired.  This is evidenced by the Spanish language commentary that accompanied all of the broadcasts on ESPN 3.  If ESPN had wanted to they could have provided English language commentary.  Of course, there’s an expense with that, but it could have been done without too much difficulty at their headquarters in Connecticut.
  • Network Promotion: ESPN actually did a little bit of promotion through 2 handball inclusions on their Sports Center Top 10 plays of the day.  Video 1  Video 2   Still, it would have been nice for some handball to have been aired on the traditional ESPN Channels or for ESPN to have interviewed our coaches and players on one of their radio programs.

Future Broadcasts: Why some Events are “Free” and some aren’t

But, what about future handball broadcasts?  Well, this as you might expect will depend on costs.  And, for any sporting event there are 3 cost drivers.

  • The “rights” to broadcast
  • Production costs
  • Transmission costs

Handball competitions at the PANAM Games and the Olympic Games have the huge advantage of being one small part of a bigger packaged event.  In other words, handball gets paid for as part of that package.  ESPN in the case of the PANAM Games and NBC for the Olympics have no choice, but to pay for all the events, even if they are really only interested in the more well known events that American audiences will watch for huge ratings and, in turn, sponsorship dollars.

Major handball only competitions like the World Championships and the EHF Champions League don’t have the advantage of being part of a package deal, but the costs to a USA network can be kept to a minimum.  This is because the IHF and EHF are already paying for the production costs and they can choose to waive or sell TV rights to the U.S. at a reduced cost.    This just leaves transmission costs which thanks to the advent of OTT are less substantial than they would be on a traditional linear channel.

With “minor” handball competitions, however, the sticking point will be production costs.  Who’s going to pay for the cameras, commentators and direction that are part of a professionally produced TV sporting event?  With “major” handball events those costs are covered by the TV rights that are sold to markets where there already is a significant handball audience.  Unfortunately, the same thing cannot be done for an event like the North American & Caribbean Handball Championship or a U.S. National Championship.  The audience doesn’t exist to justify a substantial rights fee or even for a network to pay for production.  So where will the money for production costs come from?

Well, there are only a handful of options:

  1. USA Team Handball.  This might seem like a non-starter for a cash strapped federation where national team athletes have had to pay for their own travel to international competition, but if you’re trying to grow the sport it may be necessary.  Hopefully, there’s an increase in the overall budget, though, to make such an expenditure less painful
  2. The IHF.  A solid case can be made for the IHF to fund TV production for continental events like North American & Caribbean Championships.  A quality production that could then be aired in each nation to promote their national teams and the sport in general.  That funding would have to come from somewhere, but I would argue that this should be a higher priority than other initiatives the IHF is funding like the Super Globe competitions.
  3. Sponsors.  In this instance sponsors would pay for production costs in conjunction with their sponsorship of the event.  Indeed, this model has been used for sports like rugby, corn hole and axe throwing.  It would seem feasible that a long term sponsorship deal could be arranged whereby the sponsor pays more up front for costs like TV production and then makes out on the back end of the deal as USA Team Handball gains in popularity.

An OTT Partnership as a Way Ahead

If I were King for a day, I would suggest that the answer would be, “all of the above” because I could see it as a win-win for everyone involved.  A partnership involving the IHF, EHF, USA Team Handball, an established network like ESPN, and a major sponsor collaborating on a joint effort.  An OTT sub channel for handball which maximizes the airing of major and minor handball competitions.   The IHF and EHF would see handball grow in the important USA market.  USA Team Handball would have a place for its USA matches to air, ESPN (or some other network) could become the USA TV home for handball and a major sponsor would have a feel good story of helping a sport takeoff in the U.S.

All that might be too much to ask for, but something like this is in the cards one way or another.  It’s not a matter of if anymore, but when.