Where is Handball Popular? And, Just How Popular is Handball Compared to Other Sports?: Europe

Handball’s Popularity in Europe
  • This is part of an ongoing series. Check out these maps for other continents
    • Africa: Link
    • North America & the Caribbean: Link
    • South and Central America (In development)
    • Asia (In development)
    • Oceania (In development)

Note: This map was updated based on feedback on 31 March 2020: See paragraph at bottom for what the feedback was and why or why not the map changed

  • Where is handball popular?
  • How popular is handball compared to other sports?

Those are definitely a couple of questions that I’ve been asked quite a few times. In 2005 I tackled those questions in one of my very first blog posts. Back then it was often stated that handball was the 2nd most popular team sport. Well, it would be totally awesome if that were true, but alas it’s not… not even close. In fact, even in Europe where handball is most popular there are only a handful of countries where our sport definitely takes 2nd place.

Methodology (or the Lack of One)

As an engineer I generally prefer to deal with data as opposed to gut feelings and anecdotal information. For sure there are a lot of different criteria that one could use to measure popularity. Here’s a laundry list for you:

  • # of participants
  • # of registered federation members
  • # of clubs
  • Attendance at matches
  • Frequency of TV broadcasts and ratings
  • Existence of a professional league
  • The salaries of professional players
  • Interest in national team performance
  • Social media interest.

Each of those criteria have merit, but there are several problems.

  • This data is not readily available on a country by country basis
  • The accuracy of the data that is available is often suspect or open to interpretation
  • The relative importance of each criterion is wide open to debate

Bottom line: An exercise to carefully weigh all of these criteria in a systematic reliable way is pretty much impossible.

That being said in most cases it’s fairly easy to weigh all those criteria and to come up with a ranking of the top 3 sports in just about any country. And, a ranking that most objective sports fans of that country would agree on without a whole lot of debate.

There’s a couple of reasons why this is true.

  • In most countries there is one dominant team sport and that sport is football (soccer). Practically no one will even credibly argue against soccer’s dominance. So off the top, we’re now only talking about 2nd and 3rd place.
  • And, again in most (but, not all) countries, #2 is often pretty well established based on the criteria above. Even without hard numbers the answer is obvious to people that live there.

All this being said, there are some countries, however, where handball’s place in the pecking order is open to debate. A debate, for the reasons listed earlier is pretty hard to resolve. So, instead of resolving I’ve decided to use the lack of a resolution as a way to help classify the sport’s popularity.

Classification (Key)

Here’s a few notes on how I’ve classified popularity.

  • Definitely the 2nd most popular team sport:
    • Countries where handball is 2nd in a preponderance of the criteria
  • Either the 2nd or 3rd most popular team sport:
    • Countries where there could be a legitimate debate between 2 sports as to which is 2nd or 3rd
      • Example: In several Balkan countries depending on who you talk to either basketball or handball is 2nd
    • Countries where handball is clearly 3rd
      • Example: There’s a pretty strong consensus that the proper ranking in Sweden is 1) Football; 2) Ice Hockey; and 3) Handball
  • A major sport with a significant presence
    • Countries where the ranking becomes muddled from 3rd place on down, but handball is still clearly a major sport that captures significant attention
      • Example: In France few would argue with soccer being first and rugby being second, but 3rd place is less clear between basketball and handball. That being said, even if Handball is the 4th most popular sport it’s still is a “major sport with a significant presence.” This is clearly demonstrated by it’s pro league, attendance and national team
  • A minor sport with some presence
    • Countries where the ranking becomes muddled from 3rd place on down, but Handball is more of a minor sport with a small, but dedicated following.
      • Example: Greece has a national league and several club teams playing at different levels, but the level of play is below that of other countries. They have a national team that is competitive, but still a notch below nations where the sport is more established.
  • A very minor sport with a limited presence
    • Countries where the sport’s ranking is somewhat moot because it’s hard to compare perhaps the 6th or 7th most popular team sport. Overall, participation numbers are small and the sport is seen as a curiosity by most of the citizens of that country.
      • Example: Great Britain fits that definition pretty well. The sport is growing, but they have a ways to go move up in popularity.

A few more thoughts

  • There is a rough pecking order from top to bottom. Blue is top; Green is next, etc.
  • This isn’t a perfect representation. And, one could argue for even more gradation. For instance, one could take the nations in yellow and create a rough pecking order.
  • What about individual sports? If you really wanted to further complicate matters we could add Formula 1, UFC and Tennis. I didn’t want to go there.
  • A few tough calls
    • Iceland: I’ve seen a few Icelandic basketball players playing for USA colleges and read that the sport is making inroads there. There are even more registered basketball clubs than handball clubs in the country… Still, I’m not ready to say that handball has slipped to third in Iceland.
    • Portugal: I’m thinking that 5 years ago Portugal would have been orange, but now they’ve jumped to green? But, a couple of folks convinced me that it’s arguably #2 there. Could that be just a momentary blip due to a Euro 2020 high?

What do you think?

This compilation/depiction isn’t set in stone. It’s just one man’s opinion influenced by feedback. If I’ve missed the boat let me know via email or social media and I’ll reconsider updating the map.

Email: john.ryan@teamhandballnews.com
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Also, I’ll be creating similar maps for the other continents and I could use some feedback on Africa, Asia and the Americas.

Update (31 March 2020)

After the initial posting on 29 March, 2020, I received a lot of great feedback. Based on this feedback I made a few changes.

What’s Changed and Why

  • Romania (Green to Blue): Several comments all pointed out that handball is a solid #2 as a team sport; In particular, women’s handball both at the club and national team level has a pretty high level of attention- Arguably, higher than even football.
  • Cyprus (Red to Orange): Handball is not a big time sport in Cyprus, but based on their solid performances in both IHF Emerging Nations and early round EHF Qualification matches the sport has more than a limited presence
  • Faroe Islands (Blue): This small, but proud handball nation was inadvertently omitted. Some have even suggested that handball might even be the #1 sport there. Based on feedback, however, from one resident who is also a huge handball fan, however, I’ve assessed that it’s close, but not quite there yet.

What Received a Lot of Feedback, but Stayed the Same

Some handball knowledgeable people pointed out some colors on the map that just didn’t seem quite right. While, I understood their points and even agreed with them to some extent I decided not to make a change, though, in several instances. More than anything the debate centers on the imperfect classification system which naturally leads to some reasonable disagreements.

  • Portugal should be moved to yellow… Especially if France and Spain are Yellow: It does look a little strange, but it shouldn’t be interpreted to mean that handball therefore is a bigger sport in Portugal than it is in those two countries. If anything it’s more reflective of the reality that France (rugby) and Spain (basketball) have strong #2 sports.
  • Netherlands should be yellow… Especially if their women’s team is now the World Champion: There’s no denying that the women’s team has been an incredible success, but I would argue that this success is more the result of a smart national team strategy making the most of a pretty small talent pool. Handball is still a fairly small sport there in terms of participation and national interest. That certainly could change and this map is not set in stone.
  • Why is Russia yellow… Handball isn’t as popular there as it is in other countries like France and Spain: Handball has certainly slipped in terms of popularity in Russia and I, for one, agree that it’s clearly more popular in many other countries depicted in yellow. However, it’s still an important sport there and it’s women’s team is still a force. And, if one looks at the countries in orange it’s also clear that handball is more popular in Russia than it is those countries.
  • Serbia should be yellow… Since handball has really slipped in popularity there: I got feedback from one Serbian that handball has slipped behind basketball, water polo and even volleyball. I’ll need more feedback, however, before I drop any Balkan state below green.