The past few months have sure resulted in a lot of handball buzz in the U.S. Here’s a rundown of the events that have given handball more attention than normal:
- December: NBC broadcast the 2019 Women’s World Championships.
- January: The 2020 Men’s European Championships were broadcast on beIN Sports and ESPN showed two handball related plays of the day on SportsCenter.
- January 28: Jay Cutler sets the handball world on fire with his comments about winning a gold medal on the popular Pardon My Take Podcast.
- February/March: Cutlergate results in a slow burn of Twitter spats and handball discussion on other shows like ESPN’s Highly Questionable. Pardon My Take even devotes an entire segment to discuss handball with former pro, Xavier O’Callaghan.
- April 13-19: The NBC Olympic Channel is coaxed by USA Team Handball to essentially turn itself into the handball channel with around 12-16 hours daily of 2019 Men’s and Women’s World Championship match broadcasts.
Quantifying the Buzz
So, anecdotally, there’s little doubt that handball has been granted some extra attention. It can be challenging, however, to quantify the buzz. To get a handle as to what is actually happening in terms of handball interest.
Social media engagement and reach can be tracked. I periodically track followers and likes for the major platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and, no surprise, numbers are up, but not a whole lot more than they would be assuming normal growth platforms. Here’s a simple tabulation of growth since 29 November with the USA Team Handball and Team Handball News social media platforms:
Keep in mind that percentage growth is generally easier when you start. Which explains why the percentage growth for Team Handball News on Instagram looks great when in reality it’s pretty paltry.
Overall, there’s been some decent growth, particularly with Twitter, but it’s hard to guage how much of that can be attributed to growth that would have occurred anyway. And, further, how much of this growth is simply a result of existing handball fans jumping on board? In particular, if your desire is to grow the game in the U.S., it’s kind of hollow to add social media followers from other parts of the world.
Google Trends Data
The best tool I’ve found for tracking interest is Google Trends. Google Trends allows users to see the relative popularity of specific search topics by region for a specified time period. It’s not perfect and it has it’s limitations, but it does provide a pretty good snapshot. After all, how many Americans can remember when and where they typed in “handball” or “team handball” into Google for the first time? It’s probably close to 100% and most folks can remember exactly what triggered their curiosity.
With that in mind here’s some analysis of “handball” searches on Google Trends.
Here’s a look at what’s happened since last December.
- #1 Spike: Sunday, 26 January when the Men’s European Championship finals took place.
- #2 Spike: This past Sunday when the NBC Olympic Channel broadcast wall to wall coverage of the semifinals and medal matches for both the Men’s and Women’s 2019 World Championships.
- #3 Spike: 18 December which coincides with the rebroadcast of the Women’s WC final 3 days after it was completed on the NBC Sports Network Channel.
- Other Spikes: Rounding out the five month period are a number of different spikes which are a bit harder to correlate.
- Men’s handball trumps Women’s handball. Despite being on a network (beIN Sports) seen in fewer home it triggered far more searches.
- Better TV Networks mean more searches. A late night rebroadcast on the NBC Sports Network trumps both the NBC Olympic Channel and beIN Sports. An existing handball fan always figures out a way to watch the big match. Not so with a newbie. The NBC Sports Network is seen in over twice as many homes as the Olympic Channel and 4 times as many homes as beIN Sports.
- The Jay Cutler/Pardon My Take Brouhaha did result in a plus up. Those spikes in February/March would not be there otherwise. But those plus ups still aren’t quite as good as TV broadcasts.
For reference, here’s what happened in the entire world during the same time period. Again, the difference been Men’s and Women’s handball is very pronounced. There are also some small spikes in February and March. Perhaps that’s a knock on effect from the Handball World rising up in anger with Jay Cutler, but it could also be interest generated by the Champions League and other competitions.
Here’s an overview of Google searches for the past 5 years in the U.S..
- The impact of the Olympics in terms of the interest it generates is unmatched. Really, it’s hard to understate its impact in the U.S.
- The Men’s WC or EC in January of every year is the only other event that regularly registers. In relative terms to the Olympics, however, it pales in comparison.
- Moving the WC to the NBC Olympic Channel has helped. The best WC spike occurred in Jan 2019. Not coincidentally, the Olympic Channel is seen in twice as many homes as beIN Sports.
- Notable soccer handballs also spike… even in the U.S. This demonstrates the challenge handball has in America.
- The recent NBC Olympic Channel experiment has a nice little spike. It clearly resulted in some more searches and discovery of handball. It would be awesome if that spike was bigger, but I’ll take it. For sure, it’s better than a flat line.
- The Jay Cutler controversy doesn’t really register. This is not to say it still wasn’t nice to have that engagement, just that it didn’t do as much as we might think it did.
Here’s what the last 5 years look like for the world.
- The Olympics just doesn’t mean as much to the rest of the world. At the Olympics, handball is just another sport and has to fight for interest. Whereas as the annual big tourney in January every year handball takes center stage.
- Again, the relative interest between Men’s and Women’s handball is very clear. The little spike (Dec) followed by the big spike (Jan) happens like clockwork.
The way we consume and talk about sports is evolving and changing. The cool Instagram clip, the banter on Twitter, cool TikTok videos… That’s how a lot of sports are consumed today. I’ve got two teenage daughters… they’re not big sports fans, but I’ve seen it first hand how big a role social media is playing in their lives.
However, TV is still the king of sports consumption. Whether via traditional networks or streaming outlets, true fans are gained from watching a match. This is not to say social media isn’t important… It is. But, in most cases it’s a reflection of what happens after someone sees handball and discovers it. Not the other way around.