What We Want (Part 5): The Big, Hairy, Audacious Project

Yes, that’s the actual title that was given to this mysterious plan. The full details have not been revealed, but the outline of what is hoped to be accomplished is, indeed, truly, big, hairy and audacious.

This is part of an ongoing series: Link

Parts 1-4, covered USA Team Handball’s Strategic Plan which was developed and approved by the Board of Directors. Part 5 identifies what’s known about CEO Barry Siff’s audacious plans for handball in the U.S.

USA Team Handball CEO, Barry Siff, has been on the job now for 13 months and to many, myself included (to some extent), has been a breath of fresh air.  Enthusiastic, energetic with a positive, “can do” attitude.  Those are attributes that folks can get behind.

However, positivity, can only take an organization so far.  You’ve got to have solid plans moving forward.  And, while a strategic plan was awaiting the new CEO, he came into the job with some plans of his own.  To date, not much has been revealed in terms of details, but over the past year some bits and pieces have trickled out.

The Big, Hairy, Audacious Project (Bits and Pieces)

Here’s a compilation of interview quotes and articles that contain the basic elements of the “Big, Hairy, Audacious Project.”  And, yes, that’s the actual title that was given to this effort.

  • Board of Director Meeting Minutes (26 Apr 19): Link 
    • “Sarah Gascon: Is there a plan to recruit athletes leading to a residency program in the future?  Barry Siff:  current model is athletes living and training and competing in Europe but didn’t rule out a residency program in the USA.  SG: A development plan for USA athletes in needed. BD:  The IHF wants a USA Handball Academy in the future, there is current interest in France about a residency program for NT – women in 2020 and men possibly in 2021. Regional geographies are envisioned to feed athletes to Europe and to have pipeline extend to regionally targeted high schools related to a vertical pipeline. BS:  Opening the eyes of top athletes is one path and exposure of the sport through multiple levels will grow the sport.”
  • USA Team Handball Town Hall (26 May 2019): Link 
    • (32:45) “I’m not even getting into talent transfer. I’m not even getting into going after water polo players and basketball players, but those communications are already happening.  I have already met with the Women’s Water Polo team.   I’ve talked to the USA Water Polo directors.  There are ways to grow the sport quickly.  To get athletes in.”
    • (43:00) In response to a question regarding the starting of a new residency program. “I don’t know. I doubt it. … Probably, not in the cards.”  Follow on question: Then how we are going to develop national team caliber players? “That’s what we’re going to do.  I don’t know if it’s a residency program.  I don’t know if it’s a series of training camps.  I don’t know if it’s going out and recruiting people and giving them two months of training in the United States and then sending over a 100 of them to Europe.  I will tell you that’s something I’ve been talking about for two years in my prep for this job is maybe a program where we somehow develop people to a base level and then send them over to Europe and get them onto clubs.”
  • Babbitville Podcast Interview (23 Jul 2019): Link 
    • (29:05) “We’re going to be in Paris… My goal. I think our organization goal… The U.S. with our athletes’ talent; with the number of athletes we have and the support that we are getting from the U.S. Olympic Committee and the International Handball Federation there is no reason our women and men won’t be represented in Paris.”
    • (31:00) “To develop a pro league we need 12 to 16 teams, so we need a couple hundred players. That’s the plan.  We have a strategic plan to get those few hundred players.  Get them trained up.  Get those football players; those basketball, water polo players and youngsters college players playing right now…”
    • (31:57) “and our intention is to get 100 collegiate clubs by the end of 2020 for sure”
    • (34:45) “The concept that I had in 2016 was to have a kind of Netflix, 30 for 30, whatever it is documentary building the next great America sport. What we were going to do was track going out and having tryouts in New York, in LA, San Francisco and Chicago.  Having tryouts; bringing these athletes…”
  • KWMR Radio “Off-Center Sports” Show (21 Sep 2019): (audio no longer available)
    • (22:15) “And, then ultimately the goal in 3 years is to have a professional league here in the United States.  And, we’re working on that today.”
    • (47:10) “Then ultimately, like I mentioned, we’ve got to plan to develop a professional league, but at the same time. I think it’s going to be easy, and I really do mean this. I think it’s going to be easy to get a league, in concept, together.  We just got to have a couple hundred high level players here in the U.S.  And, that’s what Staffan Olsson’s major objective is as a High Performance Director is to figure out how we can develop a couple hundred great players, here in the United States to play professionally on television, on social media, on OTT networks, etc.”
    • (57:00) “Staffan and I are talking about doing tryouts for our national team. Open tryouts.  This will be both a marketing campaign, a media campaign, but also finding our amazing athletes out there and probably doing it, in I’m going to guess, probably southern California and New York.  I don’t know when.  Maybe it’s 3 months.  Maybe it’s 6 months.  But, find those diamonds in the rough who are amazing athletes.   Who we might be able to fine tune and give them the proper training, techniques, etc.  And, who knows they could be the next Olympian.”
  •  Leadership Podcast Interview (15 Oct 2019): Link 
    • (6:10) “The title of our project was USA Team Handball: Big, Hairy, Audacious Project”
    • (39:15) “I know we’re going to have over 100 colleges, collegiate clubs.  Playing, I think by the end of 2020; certainly in early 2021″
    • (39:23) “I guarantee we’re going to have 10s of thousands of youth playing handball in the next couple of years.  We already do, we don’t know about it.”
  • Sport Business Journal Article: Verizon Steps into Rings, Sponsors Team Handball by Terry Lefton (20 Jan 2020):   Link 
    • Article passage: “With few people playing team handball in the U.S., Siff knows the sports must be nurtured at all levels, from grassroots — where he says there is a growing club scene in major U.S. cities — to the formation of an American professional team handball league, a project now under R&D at IOA Sports in Orlando, where former Major Indoor Soccer League executive Paul Garofolo says it reminds him of his early days with that startup. While the new league is yet nameless, and has no completed logos, he expects to be pitching prospective owners before the year is out. Garofolo says it will require a minimum of 10 franchises to launch for a league that would begin play in 2023 with each franchise costing $3 million to $5 million to launch.

      Likely prospects? “NBA or NHL owners in one-tenant arena situations,” Garofolo said. “Some of the big European sports brands like Barca or Paris Saint-Germain also have their own team handball teams.”

  • PlaySqorr TV Interview (21 Feb 2020): Link 
    • “When we do our tryouts later this year I think we’re going to shock some people in the type of athletes that we’re going bring onto handball and onto our team.”
    • “I know this is sacrilegious and I’m insulting a lot of people, but I don’t think it takes these 2, 3, 4, 5 years of learning all the nuances and techniques, etc…”
    • “I don’t think long term that well… I’m only going to be here through Paris, you know. This is like my last stint of full time stuff.  And, you know, we got to get to Paris.  Long term, we’ve got to be really competitive in L.A., but, my personal goal is to have a team or two in Paris for sure.  And, the way to do that is through getting some of these athletes that we’re talking about.  These high, high caliber athletes starting to play right now.”

The Big, Hairy, Audacious Project (Rough Outline)

So taking all of these quotes into account it’s possible to form a rough outline of this plan.  Here it is in a nutshell:

  • Find 100-200 athletes from other sports
    • Mode of finding: Tryouts, communication with other sport NGBs. 
    • Targeted sports: commonly mentioned are water polo, basketball and football
    • Ages: Not clear, but most likely post college 
  • Train athletes to a “base level” in the U.S. for a period of time
    • What is “base level?”: Not defined, but presumably to a level at which a European based club will not have to teach basic fundamentals
    • Time required for stateside training?: Not clear, but 2 months has been mentioned
    • How trained?: Not clear, but it’s hard not to see athletes being trained in a residency program type framework. It could be called an “Academy”, but in function it would be similar to what has been done with residency programs, just for a shorter period of time.  (Perhaps similar to this concept: Link)
  • Send athletes to European based clubs for further development
    • Level of club?: Not defined, but presumably clubs that train professionally on a daily basis (2nd teams for top clubs would be a likely target)
    • Time athletes would stay in Europe?: Not defined, but a 2023-24 USA pro season suggests 2-3 years
  • Start a USA based Pro League in 2023
    • # of clubs: 10 to 16
    • Athletes: Presumably, the athletes would be primarily Americans that had trained overseas;  Also, it’s not explicitly stated, but it is probably just a Men’s Pro League
    • Franchise startup cost: $2M to $5M
    • Potential support envisioned from top European clubs; presumably “sister” franchises

Top Level Thoughts

  • This plan is not a strategic plan, but rather an action plan very focused on developing high level athletes for our national teams and a pro league. And, in a very short, ambitious time frame: A pro league in 2023 and 2024 Olympic Qualification.
  • It’s hard in some instances to sort out what parts of this concept applies to both the Men’s and Women’s programs and what parts are separate.
  • There is some discussion in regards to growing the college game, even with the ambitious target of 100 clubs in 2020, but for the most part collegiate club development is an afterthought for this concept. For sure, there are currently a very limited number of college athletes with the potential to quickly transition to top European clubs.
  • There was a brief mention in one interview of 10’s of thousands of youth playing handball in the next couple of years, but again this plan does not align very well with grass roots development.  Obviously, however, if there is a pro league started youth development is very likely to follow.
  • If this plan is implemented successfully it would be a marketing bonanza that will surely get the word out big time.  Even more so, if the original reality show were to be done in parallel.

Is it Possible?

A pro league populated with a couple hundred born and raised Americans playing handball at a high level. A couple hundred pro handball athletes battling for 16 coveted American National Team roster spots. Just like a European handball nation! As America’s self described #1 handball fan how could I, or any other handball fan in this country, not “want” that. It would be as if I had died and gone to heaven.

But, is it possible? Well, in theory, just about anything is possible… Given enough time and money.  Is it probable? I’ve got my doubts. It would seem at a quick glance that it is just too much of a great leap forward from “what we have” today. And, that we have neither the necessary resources nor the time for this plan to have even a remote chance of success.

But, I don’t do quick glances. Even, if seems like it’s overkill, we need to follow the process.  I’ve spent a lot of time mapping out “What We Have” and “What We Want”.  It’s time to figure out if we can actually get there.