Handball on ESPN (Final Review: Part 1): My Long Standing Prediction was Wrong… Totally Wrong

My prediction that ESPN handball coverage would be a major game changer for the U.S. came up short… way short.

The Prediction

Before the 2021 IHF Handball World Championships I trumpeted that handball being shown on ESPN wasn’t just big news, but that it was, in fact, the biggest and most important development in the entire history of team handball in the United States. The logic behind this prediction was my basic premise that getting more handball on TV trumps all other marketing objectives for the sport… because it’s a true force multiplier that greatly improves the likelihood of better results in all other areas. And, that ESPN, even if it was just their streaming platform (ESPN+), was still the world-wide leader and it would be unprecedented exposure.

A Failed Prediction

Now, a little over a month since the conclusion of the World Championships it’s pretty clear that it hasn’t had anywhere near the desired effect. How do we know? Well, there are metrics such as website traffic and social media engagement that can be tracked. I know this website had better traffic than it has during previous Men’s World Championships, but not a dramatic increase. There were a few viral moments such as Gauthier Mvumbi getting some new U.S. fans such as Rodger Sherman of the Ringer and Palicka’s great save vs France, but these moments weren’t super viral in terms of numbers and less than the brouhaha with Jay Cutler which was also not as buzzworthy as we thought it might have been.

It would be really interesting to see the actual number of viewers on ESPN+, but in the age of streaming such numbers are a closely guarded secret that platforms like ESPN+, Netflix and Hulu don’t share openly.

What Google Trends Tells Us

Lacking hard viewership numbers Google Trends data is a fairly decent proxy of viewership and general handball related interest as it tracks how many people are searching for terms like “handball”. It’s by no means a perfect measurement, but generally when more people are searching for a particular topic it’s a strong indication that something has triggered their interest. The CDC even uses such trending data to track coronavirus spread. (i.e. When more people start searching for “COVID symptoms” it’s an indication of possible virus spread. With that in mind here are the results for “handball” searches in the U.S. since Dec 2018.

As you can see there are two big spikes, both Men’s World Championships, but the 2021 WC is actually a little bit below the 2019 WC. Or, to put it another way, the NBC Olympic Channel in 2019 actually trumps ESPN+ in 2021 a little bit.

If ESPN+ handball broadcasts had truly been groundbreaking this chart would have looked much different. In particular, the 2021 WC spike would have been at 100 and the 2019 WC spike would be much smaller in relative terms. For some insight as to what that chart would look like take a look at this chart which tracks handball searches for a longer period, since January, 2016.

Think the Olympics aren’t a really big deal for handball in the U.S.?… Think again. Look how just two weeks of Olympics exposure on NBC dwarfs everything else and turns the big WC spikes on the first chart into little bumps of minor significance. Now I wasn’t expecting ESPN coverage to create another Olympics sized bump, but I was certainly hoping for it to have some positive effect.

What I Wished Google Trends had Told Us

What was I hoping for? Perhaps something like this:

Yes, maybe half an Olympics bump and with a trailing edge that stays higher with more handball continued to being broadcast on ESPN. Content like the EHF Champions League and the upcoming Olympic Qualification Tournaments. Maybe even USA related content like our College National Championships or the upcoming NACHC Sr Women’s Handball Championships later this year.

Instead, a month later handball is gone from ESPN. It’s almost like it was never even there.

So, two weeks of handball on America’s top sports network had little effect. In Part 2, I will assess “why” this was the case and what might be needed to improve the end results for future handball broadcasts on American TV and web streaming platforms.