Handball on ESPN (Final Review: Part 2): My Long Standing Prediction was Wrong… Here are some Reasons Why

Totally Bewildering: ESPN promotes handball to new fans… but, does so only after the World Championships on ESPN+ are over.

In Part 1, I documented how ESPN’s broadcast of the 2021 Men’s Handball World Championship was a disappointment in terms of viewership and buzz. In Part 2, I look at some of the reasons why it came up so short of my expectations.

So, why weren’t handball broadcasts on ESPN+ a major game changer like I predicted? Here are some reasons that I’ve come up with:

Reason #1) ESPN+ Viewership is Nowhere Near Traditional ESPN’s… Yet

It’s hard to predict the future, but there are a lot of signs that streaming or Over the Top (OTT) video is the future. More and more content is being placed on streaming platforms, be it Netflix, ESPN+, NBC Peacock or Paramount+. But, the future is not the present and in the present world we live in regular TV is still king, especially for sports.

A recent NY Times article on the NFL’s new TV rights deal highlights that money is the primary reason this is the case:

“Streaming is the present of movies and TV series and the future of sports, and growth in that sector is what is currently rewarded by Wall Street. But the number of people who pay to stream sports, and the amounts they pay, are dwarfed by the tens of millions of American households that still spend $50, $100 or even $150 each month for a television package.”

The number of Cable/satellite subscribers has been steadily decreasing. At one point the traditional (or linear) ESPN channel had over 100M subscribers, but it’s now closer to 80M. But, while that number has been dropping, it’s still far more than the number of ESPN+ subscribers, which just passed 12M. Don’t get me wrong, 12M is still a lot of people, but it’s not as many we’d like and it’s on a streaming platform that’s just starting to get traction.

Reason #2) ESPN+ “Discovery Opportunities” Were Very Limited

When it comes to marketing team handball in the U.S. the sport has a huge awareness problem in that the vast majority of Americans are not even aware that the sport exists. Over the years, TV broadcasts, particularly in the Olympics have been the single biggest way to dampen that awareness problem as it exposes millions of people to the sport.

I had hoped that placing handball on ESPN+ would have a similar, albeit smaller, effect. Unfortunately, this failed for a couple of reasons. First, I suspect that many ESPN+ subscribers are not in the habit yet of wandering around looking for something to watch the same way many of us are now when it comes to finding something to watch on Netflix. That’s somewhat to be expected and I would bet that changes over time.

What was really disappointing, though, was how hard ESPN made it to find handball on ESPN+. During, the World Championships I fielded dozens of messages from worried handball fans wondering where the next handball match was on ESPN+. Heck, I myself, was worried a couple of times as I scrolled all over the place trying to find a match that was scheduled to start in 15 minutes or so. However, as I came to learn, ESPN typically did not post the icon for upcoming matches until 5 minutes before they started. Worse, even though it was a live event it was often nowhere to be seen on the main page and only viewable after scrolling past several basketball games that were scheduled to be played later.

And, we can forget about the possibility of “forever content” that I was hoping for as there is no handball icon next to the rugby or cricket icon for potential new fans to discover handball. Just a few weeks after the World Championships, all handball match replays have already disappeared so, for sure, no one poking around ESPN+ is going to stumble upon handball.

Reason #3) ESPN’s Promotion of Handball on ESPN+ was Very, Very Limited

But, the most disappointing, frustrating and at times bewildering reason for ESPN+ having little if any impact was ESPN’s lack of promotion on their TV, radio and social media platforms.

In fact, over the course of the tournament, to the best of my knowledge there were zero handball mentions on radio and zero social media posts about handball. And, the only TV mention I’m aware of was Swedish GK Andreas Palicka’s great save against France making Sports Center’s Top 10. That was nice… But why couldn’t ESPN have turned that great play into an Instagram post with a USA Team Handball tag and a reminder to their 22M followers to head over to to ESPN+ to watch more handball?

That would have been such an incredibly simple and smart thing for ESPN to do… But, instead we got nothing… nada… zero… zilcho. It was almost as if ESPN was purposely hiding its handball content.

What really has me shaking my head, is that in the past ESPN had been responsible for some of the greatest handball promotion ever in the U.S. Yes, the 2 most viral handball related social media post are still 2 old ESPN SportsCenter Instagram posts: Sigurdsson’s penalty rebound goal with 2.2M views in January, 2018 and Diego Simonet’s nifty behind the back goal with 1.2M views in September, 2017. Each of those posts also have thousands of comments along the lines of, “What a cool sport!”; “That looks like fun.”; and “Where can I play this?” And, these videos were posted when handball broadcasts actually were on another TV network. Yes, ESPN was inadvertently advertising for beIN Sports.

So, why on earth couldn’t we even get one (just one) handball shout out when handball was actually having 2 matches broadcasted daily on a ESPN platform?

You would think that would be a no brainer, but, we couldn’t any love, until, get this: ESPN randomly posted some top plays from the EHF Champions League a couple of weeks ago with the words, “Handball looks too fun”. This timing is just so puzzling. It’s as if someone is mocking me, but the reality is probably simpler. The right hand doesn’t talk to the left hand at ESPN or they just don’t really care much about promoting their own content on ESPN+. Regardless, sometimes I just don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Reason #4) Team USA did not Participate in the World Championships

Finally, there’s also an underlying reason that perhaps more than anything resulted in less buzz overall and promotion at ESPN. And, that reason is that due to multiple positive COVID test results the U.S. had to withdraw from the World Championships. We don’t know how well the U.S. would have done, but, Team USA participating for the first time in 20 years would have drawn more interest in the halls of ESPN and I’d like to think better promotion across the board. More mentions and some highlights on SportsCenter. Some handball talk on ESPN radio. Maybe even an interview or two with the U.S. coach and some players. Instagram posts, Tweets, etc., etc., etc.,

At least that’s what I like to think would have happened. Alas, with the U.S. dropping out we’ll never know if it would indeed have been significantly different. Or, as I had hoped an epic game changer.

But, hopefully there will be more chances for handball to make some TV waves in the not too distant future. In Part 3, I’ll take a final look at the ESPN experiment and explore some other possibilities coming up in the not too distant future.