Where is Handball Popular? And, Just How Popular is Handball Compared to Other Sports?: North America and the Caribbean

Handball’s Popularity in North American & the Caribbean
Closeup: Handball’s Popularity in the Caribbean

Some Notes on Handball in North America and the Caribbean

As a resident of North American and a long time follower of the sport I feel that I’m in a pretty good position to assess the relative popularity of the sport in this hemisphere. At the bottom of this article is the rationale that was used to make this assessment and, for reference, it is the same methodology that was used to create similar assessments for Europe and Africa

  • Popularity assessments for other continents
    • Europe: Link
    • Africa: Link
    • South and Central America (In development)
    • Asia (In development)
    • Oceania (In develpment)
  • Geography Lesson: You’ll notice that I haven’t color coded the Central American nations. This is because when the IHF split the old Pan American Team Handball Federation (PATHF) into two Confederations, Central America was grouped with South America to form the South & Central American Handball Confederation (SCAHC). While North America and the Caribbean were combined to form the North American & Caribbean Handball Confederation (NACHC). I’m not entirely sure why the split wasn’t made at the Panama-Colombia border, but I suspect the intent was to even up the total number of countries and to split up the nations very new to handball more equitably.
  • Soccer is not king: With the exception of Mexico the nations of this region do not put soccer on a pedestal above all other sports. Indeed in nations like the U.S., Canada and many of the Caribbean nations it’s further down in the pecking order. Why one even gets into debates as to whether it’s the 3rd, 4th or 5th most popular sport in the U.S. Many Caribbean nations have either baseball or cricket at the top. I know this seems quite strange to the rest of the world, but that’s just the way it is. And, isn’t it refreshing?
  • Greenland: It’s my assessment that Greenland is the only nation in the world where handball is the #1 team sport. I’ve heard that with the introduction of artificial turf fields that soccer is making some inroads, but for now handball is still king. If one saw the crowds at the 2018 Pan American Championships held in Greenland one got a sense of the hold this sport has on it’s 56,000 inhabitants. And, back in 2007 I heard and saw firsthand how this nation backs its team at a World Championship.
  • Martinique and Guadeloupe: These two Caribbean islands are outposts of France and have produced several French national team players including arguably the GOAT Defensive Specialist, Didier Dinart. Luckily for the nations of the NACHC there are no significant movements for these Departments to become independent nations… because if they did become independent they would both be instant medal contenders in NACHC competitions. They have entered competitions as associated members and club teams from Guadeloupe have beaten the U.S. national team in competition.
    • Olympic Channel Documentary on Didier Dinart: Includes visiting the abandoned house he grew up in and the dedication of a new arena named in his honor: Link
  • Cuba: After Greenland, Cuba is the one other NACHC handball nation where handball means something. This is evidenced by the significant number of Cubans that have played professionally overseas and in many cases played for their adopted new countries in international competition. It’s a long list with some notables being Carlos Perez, Rolando Urios, Rafael Capote, Frankis Marzo and Alfredo Quintana who tragically passed away earlier this year. For many years a Cuban athlete that played professionally overseas could no longer play for Cuba internationally. The good news/bad news story is that the Cuban government has changed the law and Cuban athletes can now leave Cuba for professional careers and still play for Cuba internationally. (Good news for Cuba… Not so good news for the rest of the NACHC.)
    • For many years I thought this Cuban handball success was mostly attributable to the the Cuban sports factory model manufacturing players for the national team. This, however, was a bad assumption and USA interim Women’s national team coach, Julio Sainz, set me straight in this interview from 2018 on handball in Cuba: Link
  • Minor, very minor or virtually non-existent: What’s the difference between handball being considered a minor, very minor or virtually non-existent sport?: For the rest of the nations in the NACHC that was essentially the question. As I’ve pointed out before in this series there are no hard metrics for these popularity assessments and the difference between minor and very minor is really debatable and open to opinion. I could make the case that handball is but a curiosity in every other remaining nation in the NACHC. In the end, largely based on relative population size, I decided that a couple of nations were more orange than red.
  • Canada: Over the years I’ve played or coached against handball teams from all over Canada and it’s always struck me that handball in the U.S. and Canada was pretty similar. That perspective, however, began to change with the development of youth programs and high school programs in the province of Alberta. Handball is still a minor sport there, but significant progress has been made. The other province where handball has a foothold is Quebec. Again, handball is not a huge sport, but it has a following in those two provinces. As far as the rest of Canada goes… it is pretty much like the U.S. In fact, if one were to color code the provinces of Canada, outside of Alberta and Quebec, the rest of Canada would be a see of red. It was a close call, but I decided that those two provinces boosted the country up to orange
    • Commentary on handball development efforts in Alberta and whether the U.S. should apply them: Link
  • Puerto Rico: Puerto Rico is another country that I was on the fence about in terms of red vs orange. Handball is not super huge there, but in terms of national team competitions they’ve punched way above their weight. Yes, this territory of the U.S. with 3M people has typically fared well in comparison to the U.S. (100 times bigger) and even qualified its women’s team for the 2015 World Championships. And, while the U.S. has bolstered its national teams with dual citizens Puerto Rico has relied on home grown talent. Finally, here’s some context for you. In a contest where both nations had to rely entirely on homegrown talent… I would bet on Puerto Rico. Take into account the relative population sizes and the reality that Puerto Rico is actually part of the U.S… and, you might be saying, “What the hell?”
  • Dominican Republic: I considered the Dominican Republic for orange status, but they missed the cut. They are also a smallish nation (10M), but have dropped in performance the last decade in national team competitions.
  • USA: No one has to tell me that the U.S. has a small, but very dedicated handball following. That said, in the context of a nation with 330M people, it really is a very, very small following. Further context: Outside of our handful of college programs the bulk of our club teams consist mostly of expat athletes from other countries. Even more context: Almost all of the players on our national teams (Men Women) are either dual citizens that learned how to play the sport in another country or are products of quick fix, residency programs. I know this sounds negative… but, let’s be clear: it’s also our reality.
    • The positive spin: As we have been saying for years, handball is a sport Americans should love. Americans, by and large, have not rejected handball. The reality is that most Americans are unaware the sport even exists. The opportunities for growth at the grass roots levels are very real. And, that growth could be dramatic.
  • Mexico: Much like the U.S. handball in Mexico has a small, but dedicated following. I’ve seen and played against Mexican club teams a few times and the level of play is comparable to the U.S. Sometimes even better as this highlight video from the 2010 U.S. National Championships shows. (The graphics say Houston, but the team was actually mostly Mexican nationals.) However, with a sizable population of 128M people Mexican national teams have usually underperformed in national team competitions.
  • The Other Caribbean Nations: As far as the other Caribbean nations go there should be little doubt that handball in those countries is either very minor or virtually non-existent. To the IHF’s credit they are legitimately trying to grow the sport in these nations. With the IHF’s help nations like St Kitts & Nevis and Trinidad & Tobago have fielded teams in competitions for the very first time. Further, the IHF is also encouraging the development of beach handball which is a natural fit for these nations. For this map if a nation was an official member of the NACHC I classified that nation a red. If they weren’t even a member I classified that nation as white.
  • Overall Assessment: If you compare this popularity map to Europe or even Africa it clearly shows how far behind the sport is in this region and provides some understanding as why many see handball as mostly a European sport. There’s two ways to look at this situation. 1) We can pretend this isn’t the reality and try to mask the shortcomings as best we can or 2) We can view it as a tremendous opportunity for the sport’s growth. For many years, pretending or ignoring was essentially the strategy adopted by the handball world. Credit to the IHF, the Forum Club Handball (FCH) and others for starting to address the need for development. It won’t happen overnight, but I’m genuinely optimistic that this see of red will eventually turn orange and yellow. Check back in 5 years.

  • 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
    • Countries where handball is clearly 3rd
  • 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
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • A sport that is practically non-existent
    • Countries where there are no national teams, leagues or clubs.

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.

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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