Collegiate Handball (Part 1): A New Format for College Nationals (Sometimes Less… is More)

This is part of an ongoing series, “Charting a way forward for USA Team Handball” which is a series of commentaries exploring different initiatives to help move the sport forward in this country.

Anyone who has ever asked me what I think should be done to improve handball domestically in the U.S. will get an answer that primarily revolves around collegiate handball. In 2014, I identified the main reasons I thought this was the case and I proposed several initiatives to improve collegiate handball. Some of them have even been implemented.

One initiative that hasn’t been addressed, however, was an initiative to “Upgrade the Collegiate National Championship and Promote it as USA Team Handball’s Premier Event.” Having attended the past two college nationals and a couple more prior to the pandemic I’m now even more convinced that we should take steps to make it happen.

Step one towards upgrading our collegiate championships would be doing away with the Weekend Tournament. Here’s why I think we need to move to a new format and why I think an Elite Eight would be a good alternative.

The Weekend Tourney… A Problematic Format

Because the U.S. is a big country and teams have to travel great distances to compete, the “Weekend Tournament” has become our primary format for handball competitions. Typically, this involves playing 4-5 matches over the course of weekend. Matches are often shorter (either 2×25 or 2×20 minute periods), but it’s still way too much handball in too short of time. Crimeny! The world’s best, full time professional handball athletes complain about two matches on back to back days. In the U.S. we have weekend warriors, who maybe even shouldn’t still be playing the sport, cramming 5 matches in 2.5 days. It’s silly, crazy or <insert your adjective here> with predictable consequences.

Those consequences are tired players. Tired players that can’t play as well as they are capable of and tired players who are more susceptible to injury. College age kids are younger and for the most part better able to handle such a demanding schedule, but I’ve seen enough Sunday morning handball that I can tell that it just looks and feels different than the matches played Friday night and Saturday morning. By Sunday many of the matches become more about a battle of endurance and attrition than anything else. And, I can tell… some players are just ready to go home especially if they are playing a consolation match with little on the line.

Proposed New Format: An Elite Eight with Consolation (3 matches/team)

The obvious solution from an aesthetic and player health standpoint would be to play a Final Four similar to a club final played in Europe. Four teams, two semifinals on Saturday and a Final/3rd place match on Sunday. But, while I really like the simplicity and marketing aspects of a Final Four I’m not sure it’s the right solution. After all, the collegiate championshps are a “collegial” event and it’s a great opportunity for athletes to interact with one another. Some colleges even tie club funding support to attending a National Championship. While limiting the final tournament to four teams would greatly simplify things it would also deny too many teams the opportunity to play in a final event.

So, if 2 matches over 2 days is too little and 4/5 matches over 3 days is too much I think the Goldilocks solution would be an Elite Eight (with consolation) played over 3 days. This would still have the simplicity/clarity of a Final Four while making sure each team gets 3 full length matches. Here’s how the 1st Division would have looked if we took the 5 D1 teams and the top 3 D2 from the 2024 Championships and seeded them 1 to 8.

While an Elite Eight knockout is simple and would require fewer match there are some drawbacks to this format. The biggest one, as anyone who follows NCAA March Madness knows is that there are no second chances. With group play you can recover from an earlier loss. With a knockout tourney your title chances could be over after your first match. While the inclusion of consolation matches means you can keep playing it’s still a bummer.

Match Timing

Another drawback would be some possible complications with the timing of the matches. Ideally, each team would play 1 match/day, but this would necessitate matches being played earlier on Friday and all teams taking another day off from school. Or alternatively, some teams would play two matches on Saturday. This could be a negative, though, in Sunday matches with one side (having played on Friday night and Saturday) being more rested than their opponent (having played two matches on Saturday).


Finally, with no second chances it would be imperative that teams were properly and fairly seeded. After all, nobody wants to see the two best teams playing each other in the first game. Currently, the seeding process is limited by a lack of regular season structure in terms of college teams playing each other on a regular basis. It’s not that teams don’t want to play each other. It’s just that geography and a lack of coordination sometimes limits those opportunities. This could be addressed with the clear designation of some in-season collegiate tournaments or collegiate conferences as competitions that that will be used for seeding determination. Regional qualification matches could even be scheduled to help determine seeding.

Multiple Divisions and Size Limitations

The US Handball Union organized the 2024 Championship and decided to go with 2 Divisions. With two clear groupings of quality this was a decision that made sense and it was validated with fewer blowouts and as far as I know, no complaints from any of the teams. If there are enough teams an Elite 8 format could also work for D2. That said, in future seasons it may not be as clear cut where to draw the line between two divisions. And, how that line should be drawn. After all, if one looks at NCAA or high school sports divisions those divisions aren’t determined by the quality of the teams, but by other factors such as whether scholarships are awarded, stadium size and school enrollment. And, due to graduation and/or the arrival of key athletes the quality of collegiate handball teams can vary significantly from year to year.

Finally, at some point there is a breaking point of too many teams. (Or, there should be a breaking point.). At which point it will be necessary to reevaluate the concept of an “all comers” final tournament. The logical solution would probably be then to have regional qualifiers akin to what some NCAA sports like basketball have.

Too many collegiate teams would sure be a good problem to have. In the next installment I’ll discuss better promotion and presentation of the collegiate handball championships and how that could help fuel collegiate club growth.