USA Team Handball’s “Lack of Funding” and Why that May Soon be Changing

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.

Recently USA Team Handball CEO, Martin Branick was interviewed on the Red, White & Glue podcast. One of the questions he was asked was, “Why does the USATH seem to suffer from a lack of funds?” Branick responded with this explanation:

“I think the number one thing that we always have to remember that’s different in the U.S. compared to well, every other country except the others is that Olympic sports in the U.S. are not government funded. Right. So there’s no government entity. There’s not a department of sports or a ministry of sports that supports all of these Olympic disciplines or non-Olympic disciplines. So we rely on the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee as a private enitity, non-profit entity, we rely on private contributions and partnerships to fund our entire Olympic movement in the U.S. And, I think that’s one of the biggest differences is when you don’t have government funding you’re just subject to a different set of parameters in getting resources”

This explanation includes several true statements, but it’s also misleading. Here’s why:

  • The U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) is, indeed, not a government entity and the implication is that a U.S. Ministry of Sports would make different funding decisions. While it’s true that some countries (with a sport ministry) provide support more equally across all sports, it’s also true that that many countries (just like the USOPC) provide far less to their handball federation. Just ask any Canadian or British handball fan… And, this is not just a handball issue. For instance, I suspect that handball nations like Denmark and Germany shortchange less popular sports like baseball and rugby.
  • The lack of U.S. government funding support doesn’t mean the USOPC coffers are empty. On the contrary, the USOPC is flush with cash. The 2023 financial report shows $345M in annual revenue. There’s plenty of money to go round… the decision has simply been made not to “go round” to all the sports under their umbrella. (more on that topic below)
  • For the USOPC there’s also no real hardship in “relying on private contributions and partnerships.” The private contributions don’t amount to much, but the partnerships the USOPC have are first rate. These partnerships include Olympic sponsors and the biggest ticket item of all… the payments from the IOC as part of NBC’s TV broadcast rights.

So, what’s the answer to the question, “Why does the USATH seem to suffer from a lack of funds?”

The short answer is two fold:

  • The USOPC has decided to provide minimal funding support to USA Team Handball (compared to many other National Governing Bodies (NGB))
  • USA Team Handball has had minimal success in developing its own indpendent revenue streams

I’ll expand on this, but for anyone interested here’s more background on the “lack of funding” question. These commentaries were written several years ago, but not a whole lot has changed.

  • 2012 Series: Why Aren’t the U.S. National Teams at the London Olympics?: Link
    • Part 3: A Lack of Funding: Link
    • Part 4: A Lack of Funding: Where are the Sponsor and Donors?: Link
  • 2019: Charting a Way Forward for USA Team Handball: Link
    • What We Have: Finances (Part 1): USA Team Handball Revenue (Grants, Contributions and Sponsorships): Link
    • What We Have: Finances (Part 2): USA Team Handball Revenue (Membership and the Importance of Tracking that Data): Link

USOPC Decisions to Minimally Fund USA Team Handball

Before we tackle the question of USOPC support let’s first take a closer look at what USA Team Handball’s total annual revenue has been over the years. After all, if we’re going to talk about a lack of funding, it’s probably a good idea to understand what that funding level is.

I created this graphic in 2019 and there are now four more financial reports available on the USA Team Handball website. Here’s the annual revenue for those years:

  • 2018: $513K
  • 2019: $612K
  • 2020: $628K
  • 2021: $705K

There are some peaks and valleys with this chart, but the trendline since the 1996 Olympics has been in the $500-600K range. Contrast those amounts to the years leading up to the 1996 Olympics and you might well be wondering: WTF? (And, keep in mind… inflation is not even factored in on this chart!) What caused this sharp decline? As CEO Branick mentions later in the interview, the USOPC provides significantly more funding to sports that have better chances to win medals. It’s that simple.

What this chart demonstrates is that this was not always the case. USA Team Handball and other sports used to get a more equitable share of funding. But, after the 1996 Olympic Games the USOPC changed direction and decided to link funding to NGBs with the chances that NGB could produce medals. And, ever since USA Team Handball has been in a Catch 22 situation: Funding is tied to its chances of winning medals… It takes more funding to improve its chances of winning medals. A no win situation that saw the rich (swimming, track & field) get richer and the poor (team handball) get poorer. Or, at best move sideways.

This dramatic change in funding support from the USOPC, inevitably led to a significant decline in national team performance. This is because the lion’s share of funding had gone towards our national teams which for the most part consisted of cross over athletes that were trained with full time residency programs. Lacking the resources those programs closed down and the U.S. had to field national teams consisting of athletes coming from either its very small grassroots programs, its austere residency programs or, increasingly over the years, dual citizens growing up in other countries.

As a long time follower of handball in the U.S. I’m often amused with the athletes from the pre 1996 era not fully appreciating or comprehendng how the funding profile has changed so dramatically. While the level of support they received for their endeavors was modest, it comparatively was “Fat City” to the more austere support national team athletes have received for the past two decades. Old timers often jokingly referred to their experience as “Play handball. See the world.” To some extent that applies today… The athletes just have to pay for much of it out of their own pockets.

So, the simple short answer to the question, “Why the lack of funding?” at least in terms of “big brother” support provided is the USOPC decision to focus on supporting NGBs that can win medals.

USA Team Handball Stuggles to Develop Independent Revenue Streams

While funding provided by the USOPC is significant many federations also bring in significant revenue on their own from sponsporships and memberships. While it is, of course, desirable to develop such revenue streams it’s easier said than done. As I wrote in 2012 there is not a magical sponsorship tree where one can just pluck the dollar bills off of it.

If only it were so easy to get funding from these sources.

Finding sponsors and donors is very challenging for any minor sport. More could and should be done, but success is often contingent on other factors. For example, Verizon’s much bally hooed sponsorship was largely the result of their CEO (Hans Vestberg) coincidentally being a huge supporter of the sport. It was hoped that it would lead to more sponsors jumping on board, but that never materialized. Not yet, anyway.

This points to one harsh reality any minor sport needs to come to grips with: Sponsors are looking for a return on their investment. This “return” can’t always be neatly identified with specific metrics, but if your sport is virtually unknown and seldom seen it’s hard for a sponsor to see the cost benefit of sponsoring it. This means that better marketing to get handball better known is needed to help make the case to major sponsors.

A Change to the Funding Profile?

While USA Team Handball’s revenue profile has been mostly going sideways for the past 28 years I think there’s a strong possibility that will change over the next four years. And, of course, that reason is the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

It’s been a long time since the U.S. hosted an Olympics. The sports landscape has changed and is more splintered in terms of what interests people and how they watch or follow it. But… the Olympics are still a big deal. And, a hosted Olympics should still be a really big deal.

Even More Money to Go Around

While the USOPC has been very stingy with its funding for over two decades now it’s soon going to become really flush with cash. The sponsorship deals for LA should really help their top line and make it relatively painless to provide more help to the smaller federations. Further, a hosted Olympics should change their perspective for minor sports like team handball. When a national team doesn’t qualify for the Olympics it’s easy for the USOPC to decide not to provide funding. However, when a national team is guaranteed qualification…it’s not so easy to deny that team support. And, this is probably not said aloud… if a team might be perceived as a potential embarrassment on home soil it might even get more resources to help prevent that from happening.

Sponsors May Come out of the Woodwork

In theory, the next four years leading up the to the 2028 Olympics should be a gold mine of sponsor opportunity. There’s nothing like hosting an Olympics and it will be the closest to a sponsorship tree that our sport will ever have. In 1994, in the lead up to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, the Weather Channel (yes, the Weather Channel) stepped in to sponsor USA Team Handball with a million dollars. Even without inflation it’s still the biggest cash haul we’ve ever had. The weather channel even had a commercial they’d play periodically touting their support of USA Team Handball. (I still can’t hardly believe it) I like to think that a similar sponsor for 2028 will emerge, but it’s not guaranteed.

So if the funding profile is likely changing… should that also change USA Team Handball’s planning? If so, how? And, what could be done to possibly speed up the process? To get more funding sooner? I think there is an elegant solution on the horizon…