Commentary: Three U.S. Championships… but, only One of them is Truly “National”

(Klaebu IL and the Norseman pose together after their “national” championship match)

Norway’s Domination of American Club Handball Continues

This past weekend in what may be the most eclectic USA Handball “National” Championship ever staged two Norwegian teams (Klaebu IL and the Norseman) faced off against each other for the elite title at the U.S. Handball Union National Championships. And, to think that I complained recently about two Norwegian professionals helping the California Eagles take the USA Team Handball National Championships title. This is taking the Norwegian connection to new heights.

A Nice Tournament

Setting aside that somewhat bizarre final, it looks like the tournament held last weekend was a success. I wasn’t there, but based on social media posts and the YouTube broadcasts it looks like people were having fun and enjoed the competition. Here are some links regarding the tournament:

The TV feature provided a little nostaglia for me as it referenced the Las Vegas Scorpions club team I helped start prior to the 2010 National Championships that were also in Las Vegas. Here’s an article on the 2010 Tournament and some promotion we did during the 2012 Olympics. Currently, the team is inactive, but maybe they’ll get going again if the tournament returns to Vegas next year.

US Handball Union and USA Team Handball “National” Championships: A Comparison

In the space of a month the U.S. held two separate national championships. USA Team Handball held a National Championship in Spokane, Washington from 3-5 May and the upstart US Handball Union held their tournament in Vegas from 6-9 June. I didn’t attend either event, but based on the match video from the Vegas tournament and the logical conclusion that USA Team Handball hasn’t changed what it’s been doing for years… they appear to have been very similar. Here’s a comparison:

  • Size: Union: 17 teams; USATH: 20 teams (Both had 2 men’s divisions and 1 women’s division
  • Foreign Teams: Union: 4 teams; USATH: 6 teams
  • Demographics (American/Expat): Most of the U.S. clubs participating in both tournaments had quite a few expats. Perhaps there were a few more Americans percentage wise at the Union tournament, but I can’t fully assess
  • Demographics (playing for a club where you live): And, both tournaments featured clubs with quite a few athletes that lived nowhere near the city identified with the club
  • Level of play: I suspect that the California Eagles and NYC would have been able to beat the Norwegian teams that won the Union Championship. I also think NYC and Quebec were better than the women’s teams. I didn’t see as many of the D2 matches, but I think the Miami Storms team could have won the USATH D2 title. But, overall, if one were to look at all the the teams… probably pretty similar.
  • Video Coverage: I didn’t pay the $5 fee for the USATH tournament, so the free Union tourney was clearly better from my perspective. They also had some dedicated people working it. That said, the camera angles were too low and there were frequent streaming glitches.
  • Location: I didn’t attend either event, but Las Vegas vs Spokane for the 2nd year in a row? That’s a no brainer in my opinion. Even if June is pretty hot in Vegas. It’s a wonder any club that wasn’t looking to qualify for the Super Globe even went to Spokane.

Pointless Duplication?

In the cult classic movie, Highlander the famous quote is: There can be only one. Apparently, that only applies to immortals. Not sports organizations. Most comically, boxing has 5 (count em, 5) organizations that honor boxers with the moniker “World Champion.” And, much like boxing, there is nothing to prevent any U.S. handball organization from running a tournament and calling it their national championship. Heck, they could even call it a world championship like some of our American pro leagues like to.

Duplicate championships, however, from a big picture perspective are problematic. One of the reasons boxing is taken less seriously and has loss ground on the world stage are the competing organizations fighting for attention. Imagine if there were 5 FIFAs running soccer and staging dueling championships. Or, if one nation with very limited resources was staging two handball championships. Wait… that’s what we have.

I won’t go into all of the politics surrounding our current situation. But, make no mistake it’s mostly about politics. We don’t need two national championships. Heck, we don’t even really have enough bandwidth to do one national championship properly. But, logically, if you were to combine the manpower and resources used to conduct two separate events you would have more bandwidth to stage a better event. At least one would hope so.

The problem with that, however, is the politics and who gets to do it. Because if you are going to combine resources ultimately there can be only one entity in charge. Somebody loses out.

Not Really “National” Championships

But, setting aside the politics, there’s a larger issue that should be addressed. And, that’s the reality that neither championship was very “national.” It’s semantical, but it still matters. When you have athletes, whether it be pros living in another nation or an entire team from another nation… does it make sense to call them national champions for the nation where they don’t even live?

Champions of “a Tournament.” Sure, that makes sense. I’m down with that. Just don’t call them National Champs. Semantically, what we actually have been staging are “Open” Championships. Much like the French Open or the U.S. Open these tournament are open to all comers from anywhere in the world.

From a team concept the most comparable competition I can think of is “The Basketball Tournament (TBT)” which is staged in the summer and features teams with rosters that are put together to play in just that one tournment. And, as anyone who’s been around handball in the U.S. for awhile knows this is exactly what often happens as athletes and teams boths search for each other in the weeks prior to tournaments.

From the standpoint of giving athletes the opportunity to compete and have fun there is nothing wrong with having an annual 1 off tournament that does this. But, when you combine such a tournament with the concept of determining a “national champion”… well, that’s where the disconnect is. Because you can’t do both at the same time.

A Possible Solution

And, maybe recognizing this disconnect is the path to resolution. I think we need to start thinking about having two tournaments.

One tournament would be a smaller National Championship that is focused on determining a National Champion. Only open to U.S. clubs that meet stricter residency and qualification requirements with tighter roster contols. Maybe even requirements to sponsor a youth program and practice 20 times/year. We could even talk about a citizenship % requirement. One that might require only 25% U.S. citizenship initially, and is adjusted annually. Yes… these requirements would result in weaker teams for Super Globe qualification, but it could pave the way for the kind of growth I think we want. Perhaps this tournament could even be a final four with proper staging and promotion.

The other tournament would be what we’re already doing. An all comers open tournament. A celebration of handball in the the U.S. where the intent is some good competition, having fun and meeting old friends.

Our Already Existing National Championship

As I alluded to with the title of this commentary, we already have an existing national championship… And, that would be our Collegiate National Championships. And, you know what this championship has already. Teams mostly composed of Americans, all living in the same city and practicing regularly.

No one’s even going to begin to argue that the West Point men and women’s team aren’t the National Collegiate Champions. It wouldn’t even cross anyone’s mind.

And, we should be striving for a structure where the same could be said about our adult clubs. Where no one even doubts the validity of our club national champion.