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Another New Podcast for Handball Fans

A new podcast, Red, White and Glue is now available for handball fans (see links at the bottom). It’s a production of the US Women’s National Team and it’s co-hosted by USA Women’s National Team Assistant Coach, Hendrik Schultze and national team left wing, Viva Kreis. Here’s my perspective on the new podcast.

A Rising Tide Lifts all Boats

Folks might not realize it, but Team Handball News had the first ever handball focused podcast. Yes, off and on, I’ve been doing podcasts since 2006. And, during that time I’ve seen other handball podcasts come and go. I suspect there are a couple of reasons for this. First off, it can be quite a bit of work. It especially was in the early days, but technology improvements have sure made it easier and easier to get an episode out. The second reason is that there’s not a very big market for English related handball content. There’s a market… it’s just a very niche market. My latest iteration with Ohio St coach, JD Orr, USA Handball Talk currently gets around 100 combined YouTube views/mp3 downloads. The Handball Hour currently has around 150 Patreon subscribers, but surely has a lot more listeners for its free podcasts. So, there’s an audience. It’s just not a huge audience.

So more often than not handball podcasters do podcasts because they like to talk about handball and share their views with others. Certainly that’s the main reason I do it. While some see “competition” as a negative I just see a great opportunity to hear views from others. And, I’m also a big believer in the saying that “A rising tide lifts all boats.” The more people talking about handball… the better it is for anyone doing a podcast,

An Opportunity to Refresh Old Content (e.g. Wall Handball)

When you’ve been running a handball website for 17 years you can often get the sense that just about every topic has been addressed multiple times and from multiple different angles. Case in point: The first podcast addresses the long standing semantic problem handball unfortunately has to deal with the U.S. Over the years I’ve addressed the handball semantic problem multiple times. Here’s a sampling:

So, while I might get annoyed with newcomers covering well trod upon ground… it’s just a little annoyed. After all, newcomers are coming into the sport all the time. They may not be aware that I’ve addressed something in the past, so it’s an opportunity to update the Handball FAQ and refresh old content.

A Catalyst for New Commentaries

Probably, of greater interest, though, for me and many readers will be any discussion on USA Team Handball plans. I’ll go out on a short limb and state that no one has thought as long and hard about USA Team Handball planning as much as I have. That could mean that I’m just some old guy who thinks he know everything. Could be… Although, over the years, I think my track record assessing different initiatives and what will likely happen is pretty solid.

Most recently, I’ve started some commentaries on the U.S. Women’s Team and the need to refocus the program as soon as possible on both expanding and improving the quaility of our very, very small talent pool.

USA Women’s National Team: What’s Next?

  • Part 1: Introduction: Link
  • Part 2: The Looming Decision Can’t Wait any Longer: Link

And, now there is an Official USA Women’s National Team podcast that surely will be discussing some of the same issues and concerns I have. This is an awesome development and I Iook forward to hearing what’s planned. I suspect the new podcast will tend to have a “positive, can do” approach to the many challenges USA Team Handball faces so it will provide a nice contrast to my more measured (OK… some would say critical) approach that we simply can’t do everything we might want to and that we really need to prioritize what we should do first.

It’s all good. Different perspectives are welcome. And, hearing some different perspectives will surely serve as a catalyst for me to write some new commentaries. Even better it might help serve as a catalyst for the USA Team Handball Board of Directors to start making some important resource decisions that are long overdue.

So welcome aboard fellow handball podcasters. The more, the merrier.

Red, White, and Glue: The U.S. Women’s National Team Handball Podcast

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Charting a Way Forward for USA Team Handball (2024 Reboot): Yet Another Reboot

Team Handball is a great sport and virtually everyone introduced to the sport has wondered why this most American of sports hasn’t caught on in the U.S. As someone who has followed handball development (or the lack thereof) in the U.S. for over 35 years I have been continuously frustrated with the overall lack of planning to move the sport forward. Our small community is very committed and has been willing to work hard, but without a plan… we’ve mostly been spinning our wheels in place or worse, regressing backwards as other niche sports have passed us by.

Retrospective

While I’ve been having the typical after match, barstool discussions on these topics since the late 1980s I didn’t start to document those opinions until I started this website. In 2014, I first systematically addressed planning with the identification of several alternative initiatives for consideration. These options included strategies for improving out national teams, placing more emphasis on collegiate handball, on women’s handball and the adopting a regional (instead of nationwide) development strategy. Links to these initiatives and others from the original series are at the end of this post.

In 2018, USA Team Handball developed and approved a Strategic Plan. While not a perfect document the organization now had a documented starting point to guide efforts to move the sport forward in this country. In 2019, with new leadership in place I took the opportunity to reboot the original series and to first assess where USA Handball stood as an organization and how that might fit in with the goals and objectives of the strategic plan.

I covered what “What We Have” and “What We Want to Be” pretty thoroughly and those links are at the end of this post in the First Reboot (2019) section. Surprisingly… or not surprisingly the What We Have section is still pretty accurate 5 years later.

The New Reboot

The 2019 Reboot ended, however, with my just barely having started the hard task of assessing “How We Get There” and the necessary changing of “What We Want to Be” to “What We Actually Can Be.” This incomplete effort was partly due to the COVID Pandemic and partly due to my actually working for USA Team Handball for a brief time.

Now in 2024, with the COVID pandemic clearly behind us and Olympic qualification guaranteed for 2028 it’s high time to move forward. The next four years present a lot of challenges, but also a lot of opportunities the sport in this country has not had since the 1990s. Honestly, the opportunities are so great we could basically muddle through the next four years haphazardly and still make progress. We could… but, we don’t do that. Instead we need to maximize these four years as much as possible with a constant eye towards actions and initiatives that can help lead to sustainable growth after 2028.

Bottom Lines… Up Front

While I generally prefer a methodical process without pre-ordained answers there’s not a whole lot of time to waste. Honestly, this sort of effort should have started in the midst of the pandemic when all we could do was plan for the future. That said, I’m alreadly leaning towards several bottom lines that could inform a Strategic Plan update as well as follow on actions that should be implemented. I’ve even already written some commentaries addressing one of the topics. Here are some bottom lines… up front:

  • National Teams
    • The U.S. Men’s Sr national team is already sufficiently competitive for the upcoming 2028 Olympic Games. The team should continue to be supported at roughly the same level
    • The U.S. Women’s Sr national team is currently not on a path to be sufficiently competitive at the 2028 Olympics. A plan to effectively broaden the existing talent pool and train newcomers should be developed and implemented as soon as possible.
    • The level of support to Jr and Youth national team competitions and training should be reassessed based on our expected Return on Investment (ROI)
  • Domestic Competitions
    • Collegiate handball is the “sweet spot” for development in the U.S. The bulk of available resources should primarily be focused on establishing/sustaining new collegiate clubs, improving the overall level of play, and promoting collegiate handball
    • Support to adult, recreational handball competitions should be limited to basic organizational support. These competitions, while important to existing members have very limited prospects for growth and/or promotional benefit,
    • Support to any professional league efforts should not be provided or encouraged. The current sporting landscape in the U.S. makes it all but certain that such an effort will be unsuccessful.
    • Support to youth, recreational activities should be focused towards the establishment of sustainable local competitions or some other follow on target.
  • Marketing and Promotional Activities
    • Team Handball currently has a very small footprint with major sports entities with a linear TV, streaming and social media presence. A plan should be developed and significant resources should be applied to improving this footprint for international national team, professional and collegiate competitions
    • Based on the current TV landscape a strong case can be made for a documentary/reality show focused on the development of the U.S. Women’s National Team. A plan should be developed and significant resources should be applied towards making this happen.
  • Fundraising/Revenue Generation
    • Sponsorship opportunities should increase as we approach the 2028 Olympics. A plan should be developed to maximize those opportunities. This may or may not necessitate a contractual arrangement with an agency.
    • Membership dues provide other sport NGBs with a significant portion of their overal revenue. USA Team Handball should fully assess whether that model can also apply for handball and, if so, develop a plan to facilitate membership growth.
  • Beach Handball
    • As long as beach handball is not on a path for inclusion in the Olympic Games, resources applied to support beach handball should be minimized. This is because there are simply not enough resources and manpower to be applied towards one discipline… let alone two disciplines.

I’ll be putting some more “meat on the bones” on these bottom lines and you can already see two posts that I’ve written on the challenges facing the U.S. Women below

Picking Winners and Losers

It goes without saying that these proposed bottom lines are going to make some people unhappy. The good news for everyone is that I’m just some guy with a website. I’ve got some influence, but the reality is that this is a Board Member/CEO driven process. The bad news is that these things take time and USA Team Handball has historically been a risk averse, keep as many people happy as possible organization. One that has often avoided picking winners and losers. And, the really bad news is that indecision is essentially just a decsion to maintain the status quo.

I’ll go on record that my intent here is to hopefully be read and to stir discussion towards decision making. Preferably, adopting what I’m proposing, but I’ll take actually making a decision as a little victory too. Because, the reality is that there isn’t always one clearly right answer, but multiple possibilities to choose from… Pick one and move out.

Subject to Revision

I’ll also go on record that I’m more than open to having my mind changed. To be introduced to new data that makes me rethink my bottom lines. One thing that I’ve learned is that when one starts to go beyond yakking over a beer and puts their thoughts down on paper… what was once certain can become a bit fuzzy. Can even lead to a full 180 degrees change of view. That’s happened more than once and that’s a good thing. We’ll be discussing many of these topics in upcoming podcasts, sometimes with guests that are sure to have contrary views. So don’t be surprised if over time this post get revised.

Yet Another Reboot (2024)

  • U.S. Women’s National Team (What’s Next?)
    • Part 1) Introduction: Link
    • Part 2) The Looming Decision Can’t Wait any Longer: Link

The Original Series (2014)

In 2014, I wrote several commentaries on the newly implemented Residency Program at Auburn. Over and over I hammered away with all the concerns I had with this well intentioned, but poorly conceived effort. After some reflection, though, I thought it would make sense to identify some alternative strategies. Here are some links to the commentaries from that series… and some missing links as I never finished this effort:

  • Introduction: Many Options + Limited Resources = Hard Choices: Link
  • 1) Modify the National Team Residency Programs to focus strictly on player development: Link
  • 2) Increase the emphasis and support to National Team recruiting: Link
  • 3) Develop or participate in a European based residency program to provide athletes more competition: Link
  • 4) Upgrade College Team Handball:  Following the rugby club model to nationwide participation (Part 1Part 2)
  • 5) Upgrade College Team Handball:  Seeking NCAA status on the heels of the O’Bannon Ruling
  • 6) The “Title IX Field Hockey Strategy”:  Focus 90% of USA Team Handball’s resources on Women’s Programs: Link
  • 7) The “Iceland Strategy”:  Focus a large percentage of USA Team Handball’s resources on one geographical location (Part 1Part 2; Part 3)
  • 8) The “Alberta Strategy”:  Fully assess Alberta’s successful development program and fund a U.S. version in one region of the U.S.:  Link
  • 9) Youth and Junior Teams Emphasis:  Fund U.S. participation for up and coming athletes first
  • 10) Funding direct to clubs:  Reward high performing club programs with real and tangible financial support
  • 11) High School Team Handball:  Following in Lacrosse and Flag Football’s footsteps
  • 12) True Youth Movement:  Follow the AYSO soccer model to develop a massive player and fan base at even younger ages
  • 13) U.S. Olympic Handball Festivals:  Bridging the gap between club and national teams

The First Reboot (2019)

Introduction: Link

What We Have

  • Demographics (Men)
    • American Citizen Male Athletes (Overview): Link
    • USA Men’s Elite Player Pool (Overview): Link
    • USA Men’s National Team (Part 1: A Closer Look by Position- GK and CR): Link
    • USA Men’s National Team (Part 2: A Closer Look by Position- BC and RW/LW): Link
  • Demographics (Women)
    • American Citizen Female Athletes (Overview): Link
      USA Women’s Elite Player Pool (Overview): Link
  • USA Club Programs
    • Part 1: Understanding the USA Club Structure and At-Large Men’s Clubs: Link
      Part 2: Collegiate Men’s Clubs: Our Most American Competition with Opportunities for Growth: Link
      Part 3: USA Women At-Large and Collegiate Clubs: Link
      Part 4: Why there are so Few Clubs and Why the Rosters Mostly Consist of Expats: Link
  • Finances
    • Part 1: USA Team Handball Revenue (Grants, Contributions and Sponsorships): Link
    • Part 2: USA Team Handball Revenue (Membership and the Importance of Tracking that Data): Link

What We Want to Be

  • Part 1: A review of the USA Team Handball Strategic Plan and National Team Targets: Link
  • Part 2: A review of USA Collegiate Development Targets: Link
  • Part 3: A review of Fundraising Targets: Link
  • Part 4: A review of Marketing Targets: Link
  • Part 5: A review of the “Big, Hairy, Audacious Project: Link

How We Get There

  • Part 1: The Project Management Triangle: Link
  • Part 2: National Team Targets: Link
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U.S. Women’s National Team: What’s Next? (Part 2): The Looming Decision Can’t Wait any Longer

My final walk off slide in a presentation I gave to the USA Team Handball Board of Directors in October of 2022. This difficult and challenging decision shouldn’t be delayed any longer.

Decision Making Processes

Making decisions can be pretty hard especially when they impact a lot of people and have far reaching consequences. Inevitably, there are winners and losers and some unhappy people Sometimes making the decision can be so hard that people avoid making the decision altogether. Occasionally, delaying the decision is the smart move. This happens when the problem goes away or gets solved in some unexpected way.

But, more often than not, delaying the decision… ends up becoming a decision in and of itself. This is because inaction and the passage of time starts to eliminate posssible courses of action. Anyone who has ever been assigned a school project knows this. Start working on it early and you can consider the pros and cons of multiple courses of action. Why, you can even start over if something goes wrong. But, if you procastinate you end up with fewer choices and might even have to take a risky shortcut to get the project done on time.

The Big Decision: What Resources should be Applied to Support our 2028 Olympic Teams?

This is a broad and a pretty open ended way to identify a complex problem that needs to be decided. As I highlighted in the introduction (Part 1) to this series there are a lot of sub questions that have to be asked and answered before you can begin to decide the answer to the top level question. Partner related questions in terms of what is expected for U.S. performance. Philosophical questions regarding whether a special program should be started. Questions regarding the feasibility of “out of the box” solutions. And, on and on…

Inaction, the De Facto Course of Action?

Best that I can tell, no one is really tackling these questions. Not the board. Not the administrative staff. Not the coaches. Instead everything seems to be proceeding with a business as usual approach. I say “seems to be” because maybe there is a lot of work going on behind the scenes. But, if that is true it’s being done very quietly with little transparency. Here are some outward signs that point to to not much being done:

  • Lack of Board Meeting discussion: I listen in on board meetings and there’s no discussion of these topics or hints that it’s being discussed in Executive Session. Maybe there is in depth discussion and debate in the executive session. That new plans and initiatives are being reviewed, hotly debated and will be announced soon, but there’s little to suggest that is the case.
  • No website or social media posts discussing new initiatives. Website and social media posts regarding our national teams have been pretty much standard stuff highlighting training camps and competition. Newcomers to the sport are invited and encouraged to attend camps, but there doesn’t seem to be any organized and structured effort to effectively target and recruit new talents. Just an invitation (plea) to please show up if you’re so inclined. And, for sure there’s no talk of a realistic follow on training path for new athletes.
  • No discussion of National Team planning in the community talks forums. USA Team Handball conducted a series of “community talks” on a number of different topics, but the national team topic was simply a forum for current national team athletes to discuss how things could be done better. I’m not saying that such a discussion isn’t a good idea, but the lack of a broader topic to address national team planning implies that topic was either not worthy or something where community input wasn’t desired.

The U.S. Men’s National Team: Good Fortune Means a Relatively Easy Decision

Remember when I highligted that sometimes delaying the decision is the smart move? That sometimes the problem just goes away or is solved in some unexpected way? As I’ve highlighted on numerous occasions our men’s program has been gifted with a golden generation of dual citizens that has resulted in a competitive national team winning already capable of winning matches at a World Championships. They are also for the most part pretty young and this means we’ve already identified 95% of our Olympic team. This required no resources whatsoever being spent to identify and recruit new athletes. None! We essentially did no studying, no preparation and got a B+ for filling in our name on the test score sheet. This is crazy, good fortune for the U.S.

That said, all is not perfect. We may already have a competitive team that will not embarrass, but taking the next step and winning matches against top teams will be a huge challenge. While I think our current team can close the gap and pull off the occasional upset, I don’t think we can improve to the point where such wins are commonplace. And, I don’t think we’ll be able to add very many (if any) new athletes to the pool that will take us there in 4.5 years time.

In my opinion, to actually add some new athletes that could contribute to our current men’s national team in a relatively short period would require a very well resourced program with good training and competition opportunities. It would not be cheap and I would assess that even it were to be spectacularly succesful it might not change how well the U.S. Men ultimately perform in terms of wins and losses. In short, it would not be very cost effective and there are better ways USA Team Handball could spend resources.

So if a special program is not likely to have significant impacts, deciding the proper course of action for the U.S. Men is a pretty straightforward decision. Just keep on doing what we’ve been doing. Maybe there are a few tweaks here and there that could be implemented, but for the most part we should just count our lucky stars and focus on other challenges. Of course, that’s just my opinion. The USA Team Handball Board of Directors, the administrative and coaching staff should still review the pros and cons of alternative approaches and come to a conscious decision. They really should… But, if they don’t do that for some reason, the good news is that just “keeping on, keeping on” is probably (almost certainly) the right decision anyway.

The U.S. Women’s National Team: A Very Thin Talent Pool Means that it’s High Time to Start Making Decisions

Alas, the U.S. Women’s National Team is not the U.S. Men’s National Team. This was true when I wrote these assessments (Overall demographics, Women’s National Team player pool) in 2019 and it’s even more bleak as I write this in 2023. We have maybe 150 U.S. American citizen women world-wide that play handball. And, we have a dual citizen contingent on the women’s side, but it’s a smaller group and, as luck would have it, it’s not a golden generation.

As I wrote in part 1 the results the past 4 years have been dismal. For new context, this past summer Greenland beat the U.S. 27-12 at the NORCA Championships and Greenland just finished 32nd out of 32 teams at the 2023 World Championships losing all 7 of their matches by an average of 14 goals. On the positive side of things are U20 Women’s team just missed out on winning the NACHC IHF Trophy event and qualified for the Jr World Championships. Winning sure beats losing and I think there are a few athletes with potential, but this was also a pretty low level competition. Two years ago the U.S. and Mexico met for 31st place at the Jr World Championships. With 32 team fields now there are quite a few weaker teams in these competitions, but NORCA is probably still the weakest continent so this rematch could well happen again next summer.

I’ll just restate the really big disclaimers here. I’ve got no qualms with the efforts of our athletes. They are making big sacrifices and doing the best they can. The same goes for the coaches and the coaching they are doing. Again, they are putting a lot of effort into gettting the best performances they can from the athletes they have available.

The desire and effort are there, but there simply are too few athletes with the potential to compete at a much higher level. With the current athletes available this team can get better, but not a whole lot better. If nothing is done to fully address our very small talent pool, come LA 2028 we will field a very uncompetitive team. How uncompetitive? I won’t speculate fully, but we would be talking some really bad scorelines.

I’ve been around long enough to know that predicting the future is a somewhat perilous business. But, I don’t think this a very tough call. And, wow, I would be super happy to be totally wrong. If so, I will take full credit for the bulletin board material I’ve provided,

Intervention is Coming… Sooner or Later

It’s very unlikely, though, that we would ever get to the opening match in 2028 without some sort of intervention. This is because there will be steps along the way where progress or a lack of progress will be measured. In just two years time the USA Women, thanks to a promised wild card entry, are slated to compete at the 2025 World Championships. This will be a coming out party on the world stage that will hopefully show signs of progress and signs of promise. If, however, it doesn’t one could well see pressure being applied for USA Team Handball to… do something.

And, at the same time as we move closer to the Olympics interest from athletes looking for the chance to be an Olympian will more and more see handball as their opportunity. It’s always a hotly debated topic as to just how quickly a great athlete can be turned into a credible handball player. Inevitably, the discussion boils down to many variables such as the quality of the incoming athlete, the commitment of that athlete, and how that athlete would be trained. And, of course, the quality of the existing athletes that the would be new athlete would theoretically replace.

But, for context, as we discussed on a recent podcast, Katie Timmerman, a recent college graduate who played basketball for D-II, Concordia University, Irvine managed to play significant minutes for the U.S. national team after only a couple of training camps. A quick look at her career stats suggests a respectable career at the D-II level, but nothing to suggest an all star with overwhelming raw talent. And, nothing against D-II athletes, but on the whole, D-II competitions are a significant step down from D-I. In short, it doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to speculate what might happen if we got 20 D-1 athletes to attend a training camp with the LA Olympics approaching.

I Vote Sooner

So, if intervention is coming sooner or later… I vote sooner. And, accordingly, spending the bulk of time and energy towards creating the structures to identify, recruit and train new athletes. Four and a half years is not a lot of time, but it is enough time to put together a decent competitive team. And, avoiding or delaying such a move might result in trying a quick fix in too little time.

It’s also feasible to a certain extent to take a multi-prong approach whereby the current athletes are trained up at the same time the search for more athletes takes place. But, only to a certain extent. For starters, resources aren’t unlimited and a concentrated effort focused on new athletes will take time and money. And, as I’ve alluded to if you’re focused on finding new athletes… what are you really doing with the athletes that you’re essentially trying hard to replace? It’s a mixed message at best and a conflict of interest at its worst.

Time for USA Team Handball Leadership to Step it Up: Make a Decision and Own that Decision

Of course, I don’t have a vote… just a voice. Over a year ago, I briefed the USA Team Handball Board of Directors on the need to update the organization’s outdated strategic plan. My final walk off slide highlighted a looming decision that the board would sooner or later need to take.

I don’t remember every word from my presentation, but I implored the board that this was a major decision that they had to weigh in on because the path chosen had such far reaching consequences for the organization. That it was an order pizza, tell the family you would be home late kind of discussion. And, that the right decision might not necessarily be the most financially prudent or least risky path.

Maybe the right decision is to say: “No, we are not going with an artificial solution that requires a lot of resources to convince people to play handball. We don’t have the resources and in the end it won’t change the outcome significantly enough to merit the costs involved. We’re going to go with what we’ve got.” To which I say: “That’s fine with me. Just make it clear that is what the board has decided and own that decision.”

If the decision is to take a half and half approach: Then explain why that has been decided and how limited resources can be effectively applied to each half. Again, own that decision.

And, if the decision is for an approach that focuses on new athletes: Articulate that decision and develop a plan to make it happen… And, own that decision.

I think everyone can see where I’m going here. Sometimes all a board of directors has to do is put their stamp on a fairly stable situation. Where the course of action is fairly obvious. (Like lowering membership dues to match a competing organization) And, sometimes a board needs to step in a make a major strategic decision: To choose which fork in the road to take.

The looming decision is no longer looming. It’s staring us right in the face: It’s time to make a decision.

What might efforts to broaden the talent pool look like? In future installments I’ll take a look at some possible options and the challenges associated with implementing them.

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Every Athlete has a Ceiling: Here was Mine

In the coming weeks I will be posting some commentaries that will assess our current athlete talent pools and what steps should be taken to broaden and improve those talent pools. While it’s been a few years since my playing days those experiences are still fresh in my mind and very much shape my perspective. As such, here’s a look at my unremarkable handball career on the fringes of the U.S. National Team and how it’s relevant to our current national team talent pools.

Olympic Festivals: The Old Stepping Stone between Clubs and the National Team

There hasn’t been an Olympic Festival since 1995 so that means a lot of people either have no idea what they were or just an inkling that it was some sort of event where handball was played back in the day. While the latter is true it doesn’t quite do justice to how important Olympic Festivals were for both USA Team Handball and the athletes that played in them.

Basically, Olympic Festivals were like a mini Olympics for the U.S. with athletes representing teams from the North, South, East and West regions of the U.S. Pretty much every Olympic sport was played and then some. There was even a pretty decent opening ceremony with entertainment and an athlete march in to the stadium.

Aside from the pageantry they were 2 weeks long with a lot of training and matches. Rosters were 16 athletes and with 4 teams and 2 genders that was 128 athletes. And, it was entirely paid for by the U.S. Olympic Committee. That’s travel, room, board and attire for athletes, coaches and referees. That was quite a deal for NGBs like USA Team Handball.

And, Olympic Festivals were a really good deal for the participating athletes as they were a great opportunity to demonstrate your potential for national team consideration. Depending on the national team training/travel schedule the national team would participate so teams were typically a mixture of national team veterans, newcomers to the national team (often crossovers from other sports) and club athletes. So, if you thought you were national team material… you had 2 quality weeks of training and competition to demonstrate that.

Cut from an Olympic Festival Team and then Starting at the World Championships 20 Months Later… Never Let anyone Tell you that you’re not Good Enough

I’ve told this story more than a few times and it can be spun multiple ways. Here’s the persistence pays off, coaches don’t know jack, serendipity version.

After I graduated from the AF Academy in 1987 I was assigned to Edwards AFB in California and I played with the Condors club team that was then based in Ventura County. I used to make 4 hour round trips there for practices which seems crazy, but if you live in the middle of nowhere you get used to driving long distances. I was a solid club player and was selected for the 1989 and 1990 West Festival Teams. I did alright during the 89 festival and with the national team largely absent in 1990 I had my chance to really shine. I played pretty well in group play, but in the gold medal match I played a stinker of a game, missing several shots in a close match.

A year later when it came time for the 1991 tryouts I had premonition that maybe my handball career had played itself out. I was 26 years old and I had never been invited for a national team tryout. While I though I had potential and would do well given the opportunity, the powers that be clearly didn’t think so. And, my premonition was confirmed as I didn’t make the cut. I still remember driving home bitterly complaining of my non selection and at the same time contemplating what to do now that my Olympic dreams were over.

And, then a few months later I called up the Air Force Personnel Office to ask when, if ever, they were going to reassign me. At the time all personnel moves were on hold and I was expecting the same old, same old, “Sorry, maybe next year” response. Except this time, the response was, “Wait a second, what did you say your name was again?” followed by a shuffling of papers, and “Hey, you got orders to report to Peterson AFB in Colorado Springs in 45 days. You don’t know about this?”

Without knowing or requesting it the Air Force had decided to send me to where the national team residency program was. Not that I thought I would just show up and train with the national team, but it was nice to already know a few people where I was headed. Except that’s kind of what happened. The guys on the team said I should come to a practice and talk to the coach. Which I did. He was more than happy to have a decent, but not great athlete to round out the team. And, then I just kept coming to practice and getting a little bit better every day. And, over the course of 15 months I went from a warm body to practice against to starting on defense at the 1993 Handball World Championships.

A heartwarming story of perservance, serendipty and the reality that coaches that tell you that you’re not good enough don’t know what they are talking about. Just keep working hard and you’ll get there!

Every Athlete has a Ceiling: Here was Mine

(John Cusack on the 7th and a half floor in “Being John Malkovich.” In retrospect, I also had a low ceiling to work with.)

Well, that’s one way to spin it. Certainly, it’s the way I’ll tell it after I’ve had a couple of beers. While persistence is usually an admirable trait and it’s funny how important a role luck sometimes plays in the twists and turns of life… the reality is that the coach who cut me made the right decision. Far removed from that day and having watched and evaluated dozens of national team athletes over the years it’s pretty obvious to me.

I was a hard working, determined athlete with decent skills, but with limited future potential. Don’t get me wrong… I was pretty good at some things. Defending on the 6 meter line in a 6-0 defense, directing traffic and blocking long range jump shots… I think I did that as good or better as anyone I ever played with. But, playing the middle in a 3-2-1 with more ground to cover side to side? Not so good; adequate at times, but brutally exposed against quicker, world class athletes. (Read how HBL MVP, Michael Kallman exposed me) And, that’s just on defense. On offense, I was a good circle runner for a U.S. club, but on a national team level I never really got there for a number of reasons.

Don’t get me wrong… I had gotten better practicing regularly for 1.5 years in a structured environment. Good enough to start on defense at a World Championship, but I had now come really, really close to my ceiling as a handball athlete. I just wasn’t going to get much better. I didn’t want to believe it at first, but I eventually came to that conclusion with a little help. While, I could have gotten out of the Air Force and stretched my career a little longer in all likelihood it was just a matter of time before more gifted athletes would have beaten me out.

Small Talent Pools and How they Warp Athlete Ceilings

So what’s the point of this trip down memory lane? Well, it’s to illustrate how the size of a talent pool can really warp athlete ceilings. This is because your ceiling as an athlete isn’t just dependent on improving your abilities as an athlete. No… you can greatly improve your chances of success simply by choosing to compete against a smaller talent pool.

This is something that EVERY stateside handball athlete knows. And, this is because as far as I know EVERY stateside handball athlete has crossovered to handball only after they’ve reached their ceiling in a previously chosen sport. Not most athletes… EVERY SINGLE ATHLETE. This ceiling comes at different times for different athletes. Sometimes during high school, sometimes post high school and sometimes post college. But, make no mistake that ceiling comes for every athlete. Some folks play handball just for fun, but many athletes also see the smaller talent pool and they also see opportunity. Opportunity to play at a national team level and maybe even go to an Olympics.

For the most part, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s actually a great carrot to bring more people into the game. Because while some folks start out looking for Olympic glory and vanish as soon as they figure out they can’t get there, others fall in love with the sport, stick around and help grow the game.

Where it starts to become a concern, however, is when the overall quality of the athlete talent pool is simply too low to field a “competitive” team in international competition. A national team can still be “competitive” with a few athletes (like me on defense in 1993) with low ceilings playing complimentary roles. But, when the bulk of the roster is populated with athletes with limited potential and the team is not competitive it’s really problematic.

In the coming weeks I will take a closer look at that problem and what should be done to address it. I suspect in doing so I may upset a few people. So be it. Hopefully, at least a few may now understand that I also know firsthand what it’s like to be told that you’re not good enough…

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Sorry… I Can’t Get Very Excited about Eclectic Mercenary Team Victories at the IHF Super Globe

San Francisco CalHeat recently picked up the first ever USA and North American club victory in IHF Super Globe history as they took down the University of Queensland, the Oceania representive, 27-22. This was celebrated on the IHF and USA Team Handball websites as an historic first ever victory. Is it still historic if only a handful of the atletes are American citizens and only 1/3 of the athletes on the roster live anywhere near San Francisco? Maybe… but I can’t get very excited about it.

Before I explain fully why I feel that way I think it’s appropriate to identify a few caveats and a few realizations that I’m a bit of an old timer hyprocite. Here they are:

  • I doubt that SF CalHeat and several other U.S. clubs are breaking any IHF, NACHC or USA Team Handball regulations. (Maybe those regulations should be changed, but that’s a whole other issue.)
  • Boosting club prospects by bringing in mercenary athletes from other locales is nothing new. I’ve even done it myself, inlcluding the 2004 USA National Championships when I played for the Atlanta based Condors while I was living in France. (CalHeat is taking this practice, however, to new extremes)
  • I don’t blame athletes for jumping at the opportunity to play in an IHF Super Globe. Heck, I wonder how crazy recruitment would have gotten back in my day if a similar opportunity had existed.
  • A critique of this mercenary team doesn’t denigrate great CalHeat initiatives like their support to youth development

So with these caveats out of the way let’s take a deep dive into the roster

The SF CalHeat 2023 IHF Super Globe Roster

The information below was compiled from the official IHF Super Globe roster, IHF Super Globe stats, social media accounts, google searches and other sources. I’m not 100% certain as to where everyone lives and there might be some errors. (Translation: everything you find on the internet isn’t always accurate)

  • Left Wings
    • Jorge Prieto, Spanish, 3/8 shots <Lives in Spain, plays for CB Torrelavega>
    • Mikio Tada, Japanese, 1/4 shots <Lives in SF Bay Area>
    • Drew Bradley, American, 0/3 shots <Lives in SF Bay Area>
  • Left Backs
    • Ole Olsen, Norwegian, 13/34 shots <Lives in Norway, attended SF State for a semester>
    • Hjalte Clausen, Danish, 1/3 shots <Lives in Minnesota>
    • Max Paulus, German, 1/1 shots <Lives in SF Bay Area>
  • Center Backs
    • Eloy Rubio, Spanish, 6/16 shots < Lives in Spain, previously lived in SF Bay Area>
    • Kasper Ogendahl, Danish, 9/17 shots <Lives in SF Bay Area>
  • Righ Backs
    • Felix Raff, German, 22/42 shots <Lives in Germany, Plays for HSG Leinfelden-Echterdingen
    • Daniel Eggert, Danish, 7/13 shots <Lives in Germany>
  • Right Wings
    • Paul Assfalg, German, 7/11 shots <Lives in Houston>
    • Yannick Te Morsche, German, 0/4 shots <Lives in Germany, Plays for TuS Lintfort>
  • Circle Runners
    • Drew Donlin, American, 14/24 shots <Lives in Los Angeles>
    • Benjamin Geisser, Swiss, 10/17 shots <Lives in Switzerland, Played for St Otmar, now retired>
    • Jonathan Garcia, American, 2/3 shots <Lives in SF Bay Area>
  • Goalkeepers
    • Lucas Kroger, German, 22/92, saves <Lives in Germany, Lived in Miami previously>
    • Fredrik Jacobsen, Norwegian, 25/61 saves <Lives in Norway, Attended Cal Berkeley>
    • Mohamed Balti, American, 1/21 saves <Lives in SF Bay Area>

Takeaways

Here are some takeaways from this roster

  • 22% (4 of 18) athletes have American citizenship. Complaints that some U.S. clubs have too many expats on their roster are nothing new. And, the U.S. is not the only country where this is a concern. German national team coaches have complained that there are too many foreigners on HBL rosters and that this is limiting the development of German athletes. Why even Kielce, who CalHeat played in group play, has just 47% with Polish citizenship on their roster. That said… Kielce is a professional team. I doubt very much that lower level, amateur clubs in Poland have rosters with a high percentage of foreign athletes.
  • 33% (6 of 18) athletes live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Complaints that some U.S. clubs have only a limited connection to the city they claim to be from are also nothing new, but CalHeat has clearly taken this issue to a new extreme. While some athletes on the roster have a connection to San Francisco in that they lived there previously this is a tenuous connection at best. And, worse, I suspect that some athletes on the roster have never even set foot in San Francisco. Finally, for context… I’m guessing with a high degree of confidence that everyone on the Kielce roster lives in the Kielce area.
  • 14% (13 of 96) goals were scored by San Francisco Bay Area teams. I highlight this stat as a proxy for the relative contributions of the local athletes vs the merenary additions. It’s an imperfect proxy, but nonetheless it points to the reality that without mercenaries this club would likely have lost to Queensland and would have been really clobbered by the other clubs participating. Further, such a team would probably have lost to the clubs at the NACHC Club Championships and would not have qualified for the IHF Super Globe in the first place. I can’t say for sure as the rosters are flexible and there’s nothing that prevents clubs from other nations also bring in mercenaries of their own. Again… I don’t think anyone is breaking any rules.

Minimal Promotional Value and Unintended Consequences

There are some common refrains I often hear when I point out the problems with initiatives like this. The most common one I hear is along the lines of, “Yeah, it’s not perfect, but it’s important to promote handball in the U.S.” There is a kernel of truth to this… but, just a tiny kernel. That’s because the promotional value is so minimal. Maybe a 1,000 people in the U.S. (already handball fans) are even aware that a U.S. club is participating in an International club tournament. I guess if the goal is to give the world-wide handball community the impression that great progress is being made by having a “handball club from San Francisco” taking on the rest of the world… Well, you can fool some, but people are smarter than you think.

And, in this case the consequences are more than just inadequate promotion. Indeed, if the goal is to support handball development in countries like the U.S. the IHF Super Globe is actually having a negative effect. This is because good intentions (providing amateur clubs with a mostly paid for trip to take on the world’s best pros) has had the unintended consequence of super charging the incentive for amatuer clubs to boost their roster with mercenaries. While a club might prefer to simply go with the local athletes that practice with the club on a regular basis… if they really want to win they’ll need to expand their roster with athletes that have nothing to do with local development.

Addressing Mercenary Teams

Addressing “merencary teams” might seem rather straightforward, but it’s more complicated than you might think. Broadly, there are 2 ways of discouraging clubs from acquiring mercenary athletes:

  • 1) Legislate them away. Basically, this involves adding regulation requirements for citizenship and/or locality. Clubs in Europe have done this for many sports. Many countries had or still have rules that limit the number of American basketball players. Even handball has them as I know France limits the number of non-French citizens on lower level teams. Nationality enforcement can be done simply with a passport check. Locality restrictions, however are more challenging to determine and enforce. Years ago USA Team Handball tried to enforce this with athletes being requred to bring a utility bill with an address, but as I recall this was a short lived effort, probably due to enforcement challenges
  • 2) Make it financially challenging. Anyone who has played club handball in the U.S. knows that some clubs have regular season rosters that get boosted with new talent at the National Championships. This was because athletes would fly in (sometimes even from Europe) just for the one tournament that mattered each year. A requirement was then added for athletes to have played in at least one regular season tournament prior to nationals. The added cost of an extra trip tamped down on some mercenary participation, but didn’t eliminate it. I suspect that the recent addition of the Super Globe carrot has resulted in at least some athletes deciding it was still worth the cost to play with a team far away.

A Simple Solution: Change the IHF Super Globe to a Professional Club Only Event

While the U.S. could take steps to discourage mercenary teams it wouldn’t prevent other nations from doing so. And, while the IHF or the NACHC could theoretically step in with regulations that would discourage mercenary teams on a continental level enforcing those regulations would be challenging.

In fact, I’m not sure if there are any NACHC regulations regarding Super Globe qualification team rosters. I’m sure there are IHF regulations, but I suspect they are somewhat vague and/or loose in terms of requirements. How else could one explain the CalHeat roster?

I think the best solution would be to simply change the IHF Super Globe to a professional club only event. An event limited to continental federations with professional clubs. Clubs where all the athletes on the roster are are under contract for some TBD minimal amount.

And, then if the IHF wants to foster development in emerging nations like the U.S. they could support inititiatives that are focused on developing the sport. Because this initiative while well intentioned is clearly not having that effect.

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PANAM Games Review: USA Men with a Solid Performance that Could have been a Little Bit Better… or a Little Bit Worse

With the 2021-24 Olympic Quadrennium now over for the USA Men here’s a review of the 2023 PANAM Games competition and a quick look ahead to the next Olympics

2023 PANAM Games Review

Group Play Results

  • USA – Argentina 14-28 (10-11)
  • USA – Cuba 30-28 (17-14)
  • USA – Uruguay 34-30 (19-15)

The U.S. started their tournament with maybe their best half performance of the competition vs the eventual champions, Argentina. They even had a 3 goal lead with 6 minutes left in the 1st half before Argentina woke up to take a 10-11 lead at the half. Then, arguably the U.S. played their worst half of the tournament as Argentina outscored them 3-17 the rest of the way. Their match against NORCA rivals, Cuba was a really tight affair and Cuba even led 27-28 with 3.5 minutes to go before the U.S. closed out the match with a 3 goal run to win 30-28. The match against Uruguay was close most of the 1st half, but the U.S. broke out of a 13-13 tie with a 6-2 run to create a 4 goal gap that was the eventual margin for the final scoreline of 34-30. So overall, the U.S. lost to the big favorite, but took care of business against Cuba and Uruguay to advance to the semifinals

Knockout Phase

  • Semifinal: USA – Brazil 27-40 (13-23)
  • 3rd Place: USA – Chile 27-28 (13-15)

I didn’t get to see these matches due to the PANAM Sports Channel’s decision to broadcast other sporting events taking place at the PANAM Games. I’ve no idea how that decsion was made, but it was truly disappointing because unlike most of the other competitions handball had an Olympic Games slot on the line. Based on the scorelines and the stats the match against heavily favored Brazil went according to expectations while the match vs Chile exceeded expectations as the U.S. took host team Chile down to the wire apparently missing a shot in the closing seconds to tie the match.

Individual Athlete Statistics: Link

Here are a few notes on some individual performances:

Wings: Sam Hoddersen and Sean Corning both had solid, consistent performances throughout the tounament. And, Hoddersen’s 13 goals on 16 shots vs Cuba is probably up there on the list of all time USA wing performances in an individual match

Backcourt: The U.S. struggled at times to get consistent scoring from all 3 backcourt positions. In particular, Abou Fofana’s shooting accuracy seemed to be either be on or off. When he was “on” and scoring on jump shots from 9-10 meters at a high percentage it changed the whole complexion of the U.S. offense, freeing up scoring options on the wing, circle and breakthough goals for the other backcourt players. But, when he was “off” it had a reverse effect as the team struggled to score in a set offense. Ian Huter, had a typical solid performance quarterbacking the team at centerback and Joey Stromberg, given his first real opportunity for extended playing time also played well at times.

Circle Runners: The tandem of Drew Donlin and Domagoj Srsen did a solid job of anchoring the defense, but Donlin’s shooting percentage of 60% (15 of 25) was significantly lower than than his 88% at the WC. Conversely, Srsen, who normally just plays defense was 7 for 7.

Goalkeepers: Both Merkovsky and Otterstrom had their moments, but their save percentages were lower than their World Championship performances and with the 5 U.S. opponents at the PANAM Games being weaker than the opposition at the World Championship expectations would have seen those percentages improve a bit.

The Key Missing Player: Not having Alex Chan on the roster was a big loss for the U.S. I think if he had been available the matches vs Cuba and Uruguay would have been more comfortable wins and maybe one more experienced backcourt option would have put the U.S. over the top in the bronze medal match.

Overall Assessment

Overall, it’s hard to be displeased with a 4th place finish. After all, it’s the best USA Men’s finish since the 2003 PANAM Games when the U.S. finished 3rd. And, while it’s hard to compare different eras, the teams the U.S. faced back in 2003 weren’t nearly as strong as the teams are today as Argentina and Brazil were just starting to improve to the level of play they have had for the last decade or so.

But, make no mistake… the U.S. is not to the level of Argentina and Brazil. Just as they did at the 2023 World Championships, the U.S. showed that they can compete with top teams, but the team lacks the depth and consistency to do so for a full 60 minutes. Beating a top tier team is now possible, but it’s perhaps around a 1 in 15 probability.

Conversely, the U.S. demonstrated that they are a notch above Uruguay and Cuba. Those matches, particularly, the one vs Cuba were closer than I would like, but in crunch time we took care of business. We didn’t beat ourselves and that’s a key step towards beating better teams in future competitions.

Finally, taking a team like Chile down to the wire on their home floor is a positive sign and a confirmation that the USA Men belong in the next rung below teams like Argentina and Brazil. Chile has qualified for the past 7 Handball World Championships and prior to the PATHF split to NORCA and SCAHC and the expansion of the WC to 32 teams they were the target team that had to be beaten to qualify for a WC. We are now at that level. The USA, thanks to an IHF decision granting us wild cards, doesn’t need to qualify for the 2025 and 2027 World Championships, but we clearly belong now anyway,

Looking Ahead to LA 2028

While most handball nations are constantly preparing their handball teams for the next event the U.S. has traditionally been very focused on Olympic competition. There are a number reasons for this different focus, but it’s primarily due to the increased emphasis on the Olympics in our country and the accompanying support from our Olympic Committee. In simple terms are Olympic Committee doesn’t really care much as to what happens in other competitions.

With Paris 2024 qualification now an impossiblity the focus turns to 2028 and the guaranteeed Olympic qualification that comes with it. And, although it’s 5 years away, I’ll just slightly modify what I’ve been saying for the past couple of years.

What I’ve been saying: We already know around 70-80% of the athletes who will make up our roster at the 2028 Olympics

What I’m saying now: We already know around 95% of the athletes who will make up our roster at the 2028 Olympics

In 2019 I took an in depth look at our National Team (Part 1 Part 2) and I’ll hopefully/eventually get around to an update, but there are probably just around 25-30 athletes with realistic prospects of making a 2028 roster. Basically, it’s the athletes on the roster for the PANAM Games and 2023 Sr World Championshps and a handful of prospects from our Jr and Youth teams). And, for the most part it will be dual citizens who by happenstance have provided us with a golden generation by American standards. While there are plenty of athletes who have played either none or very little handball with the raw talent to become great players they don’t have the time and/or structure to realistically get to the level needed to beat out the athletes in our current talent pool.

While we have a solid group of athletes that will hopefully continue to improve I think it’s going to be challenging, however, to see a jump to the next level; to a team that can beat a top team like Argentina or Brazil 50% of the time. This is because our top athletes are just a rung lower in quality, we lack team depth and while we have some quality up and coming players there are not enough of them to do more than simply replace the attrition we’ll likely see as some of our athletes age out.

In terms of how well we’re likely to do at the 2028 Olympics we’re in for some tough competition. In all likelihood the weakest team we’ll face will be the Asian representative. In 2020 that was Bahrain. In 2024 it will be Japan. A team we could beat, but right now would be favored against us. And, then the rest would be Africa (Egypt?), Pan-America (Argentina or Brazil?) and the best European teams. To make a quarterfinal would likely require beating an Asian team and a top 10 team, probably from Europe. Can we do that? Anything is possible. But, I will say this with a high degree of confidence: We’ll compete. We won’t embarrass…and I won’t be shocked if we really push a top team to an upset or near upset. But, we could lose every match too.

There are multiple ways to look at this situation. On the one hand we all want to dream of the U.S. standing on the medal stand. But, on the other hand… most of us have seen U.S. teams that haven’t been very competitive. Qualifying for and winning games at the World Championships seemed like a real stretch not too long ago. Ask me ten years ago if I’d take our current team and its recent performances and I would have said, “Absolutely” with zero hesitation.

And, if you had told me that we would have such a team to cheer on without having to spend a penny on an artificial residency program that does nothing to develop the grass roots in this country… I would have been overcome with joy.

Yes, overall we should count our lucky stars that we are where we are with our Men’s program because while it maybe could be a little bit better it could be whole lot worse.

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U.S. Women’s National Team: What’s Next? (Part 1: Intro)

As the graphic indicates, since the 2019 PANAM Games the U.S. Women’s Sr National Team has not won a game in a major official competition. And, I’m not 100% sure, but I’m pretty sure we also haven’t won a friendly match either. Further, the scorelines have either been bad or downright ugly. We’re losing badly to peer nations (avg loss is 11 goals) in our hemisphere and getting totally clobbered (probably in the high 20s) by better competition. In short, over a two year period this has been the most uncompetitive team that the U.S. has ever fielded. The results starkly demonstrate this. It’s not even debatable.

A REALLY BIG DISCLAIMER

All that said, let me very clear about the following:

  • I don’t blame the athletes. They’re doing the best that they can and most, if not all, have made ENORMOUS sacrifices to represent their country. And, often they are paying to do so out of their own pockets. We’re talking thousands of dollars.
  • I don’t blame the “coaching” that the coaches have done. A coach works with the athletes they have to help them perform the best they possibly can. I’ve seen quite a few matches. As bad as things have been… they could’ve been worse. There were opportunities for things to go totally off the rails, but they’ve managed to keep the team fighing and competing under very challenging circumstances.

Management (or a Lack of Management) is the Issue

Of course, this situation is disappointing to anyone that cares about handball in the United States. For some old timers it’s hard to wrap their heads around the reality that the U.S. is so uncompetitive. That it’s commonplace now for the U.S. to lose badly to nations that we used to easily beat without even breaking a sweat. Others look at a clearly more competitive U.S. Men’s team and wonder why the U.S. Women can’t simply duplicate their success.

These top level assessments are pretty simplistic, but they do point to straightforward management strategies that have either worked in the past or are working today. (Well, “worked” to some extent.) Unfortunately, while the Keep it Simple, Stupid (KISS) strategy is often a smart way to go… it’s just not in this case. There are multiple reasons why the U.S. Women’s program can’t simply roll back the clock or copy the U.S. men’s “strategy.”

I won’t get into all of the management issues in this introduction. Quite frankly, there are just too many to capture in one post. This is a complex problem with a lot of moving parts. Heck, it’s not even easy to define what the “problem” is exactly. Sure, we want our Women’s team to perform better. But, what does “better” mean exactly? How much better? What’s the timeframe? And, at what cost?

And, that gets to the crux of the matter. As a close observer of all things handball in the U.S., if any of these questions were considered and defined it has been done so very quietly. Certainly, no plan or strategy has been publicly articulated. It’s one thing to watch our national team get beaten, but know it’s part of a structured plan to get better. It’s another thing to watch and get the sense that I’m watching a team thrown together by happenstance based on whoever happened to be available from our very, very small talent pool.

Burning Questions

So, I’m certainly not going to get to all the answers with this introduction, but I’ll try to identify some questions that need to be answered. Questions that I’ll address in follow-on posts.

  • Partner Related Questions
    • Does the IHF have a minimum performance expectation for the U.S. Women’s team? (i.e. Would the IHF actually consider not awarding the U.S. a slot for the 2028 Olympics?)
    • What might the IHF contibute to improve U.S. National Team performance prospects?
    • Will the USOPC increase funding and support to impove U.S. National Team perfomance at a U.S. hosted Olympics?
  • Philosophical Questions
    • Should the U.S. implement “quick fix” solutions to improve national team performance?
      • If so, how much funding and resources should be diverted from grass roots related efforts?
    • If the U.S. switches to a focus on talent transfer athletes who’ve never played handball how should it communicate this to current handball athletes that have made significant sacrifices?
  • “Out of the Box” Questions
    • Could a reality style documentary help fund and support U.S. National Team efforts?
    • Does it make sense to have non USA Team Handball organizations address ways to improve U.S. National Team performance?
      • If so, how should these organizations coordinate with USA Team Handball and it’s partners like the IHF and USOPC?
  • Dual Citizen Focus Questions
    • Why have efforts to find and recruit talented dual citizen handball athletes for the U.S. Women fallen way short of the U.S. Men?
    • How coud efforts related to dual citizen utilization be ramped up?
  • Competitive Performance Related Questions
    • How do we best define performance levels or how “competitive” our national team is?
    • How do we best define the peformance level of individual athletes and their potential to improve over time?
    • What metrics should be used to quantify and assess performance?
    • Why is our currrent national team performing at it’s current level of competitiveness?
    • Given the current talent pool, how much can our team improve over time?
    • Given a group of high quality raw talent prospects what performance level could they achieve over time?
  • Athlete Development Program Questions (Note: whether it’s called a residency program, development center, academy, or some other name this refers to any special effort to identify and train athletes for national teams.)
    • How successful can these programs be at identifying and training athletes to be national team athletes?
    • What types of athletes should be targeted?
    • How quickly can they bring athletes up to speed?
    • How much will these different programs cost?
    • Where should these programs be located?
    • How should these programs be managed?
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And, now… time for some personal reflection

I’ve been quite a while since I commented on a number of handball related issues, but that’s about to change. Here’s why I laid low and why I’ll soon be speaking out on a number of topics. Sorry, in advance… This post is all about me, but it should provide some context as to where I’m coming from.

Having Opinions and Stating them has Consequences

Anyone who has followed this website for a few years knows that I’m usually not shy about sharing my opinions on handball related matters. (Here’s a broad sampling: Link) Some folks appreciated my commentaries simply because they jived with their views. And, a few folks appreciated my commentaries even if they conflicted with their views because they respected the thought process behind them. But, more often than not my commentaries were simply not appreciated. It didn’t matter how diplomatic I tried to be.

Case in point: Take a look at this commentary on Auburn University being designated an Olympic Training Center in 2015 (Taking Stock and Shaking My Head in Frustration: Can Someone Please Educate Me?). Minutes after this commentary was posted, I was immediately defriended on Facebook by a USA Team Handball Board Member. It’s not like I lacked the “social skills” to know that most folks don’t appreciate criticism. It’s just that I was more interested in trying to steer USA Team Handball in a different direction than I was trying to win friends. Especially in this instance, as I was 99% certain USA Team Handball was headed down the wrong path. A path with enormous consequences in terms of cost… and more importantly, lost opportunity costs.

If you choose to speak out on sensitive topics where people have a lot invested it has consequences. And, It doesn’t matter if, over time, it becomes very clear that your criticism was spot on. Trust me… it doesn’t. Posts like this led to me being being ostracized and if you are on the outside it’s hard to move the needle towards progress.

Toning Things Down and Moving the Needle

So, I toned thinks down and simultaneously waited for leadership to change. I still wrote commentaries, but also did more work behind the scenes to try and convince people. It’s not like I didn’t try and do this before, but with things not going well for USA Team Handball new leaders (and even some hold overs) were more receptive to new ideas. And, slowly, but surely, I saw the needle move. Here’s a laundry list of needle movements:

Of course, I wasn’t the only one advocating or making these efforts happen. But, make no mistake, I was the catalyst that got the ball rolling. And, yes, it was very satisfying to move the needle.

Working for USA Team Handball and Going Really Quiet

Why, in August of 2021, I was even hired to work for USA Team Handball. Granted, it was part time running the website and helping with social media, but it was a foot in the door. From my perspective, I figured that if I could ably perform this lower level position and demonstrate my vast working knowledege, I would get hired for a management position with some responsibility. When I was passed over for the High Performance Management position I gritted my teeth and kept my head down as best I could. When I was passed over for the Collegiate Director position… A position that might not ever have been established without my advocacy… I assessed that it was time to move on. <sigh>

I won’t go into details regarding my 9 month stint with USA Team Handball, but, I will say this: I’m confident that if I had been hired for either position I would have done a very good job… and it would have done wonders for me in terms of follow on opportunities.

My White Whale: The USA Team Handball CEO Position

And, I guess that gets to the crux of the matter. You can sometimes move the needle from the outside or as the bottom guy on the totem pole, but you know how you can really move the needle? By being the person at the top, setting the agenda for change and then being the person responsible for implementing those changes.

I know most people know me simply as a handball writer/blogger. Somebody with a bunch of ideas. But in my professional life I was an aerospace engineer who transitioned to program management. I was a pretty decent manager often working long hours on complicated defense projects. Sometimes I really liked what I was doing, but at other times it was less rewarding for me. Periodically, I would reflect on what it might be like to manage something else after I retired from the Air Force. Then, during my last military assignment in France, my passion for handball got super charged at the same time USA Team Handball was falling apart with decertification. It didn’t take much to contemplate that maybe I should consider combining by professional experience with my passion for handball.

Of course, my thinking was more along the lines of “some day.” After all, aerospace engineers generally have a more secure and better compensated career. But, when the opportunity presented itself I went for it. So here’s a short history of the past 15 years or so of CEO applications:

  • 2008: I sent an unsolicited letter to the new USA Team Handball President, Dieter Esch. Steve Pastorino was hired without a formal search. In hindsight, I don’t think I was ready to move on from my aerospace career and Steve may well have been the best CEO we’ve ever had.
  • 2012: I received a phone call with very life changing consequences asking me if I would like to interview for the CEO position and potentially start the job as soon as possible. The interview never happened, but it led to a family decision to move from Las Vegas to Colorado Springs anyway. Later in the year a formal selection process resulted in Matt Van Houten being selected. I had a preliminary phone interview, but was not one of the final candidates
  • 2014: Following Matt’s resignation I sent an unsolicited package for consideration. But, the wheels were already turning to bring back former CEO, Mike Cavanaugh, who was hired without a formal selection process.
  • 2019: Following pressure from the USOPC, USA Team Handball conducted a search for a new CEO. I was never interviewed and Barry Siff was selected
  • 2021: After Barry Siff resigned, I had a short screening interview with the head-hunter company that was hired, but was never formally interviewed; Ryan Johnson was selected
  • 2023: After Ryan Johnson resigned, I was reportedly considered for interim CEO, but then was never interviewed during the formal selection process; Martin Branick was selected

So, 15 years… 6 applications… 2 preliminary phone interviews… Never advancing to the final round… I think people are trying to tell me something. Not anything I didn’t know already. Here’s a 2020 interview with NYC’s Bini Mustafa where I ruminated on that very topic. Two failed applications later I’ve come to an even more stark, very reverse Sally Fields realization: “I can’t deny the fact… You don’t like me”

The Challenges Ahead

I guess, in the end, it pretty much boils down to the people doing the hiring and who they think is best suited to address the challenges they see ahead. I wasn’t privy to what the Board of Directors was thinking, but I suspect they were of two minds. With one faction seeing the position as a relatively straight forward, nuts and bolts job of ensuring USOPC compliance, organizing tournaments and providing our national teams with the best possible organization and resources to compete. And, then another faction seeing it first and foremost as a marketing and sales job of pitching the sport and bringing in badly needed funding. (Again speculation… I don’t really know)

From my perspective, both day to day operations and marketing/fundraising are pretty important. And, here’s the good news: I feel pretty comfortable with both getting done to at least “satisfactory” levels. Day to day operations will get done because those operations are indeed pretty straightforward. Don’t get me worng… there’s a lot of work involved, but it’s not complicated… just time intensive. As far as marketing and revenue generation goes (if the 1996 Olympics are a guide) performance here should improve simply because we have the 2028 Olympics coming. People that wouldn’t give USA Team Handball the time of day will soon be willing to talk to us. We can debate how well tasks actually get done, but with each passing month that we draw closer to the Olympics we should see improvement.

But, from my perspective… here’s the bad news: The important challenges USA Team Handball faces are not straightforward. And, while more revenue is needed it’s not a panacea. The next five years are a once in a generation opportunity; a true, transformational opportunity. But, we’ve been there before. Heck, we even had two hosted Olympics, just 12 years apart in 1984 and 1996… and, what did that get us?

Yes, a “field of opportunity” is in front of us, but unfortunately it’s full of land mines that could blow everything up and rabbit holes we could fall down and get lost in. To put it another way there are a number of major decisions looming that have been postponed, partially due to COVID and partially due to a natural tendency to essentially avoid choosing winners and losers. (Also, known as avoiding making people unhappy) Navigating this minefield won’t be easy and any chance of success will require vision, planning skills and an ability to effectively sort out what can be done and what should be done. Know how to help guide a board through a series of challenging decisions requiring hard choices.

Who’s the right person to lead that challenge? To give USA Team Handball the best chance of success? From my perspective, there’s zero doubt in my mind that my combined professional and handball related experience makes me the right person.

Getting a Life…

Alas, I’m not making the hiring decisions. For years I’ve joked that if I ever was put in charge of something handball related the only question people would end up having is, “Good lord! How could we have we kept someone with so much knowledge, so much experience, and so much passion down for so long?” It can be real rough to come to the realization that something you really want, something that you know you are really qualified to do… is just never going to happen.

But, seriously enough of the, “Oh, woe is me,” whining. As I tell friends and family I keep getting reminders that life isn’t so bad. On the news, I see people all over the world facing real life and death problems. In the U.S. many people my age are stuck in dead end jobs just to keep their health insurance. Instead, I’m retired with no real responsibilities. I never planned to retire in my 50s, but sometimes life gets complicated and plans change accordingly. Good thing, I’ve got a pension and did FIRE before it was a thing.

I’ve been doing a lot of hiking and contemplating life in general. Trying to figure out how to best use all my free time. I’m looking forward to some trips to Europe to see some handball halls that I’ve only seen on TV. And, I’m also considering some efforts to help foster the growth of collegiate handball and to sustain some fledgling clubs, lest they join the graveyard.

And, I will be writing some much needed commentaries on a variety of handball topics. Topics to include our Women’s national team, the US Handball Union/USATH situation, beach handball’s future, youth development, age based teams, media opportunities and more. I guess if I’m forever to be on the outside of the tent, I might as well not hold back. And, yes, I guarantee you… some folks are not going being to happy with what I write. But, maybe (just maybe) considering my track record (somewhere between Nostradamus and very good) of assessing handball in the U.S. people will listen. Yeah, I might still get to move the needle.

Buckle up handball fans. I think it’s going to get a little bumpy.

Getting a life and contemplating my future on the Zirkel Circle north of Steamboat Springs, CO this past summer

Two Handball Championships in Sweden Separated by 30 Years (Part 2): From 0% to 83% Dual Citizens- Does that Matter?

The 1993 World Championship team. 100% stateside raised Americans. There were 2 European based Americans, however, that attended our training camp, but didn’t make the squad. Oh, how times have changed… big time.

In Part 1, I took a whimsical look back at the 1993 USA World Championship team. This time I take a closer look at the composition of the squad and how we’ve gone from zero dual citizens to a roster that is around 80% comprised of Americans who first learned handball in another country. And why it doesn’t matter and, at the same time matters a lot.

Some Disclaimers

First things first… let’s getting something out of the way that I think I shouldn’t even have to. And, that’s a clear cut statement that just because I’m discussing the role of dual citizens on our national doesn’t mean that I think they shouldn’t be playing for Team USA. That is simply not the case. The more the merrier. The best American handball athletes should always make a USA Sr National Team roster.

And, it sure doesn’t mean that I think they are “second class” Americans or something moronic like that. In fact, having lived in France for five years that experience has led me to believe that in many respects an American living abroad is in some ways actually more “American” than a stateside American. For sure, they’ve likely thought more about their nationality and what it means than someone living comfortably in a sea of fellow citizens.

Finally, I think it also goes without saying that if you care about the development of handball in the United States you should really care about where the best American handball athletes are coming from. Because if only a handful of stateside based athletes can make a national team roster or even get invited to a training camp… it’s a very, very clear indication that handball in the U.S. needs better stateside development. That doesn’t mean you don’t cheer on the team… Just means you should be concerned with what it means to the bigger picture.

A Brief History of Dual Citizens playing for Team USA

Dual citizens, playing for the U.S. National Team is nothing new. In fact, in the very early days I think there might have been some foreign nationals residing in the U.S. that hadn’t even obtained U.S. citizenship playing for the U.S. Regardless, the U.S. took advantage of recent immigrants with handball experience to both start the initial development of the sport and to represent the U.S. in international competition.

Over time, however, U.S. sides became almost exclusively Americans that had lived in the U.S. their entire lives and had to be introduced to the sport. The primary exception usually were goalkeepers, but eventually even this highly specialized position started to see more stateside Americans earn roster spots.

When I played regularly in the 80s and 90s I knew of only two dual citizens that represented the U.S. Terje Vatne from Norway played backcourt and Mark Schmocker from Switzerland who played on our 1996 Olympic Team. Periodically, from time to time there were dual citizens that tried out for the team, but to my knowledge none of them made the team or chose to move to the U.S. (more on that later)

In the 2000s more dual citizens started to make U.S. rosters. Adam El Zoghby comes to mind as one of our early additions, but as we progressed through the 2010s to the 2020s this trickle eventually turned into a full fledged flood. The key turning point was 2018. In May of that year the U.S. finished 5th out 6 teams at the North American & Caribbean Championships. The team had only 2 dual citizen, including a 20 year old Sam Hoddersen who led the team in scoring playing out of position at center back. Just four months later, the U.S. had a new coach, Robert Hedin, and a few more dual citizens playing. With a backcourt trio of Ian Huter, Abou Fofana and Gary Hines they easily outclassed a Canadian side the U.S. had lost to in May. And, from that tournament on it’s been a steady progression of more and more dual citizens on the roster up to the 2023 World Championships where 20 of the 24 athletes seeing playing time were dual citizens.

The 1993 WC Training Camp

To further illustrate how things have changed I’ll share my own brief experience with a couple of dual citizens that tried out for the 1993 World Championship Team. Prior to the World Championships the U.S. National Team traveled to Finland for a two week training camp at the Finnish Olympic Training Center.

To be clear this “National Team” was also a “Residency Team” that was training together full time at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. And, as the name implies not only training together, but also, with a few exceptions, living on the same floor in a dormitory environment. Such a situation inevitably creates a pretty tight team comparable in some respects to what one might experience in a military style boot camp. You practice together, you eat together, you watch TV together, you go out together at night. It’s very similar to the team environment an athlete experiences at a major tournament… except year round.

So, when we were told that two guys who we knew nothing about would be participating at our training camp the reaction was one of malaise, particularly for anyone who might not make the team. On the one hand our team clearly lacked depth and an athlete that could genuinely help us would be a nice addition. But, on the other hand, did we want to see one of our buddies get sent home after months and months of training together? Of course, not, but anyone who has ever tried out for a team understands that not making the cut sometimes is part of the process.

The two newcomers were from Norway and Sweden and they were decent players. (Note, after 30 years I don’t remember their names.) The Norwegian was a back court player with good skills, but was pretty young (~17) and just wasn’t ready to play with adults. The Swede was in his mid 20’s and a fairly accomplished Center Back. He had a slight build and wasn’t as good of athlete as the two athletes playing the bulk of the minutes at CB, but he was a good passer with a lot of experience. He wouldn’t have started, but possibly could have come off the bench depending on the circumstance. His making the team wouldn’t have resulted in cutting either of our two Center Backs, but would have instead taken a roster sport from some athletes training with us who were very new to handball.

In the end neither athlete made the final roster. I’m not sure what Coach Voitech Mares thought process was, but I suspect he assessed that the marginal benefit they would have provided was not worth disrupting the team’s cohesiveness. Yes, the old curse that sometimes requires an athlete trying out to not “just be a little bit better” than their competition, but “substantially better” came into play here. In the history of sports this situation has occurred for a number of reasons from contract cost, to age, even to race when the NCAA and NBA had unofficial limits on the number of African American they would have on their teams.

The Dynamics of a Residency Team Concept and National Team Selection

So, some folks might be shaking their head at the prospect of the best available athletes not making the team. But, one has to keep in mind what the U.S. was trying to accomplish then and at other times when the residency team concept was employed. The goal wasn’t to win now, but to try and develop a team that could win at some point in the future. Giving a roster spot to a dual citizen who wasn’t training with the team or willing to move to the U.S. to start training with the team was taking a spot from someone that was. Temporary benefit at the expense of potential long term gain.

And, this non-selection strategy wasn’t just reserved for dual citizens. At times stateside Americans who were playing in Europe were also excluded. I was gob smacked to learn recently that my 1993 WC teammate and current USA Asst Coach, Darrick Heath had not been on our 1995 WC team. The reason? He was playing professionally in Europe and his club would not release him early to come back to the U.S. to train. Yes, arguably our best player was denied a roster slot because our coach wanted him practicing with the team more. No wonder we only finished one spot higher, 15th in 1995. More recently at different times in his career, Gary Hines was not even contacted for his availability for some national team events. And, we’re not talking 38 year old Gary… we’re talking a much younger Gary in his prime.

The Demise of the Residency Team Concept?

For the past 15 years or so I have been a pretty vocal critic of the residency team concept. I’ve written several commentaries about why it never ever worked very well and why it’s even more unlikely to succeed today. I won’t rehash them all again. If you want you can read them here: link

But, regardless what one might think or believe about the merits of a residency team the quantity and quality of dual citizens the U.S. now has available for our Men’s National Team has rendered the question/debate moot. I guess we could spend a small fortune establishing a residency program, but what would be the point? If we could get the necessary funds (a big if), could find and convince quality athletes to participate (another big if), it would be a long, long road for them to even earn a roster spot with this current team. (yet, another big if) Seriously, just imagine the recruiting pitch to someone who’s never played GK before regarding what it will take to eventually get a roster spot. Such a pitch could only be successful if you have the morals of Representative George Santos.

Come Again? Why Did the U.S. have Residency Programs in the First Place?

Well, I can see how someone relatively new to handball or just a top level precursory understanding of U.S. sports structure would ask this question… The answer is quite simple.

Without a residency program of some sort, historically the U.S. would have struggled to even field a team, let alone a competitive team.

The reality is that handball is played by only around 500 to 1,000 people in the United States… and a sizable percentage of this 1,000 aren’t even American citizens. These commentaries from 2019 outline the demographics and are are representative of our current status. It might even be a little worse since COVID likely caused a retraction.

And, now that we don’t have a residency program I can state unequivocally that had the U.S. been forced to field a team without dual citizens we would never have qualified for the 2023 World Championships. We wouldn’t have even come close. I would assess that such a team would have finished last at the recent NACHC championships and would have lost every match by double digits to Greenland, Cuba and Mexico. Our U21 and U19 teams which recently qualified for the World Championships this summer would have also not qualified, but probably could have mustered a win against other very inexperienced teams.

Trading One “Artificial” Solution for Another

In some respects, the U.S. has simply traded one artificial solution (residency programs) for another (a team mostly comprised of dual citizens). Artificial in the sense that both solutions essential paper over the reality that there is very, very limited grass roots development in the U.S. The sort of grass roots that would help make handball a sport that mattered in the U.S. Real development that would have Americans playing the sport from coast to coast and athletes eventually making national teams the traditional way through schools and clubs, continuously playing at higher levels until they reach the top of the pyramid.

And, let’s be clear this is the development that everyone in the world-wide handball community really wants. It’s awesome to have a competitive team to cheer on, but it’s comical to hear or read commentary that sees the U.S. team pick up some wins and conclude that the U.S. is really developing handball now. Because while that may happen it’s certainly not happening yet.

And, while one might think that a competitive national team could help spur development stateside, the U.S. still has not figured out how to break into the national consciousness. Stateside there’s been very little buzz beyond our small handball community as ESPN has once again inexplicably done nothing to promote handball on its streaming platform.

A Really Good Deal

But, while a roster heavily dependent on dual citizens is an artificial solution that doesn’t really help stateside development it’s still a really good deal. And, this is primarily because dual citizens basically cost nothing to develop as those costs are paid by other nations and the clubs they play for. The U.S. can basically run this current national team as if it were a hidden little country in Europe, holding training camps periodically to help these individuals gel as a team. For a cash strapped federation with very little money it’s hard to fully quantify just what a really good deal that is. Well, you sort of can. Take all that money and time that would have been spent on a residency program over the next five years… and think of all the ways that money can now be spent on grass roots development.

And, make no mistake: without these athletes some sort of residency program would have to be developed. Why? Because we simply could not be competitive without one and the IHF will want to see a competitive team taking the floor in Los Angeles in 2028. It’s not clear how much funding would be available for such an effort, but some percentage of the overall budget would continuously be sucked into it. Otherwise… we might not be allowed to field a team at the Olympics, even if we are the hosts.

A Golden Generation

But, the U.S. didn’t just get a good deal. No, we pretty much have hit the jackpot with this current crop of dual citizens. I’ve hemmed and hawed a bit about whether it’s a “Golden Generation” but, not anymore. The depth in terms of quantity and quality is statistically way better than one could normally expect. This doesn’t mean we are going to start winning Olympic and World Championship medals, but we’ll be competitive for the next several years. Five years out we pretty much have 70-80% of our Olympic roster identified. Heck, it might be 100% identified. All provided at essentially no cost. This might not qualify as a Golden Generation for France or Denmark, but for the U.S. it clearly does. We’ve never had it so good.

Does it Matter or Not: Answer: Yes and No

So, if it’s not already obvious how one answers this question depends on your perspective and objective.

From a narrow national team perspective it doesn’t matter at all. The task at hand, whether you’re a coach or player is to go out and perform. For the U.S. that means to be competitive and to continuously work on improving. Depending on the competition that might mean winning a title or it might mean advancing to new heights. No one directly involved in near term preparation of our national teams should care where are athletes come from or how they got there.

However, from a big picture administrative and planning perspective it really matters. If very few stateside athletes are worthy of selection to our national teams that’s a very clear indication that there our stateside structures need work… a lot of work. The good news is that since nothing special is required to “create” a national team more attention can be placed on efforts to truly develop handball stateside. This is a monumental and complex task that won’t be easy and the Golden Generation is both a gift and a warning. It’s a gift in that it frees up a lot of resources (funds and manhours). But, it’s also a warning… Golden generations don’t last forever and we won’t always have such a talented group to bail us out. The time this generation buys needs to be used wisely.

Think that I’m exaggerating this Golden Generation we have? That either they aren’t that good or that we’ll always have a similar talented group available. Well, we just so happen to have a similar cohort that we can compare it to. The current dual citizen cohort for the U.S. Women is a very stark contrast as it is nowhere near the U.S. Men in terms of quality and quantity. And, that presents a lot of challenges. I’ll tackle those challenges next.

Shaq and Tim Tebow Throwing Handballs (Actually Dodgeballs, but it Gives you and Idea of What Might have Been)

Could of, Should of, Would of…. Tim Tebow and Team Handball

The other day, the NBA studio show, Inside the NBA, staged a dodge ball match. And, since Shaquille O’Neal has reportedly expressed some interest in supporting handball’s development in the U.S. it was fun to see him actually throw a handball sized ball around a bit. This video shows Shaq in action:

Shaq’s 49 years old now, though, so it was a bit hard to envision the theoretical dominant force I think he would have been if handball had been his chosen sport.

While searching for that video, this video of former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow playing dodgeball and drilling Shaq also popped up.

In my opinion, this video supports what has been discussed for 10 years now. That Tim Tebow would have been a phenomenal handball player. I know, I know…it’s just celebrity dodgeball, but you can still see it. He’s got the arm (lefty), the moves and the mentality of a handball player.

Alas, he continued to believe that he had a future as an NFL quarterback. Then he gave baseball a try. I had thought he had finally resigned himself to being just a football commentator, but earlier this year he announced that he was going to give the NFL a try yet again, this time as tight end.

This is yet more fuel to my theory that he could have been a great handball player. Why, in this commentary I posited that the the 2 best football positions to target for crossover potential to handball are tight ends and mobile quarterbacks. Now Tebow is actually taking a crack at an NFL career in both positions. (That’s got to be a first.) It remains to be seen if this latest venture will also end in failure. Now 33 years old, it’s too late for handball. And, it’s probably too late for tight end too.

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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Breaking Down the U.S. Women’s National Team 2021 NACHC Championships Preliminary Roster

This past Wednesday, USA Team Handball released a preliminary roster for this summer’s North American and Caribbean Handball Championship. The roster lists 28 athletes and here’s a breakdown by age and where they first learned to play handball.

USA Preliminary Roster (Youngest to Oldest)

USA Preliminary Roster (Youngest to Oldest)

The ages on the roster range from 15 to 39 with an average age is 25.1. This is quite the range and is considerably more spread out then the typical women’s national team roster which is more bunched up with the bulk of the athletes in their 20s. For comparison, take a look at the rosters of the 24 nations at the 2019 IHF Women’s Handball World Championship

USA Provisional Roster (Nation Where they First Played Handball)

USA Preliminary Roster (Nation Where they First Played Handball)

All of these athletes are Americans, but the U.S. is a large nation with a global population. Estimates vary, but as many as 9M American citizens live in another country so it’s no real surprise that some of those 9M learned to play handball where they grew up. In fact, 57% (16 of 28) of the U.S. roster originally played handball in 8 different countries. Norway leads the way with 4 athletes followed by Germany with 3. Other nations: Cape Verde (2), Denmark (2), Sweden (2), Canada (1), Israel (1), Japan (1).

The fact that the U.S. has so many dual citizen athletes is sometimes seen as controversial, but it shouldn’t be. I addressed this reality and its implications for the U.S. National Team and the sport’s development previously in a series of commentaries Part 1Part 2Part 3)

In terms of the 12 U.S. athletes that were raised stateside, 3 athletes (Kaffka, Stewart and Taylor) are products of Collegiate Clubs, 6 athletes (Lombard, Hartnett, Vallone, Fithian, Gascon and Darling) primarily first learned how to play at a Residency Program (Cortland or Auburn University) and 3 athletes picked up handball either on their own or with a club (Da Cruz, Faulkner and Smet).

Final Roster Projection

My projection for the Final Roster is a mixture of logic and guesswork. The logic portion is primarily looking at the last major tournament roster (the 2019 PANAM Games) and penciling in any name from that roster that is also on the preliminary roster. Of course, just because someone made the team last time doesn’t guarantee that they will make the team again, but it’s usually a good starting point. Further strengthening this logic is the COVID-19 pandemic as it has somewhat frozen things in place since March 2020 with many athletes not even playing handball much since then. There are 11 potential returnees and assuming that 16 athletes will be allowed for this tournament that means 5 newcomers.

And, this is where some major guesswork is required as I am not familiar with many of the other names on the roster nor do I even know what positions some of them play. So, keeping this in mind here is a top level assessment of which athletes might make the final roster. To be clear, though, I’m not actually going to make any hard projections other than that I think all 11 athletes from the PANAM Games will make the final roster. I just simply don’t know enough about the newcomers.

Goalkeepers: Sophie Fasold was one of the 2 goalkeepers on the PANAM Games roster and the other GK, Bryana Newbern is not on the 28 player preliminary roster. Fasold has also been able to play a full season with her club team, Nord Harrislee in the German 2nd Division, so I think she will likely get the the bulk of the minutes. The coaching staff will have to choose whether they want 2 or 3 goalies on the roster and both Sanna Wheeler and Emily Mrymo have previously made Jr team rosters. Also, identified as a GK is McKenna Smet who is very new to handball.

Goalkeepers

Left Wing: Julia Taylor was the 3rd leading scorer for the U.S. at the PANAM Games and Maria Vallone was her backup. It would seem that these two spots are fairly locked in, but I’m not familiar with the other potential options.

Left Wings

Right Wing: Zoe Lombard and Elisabeth Hartnett were the U.S. PANAM Games participants, but they may be joined by 16 year old, Eden Nesper who played on the U.S. Youth team in 2019 and plays for both the U17 and U19 for her club team, Hannover Badenstedt in Germany. The Hannover U17 team won the Germany cup title this past weekend. She’s a capable player with a bright future, but that’s still a pretty young age to be playing against grown adults. It will be interesting to see what the coaching staff decides.

Circle Runner: Veterans, Sarah Gascon and Jennifer Fithian, should both make the roster and they will be joined by Shani Levinkind. Levinkind was selected to the PANAM Games roster, but did not participate due to injury. Karen Schultze, 20, plays in Germany and had previously been added to the player pool, so one can assume that she’s also a strong candidate. This position may seem to be set, but because there are some major question marks at backcourt some of these players might end up playing there instead of at circle.

Circle Runners

Backcourt (Left, Center, Right):While the other positions appear to be somewhat settled there are a lot of question marks as to who will be playing the three backcourt positions. Well, not all question marks. Left Back, Nicole Andersen, the 2nd leading scorer for the U.S. at the PANAM Games returns and will likely be called upon to assume a greater leadership role with the team. Also returning are veterans Kathy Darling and relative newcomer Sif Skov Christensen. And… that’s it, (as far as I know) when it comes to returning back court players.

Logically, this means some newcomers are probably going to be expected to play some really important minutes at the key backcourt positions. And, really not knowing these players means some major guesswork. I’ve heard some good things about Emma Ready and I’ve even played quite a few times vs her father long ago in California so perhaps she’s inherited some of his feisty quickness. Despite being just 17 she could be an option at Center Back. Cecile Brown and Emilie Johansson are also possibilities and as dual citizens perhaps they’ve gotten quite a bit of playing time despite their relatively young ages.

Backcourts

But, really for all I know several names on the roster that I haven’t even mentioned (see below) could well be the athletes the selection team goes with.

Roster Candidates (Unknown Position)

But, here’s one thing I do know: U.S. success or failure in Elgin this summer will likely hinge on these newcomers and their ability to make meaningful contributions at backcourt.

Roster Churn

Much of the above commentary focused on the likely returning players from the 2019 PANAM Games and some new gaps where newcomers will need to step up. So, for context I’ll highlight some players that were not on the preliminary roster and the contributions that will be missed.

First and foremost, center back Jence Rhoads, the U.S. leading scorer (24 goals in 5 matches) from the PANAM Games is not on the roster. Anyone who’s seen the U.S. play for the past several years knows that she’s developed some solid skills and has been the point guard directing traffic on offense, making the players around her more productive. Also, not returning are left back Julia Sayer and right back Ashley Butler. All told, those 3 athletes accounted for 44% (40 of 91 goals in 5 matches) of the live action goals scored at the PANAM Games. In terms of backcourt productivity they accounted for 74% (40 of 54 goals) of the backcourt scoring. Further limiting experienced options is the news that the long awaited return of right back Karoline Borg will be delayed due to pregnancy. Borg, age 30, plays right back for Aker Topphåndball in Norway’s top and league and had previously played for the U.S.

While these roster changes will impact the U.S. it’s more than likely that the U.S. won’t be alone with this problem as other NACHC nations are also surely encountering similar roster churn. Such change is inevitable and it will be interesting to see how successful teams are in integrating their newcomers and getting their teams ready after a long pandemic layoff.

Note: If there is any information in this table that is incorrect, drop me a line at john.ryan@teamhandballnews.com and I will update it.

USA Men’s Preliminary Roster prior to the 2021 WC: Link

Shaquille O’Neal Reportedly Interested in Supporting the Development of American Handball

Gauthier Mvumbi, Detroit Handball Club Ambassador… Shaquille O’Neal, American Handball Ambassador At-Large?

Gauthier Mvumbi, Detroit Handball Ambassador

During the 2021 World Championships this past January, Gauthier Mvumbi of the Democratic Republic of the Congo was a media sensation and was christened the “Shaq of Handball”. This got the attention of Shaquille O’Neal and he even reached out to Mvumbi via Instagram. For a while Mvumbi was the darling of the handball media world, but I figured his 15 minutes was going to be up pretty soon.

Then a few weeks ago, Detroit Handball announced on social media that Mvumbi had agreed to be a handball ambassador for the club. I greeted this announcement with skepticism and, in part, it directly led to a recent podcast discussion on social media with Detroit Handball Club President, Joey Williams. During the podcast, I tried to get a straight answer as to just what this “ambassadorship” entailed, and from my perspective I never really got a satisfactory answer. Being somewhat old school, I wrote the whole thing off as pretty much attention for attention’s sake.

The Two Shaqs are Still Talking

But, then I read that the two Shaqs have continued their friendship and according to a recent interview in the French newspaper, L’Echo Republicaine, they are still in contact with each other. Further, Shaquille O’Neal apparently has some interesting in helping out handball in the U.S.

Here’s a translation of a portion of the interview

Gauthier Mvumbi, you will become the ambassador of US handball. Explain to us!
I will help promote handball in the United States, help its development. I will participate in internships, summer camps, gala matches. I will go back and forth, but I remain above all a handball player in France or in Europe.

In which big American city?
The Detroit club contacted me. In the near future, Shaquille O’Neal also wants to be involved and take on some responsibilities. Shaq would like to explore possibilities to help make handball more attractive in the U.S.; With a 5 year time frame.

Are you still in touch with the NBA star?
We talk to each other regularly. The plan is to go to the U.S. in July and meet each other in person. That will be something!

Shaquille O’Neal as a Handball Ambassador?

Shaq wants to help make handball more attractive in the U.S.? Wow! It true, that would be a godsend of epic proportions. A few years ago I highlighted what USA Team Handball should look for in terms of new Board Members. I identified a need for millionaires (or even better, billionaires) and handball gospel spreaders, who could help educate the U.S. Shaq would be both in one package.

Shaq made a small fortune as an athlete ($292M on salary alone) and he continues to add to that fortune as a pretty effective ad pitchman for a number of different products. He’s got a fair amount of cash that could be put to good use. With the USA Team Handball budget at around $500K he could effectively buy out the organization if he wanted to.

But, where he would really shine is as a handball pitchman. He has millions of followers on social media and one Tweet or IG post from his Shaqness would effectively reach more new fans and players than a year’s worth of carefully crafted social media campaigns from various handball outlets in the U.S. and world-wide.

How Shaq Could Help Handball in the U.S.

Shaq as an ambassador and proponent for the sport could be an epic game changer in so many ways. Here are just a few ways he could help out:

  • Athlete recruiter: With a few targeted social media posts Shaq could reach hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of potential new handball athletes at all levels. Which, of course, would be really cool, but hopefully such a message could be coordinated with U.S. clubs nationwide so that they could be effectively prepared to engage with the new Shaq recruits.
  • TV and Web Streaming advocate: There currently is no TV home for handball in the U.S. beIN Sports TV and ESPN+ have failed to meet expectations. Shaq works for TNT and coincidentally, play by play for the Olympics will be provided by Matt Winer with NBA TV. Both properties are owned by Turner Networks which has been bought out by AT&T and will now be combined into a new to be named conglomerate with Warner Media and Discovery. A new media behemoth which will likely have a new streaming platform.
    • What if Shaq advocated for this new streaming platform to carry the EHF Champions League, the World Championships and other handball events?
    • What if they had Shaq, Kenny, EJ and Charles Barkley do an Inside the EHF Champions League show? And, maybe Matt Winer (with his newfound handball experience) could replace EJ as he has done in the past. Yes, those guys know nothing about handball, but, trust me, it would still be really entertaining!
  • Sponsor a college program: The interview states that Shaq wants to make the U.S. “Championnat” more attractive. Literally, that means the “National League” and the U.S. doesn’t actually have such a league. Our vast size and the amateur status of the sport pretty much makes that impossible and creating a pro or even a semi-pro league would require some major investment. While Shaq has the resource to create such a league, a more practical effort near term would be to beef up the U.S. collegiate competition. In particular, Shaq could support one college program with the intent of turning that program into a national power. As, I wrote last year a modest investment could very quickly create a national title contender. What college to choose, though? His alma mater, LSU is a candidate, but an HBCU would also be a possibility.

Those are just some possibilities. Share your ideas on social media: Twitter Facebook Instagram

Earlier commentary: “What if Shaq had played handball?”: Link