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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

USA Men Fail to Qualify for Olympic 3×3 Hoops: Putting Another Nail in the Coffin of the “Basketball Cast Offs Can Win Handball Gold” Strategy

Another humbling USA Basketball defeat… another nail in the coffin for the basketball cast offs can win Olympic Handball Gold strategy

Another USA Basketball Failure

From the “In Case You Missed It” department, this past weekend the USA Men’s National Basketball Team failed in their quest to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. Before you have a heart attack, rest assured that this was not the 5 on 5 traditional version of the game that Americans have dominated since the it was invented. No, this was the 3 on 3 version (3×3) of the game that was recently added to the Olympic Programme.

And, make no mistake, it’s not the same as the traditional game of basketball. 3×3 is played with just 3 players on on a half court so there’s more of a premium on 1v1 skills and long range shooting. Matches are played to 21 with baskets inside the arc worth 1 point and baskets behind the arc worth 2 points which effectively makes a 5×5 “3 pointer” the equivalent of a “4 pointer”.

But, despite the gimmickry, this is still basketball and it’s a little hard to fathom that the the U.S. failed to even qualify for the Olympics. This is our sport and we were eliminated in the Qualification Tournament Quarterfinals by the Netherlands… The Netherlands? Not a basketball country by any means. There have been only 6 Dutch players in NBA history and the Netherlands had never qualified for the Olympics before and even for the World Championships just once back in 1986.

Not Our Best Athletes…

Of course, the #1 reason (or excuse) for U.S. failure was that we didn’t compete with our best athletes. The U.S. 3×3 roster consisted of Dominique Jones, Robbie Hummel, Kareem Maddox and Joey King. Don’t feel bad if you don’t recognize anyone. These guys aren’t household names. Only Hummel has played in the NBA and that was just 2 nondescript years with the Timberwolves. It’s not like they aren’t good basketball players and probably very good 3×3 basketball specialists. In fact 2 of these athletes were part of the U.S. roster that won the 2019 World Championship.

Still… there’s little doubt that a select group of NBA players wouldn’t do better. Can you imagine Steph Curry or Damon Lillard playing the 3×3 game? For sure there are practicalities that preclude NBA participation. Although, it should be noted that the U.S. Women’s 3×3 team consisting of WNBA athletes qualified for the Olympics.

Basketball Cast Offs vs Basketball Cast Offs

So, who did our cast off basketball pros lose to in this basketball variant? The giant killers from Netherlands featured a roster that would not strike fear in anyone: Julian Jaring, Dimeo van der Horst, Arvin Slagter, and Jessey Voorn. If you research these guys just a little bit you’ll discover that they’ve had rather nondescript pro basketball careers, mostly in the Netherlands and best I can tell they aren’t playing 5×5 hoops anymore. I’m not sure what sort of salaries or more likely stipends they get for playing 3×3 basketball, but I doubt that it’s very much. One of the players even appears to be a personal trainer. So, the Netherlands didn’t send their best basketball players either. Yes, basically our USA basketball cast offs lost to Netherlands basketball cast offs. Good athletes whose pro careers didn’t pan out, but their skill set was ideal for the 3×3 variant. On the whole, I would bet USA cast offs are generally superior to the Netherlands, but as we can plainly see now, not that much better and clearly beatable.

The Relevance to Handball

So, why am I writing yet again about a Team USA Basketball Failure? Because it really, really illustrates just how absolutely and totally absurd the back of the napkin strategy that cast off U.S. pros from other sports could easily win Handball Olympic Gold.

Good gracious. I am getting sick and tired of explaining just how BAT SH** CRAZY such notions are. But, here goes with a little context and perspective.

We didn’t even qualify for the Olympics in a variant of basketball with cast off pros. A sport that we have totally dominated since it was invented. And, you think we can take similar cast off athletes from basketball and other sports and teach them to play handball, a sport they’ve never played before in a month, 6 months, 2 years, 4 years. That’s more than a little tougher than learning the aspects of a modified game of basketball for sure. Oh, and get this. Your manufactured team isn’t going to get to compete against other similar cast off pros. No, no, no, They will get to take on full time handball professionals that have been playing the sport their entire lives.

How can one even begin to reconcile the failure in 3×3 basketball with the idea that handball gold would somehow be a piece of cake?

Honestly, you know what the parallel is here? It would be roughly the same as former Netherlands handball players taking a crash course in basketball and planning on Olympic 5×5 basketball gold. Better start working on your long range jump shot, Luc Steins!

Previous Commentaries regarding the “Cast Offs” strategy and the need to understand that handball is a professional sport

  • USA Basketball with a Worst Ever World Championships. Does anyone Still Think that Similar Athletes Can Lead us to Handball Greatness: Link
  • Why a Residency Program at Auburn?: Reason #2: The U.S. had its Greatest Success with Residency Programs… True Statement, but that Success Occurred when Handball was only “Somewhat Professionalized.” Link
  • Could Lebron James Really become the the Best Handball Player in the World in Just 6 Months? (Part 1): Do I really have to Explain how Crazy that notion is? Link
  • Could Lebron James Really become the the Best Handball Player in the World in Just 6 Months? (Part 2): Why it’s just not Going to Happen; but what about Lebron Lite? Link

An Olympic Slot for the NACHC?

Could a New Distribution of Olympic Qualification Slots be Coming?

Last Friday, (21 May 2021), European Handball Federation (EHF) President Michael Wiederer gave a wide ranging interview with the Mannhiemer Morgen, a newspaper in Germany. For the most part the interview covered topics directly pertaining to the pandemic and EHF competitions. However, I bulls-eyed in on a couple of questions pertaining to handball’s place on the world stage:

Mannheimer Morgen: You are the representative of European handball interests, recently more and more nations like Argentina, Brazil and Egypt have drawn attention to themselves. How do you rate that?

Wiederer: This development is important for the sport, especially for the international market value of handball. Because as long as we are a sport with a European character, the marketing opportunities remain limited. Many international corporations are not based in Europe. I therefore welcome developments on the other continents. It was a very important step to expand the World Cup to 32 teams.

Mannheimer Morgen: Because handball is so European, the Olympic status is discussed again and again. Are you concerned about this?

Wiederer: We don’t have to worry about this status any more or less than many other sports. We aroused great interest at the Olympic Games in Rio five years ago. But this is also about internationalization. The world association is trying to get more starting places for other continents, that would be at the expense of Europe. As you can see, this is also about a balance, about different interests in terms of the product and a possible narrowing to a few markets.

Great IHF Support, but no Olympic Ticket

What makes Wiederer’s response newsworthy is that to the best of my knowledge it was the first time in print that I’ve seen it publicly acknowledged that the IHF was considering a redistribution of Olympic slots and the logical impact that such a redistribution would have on European nations.

The IHF, of course, has made no secret of its desires to develop new markets in the U.S. and China. Steps taken to help the U.S. include:

  • The U.S. Development Project, headed by former EHF President, Jean Brihault that has provided some grant funding for the U.S.
  • The dissolution of the Pan American Team Handball Federation (PATHF) into two new confederations, the North American & Caribbean Handball Confederation (NACHC) and the South & Central American Handball Confederation (SCAHC).
  • Selecting the U.S. as the NACHC representative to the 2021 Men’s Handball World Championships when a competition couldn’t be held due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But, while the PATHF split into the NACHC and SCAHC resulted in separate new qualification paths for the World Championships there has been so similar change announced regarding Olympic qualification. Both the NACHC and SCAHC were still grouped together for qualification via the 2019 PANAM Games.

And, anyone who follows handball in Pan America knows that presently it’s very unlikely that a NACHC nation will qualify for the Olympics via the PANAM Games. Any NACHC Men’s team hoping to qualify would likely have to beat both Brazil and Argentina, two nations that would likely be double digit favorites against any NACHC nation. For the women, it would mean beating Brazil and right now staying within 10 goals would be a major accomplishment for any NACHC women’s team. For reference Brazil beat the USA 34-9 in a 2019 semifinal.

But, if the NACHC were to be given its own slot? Well, that changes the equation entirely. Cuba would instantly become the NACHC favorite for both Men’s and Women’s Olympic Qualification, but the U.S. wouldn’t be far behind. And, every other NACHC nation that has been playing handball for awhile could also envision a legitimate shot at Olympic qualification.

How a Separate Olympic Qualification Slot Would Help the U.S.

For the U.S. a new Olympic Qualification path would likely lead to changes in terms of budget and budgetary priorities. For the past 20 years or so funding from the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) has been primarily tied to medal prospects. With the U.S. not even having realistic chances of qualifying for the Olympics this has resulted in minimal support from the USOPC. This could change with Olympic qualification suddenly being realistic and feasible as USA Team Handball could make a legitimate case that increased support in key areas could result in Olympic qualification.

In turn, it could also increase the quality and quantity of athletes pursuing handball in the U.S. Historically, one of the big enticements for athlete recruitment has been the possibility of being an Olympian some day. Indeed, at one time making a U.S. national team roster was tantamount to being an Olympian. Over time, however, as U.S. Olympic qualification prospects changed from likely to very unlikely this recruiting pitch became less effective as did the quantity and overall quality of the athletes recruited.

IOC Pressure and Potential European Backlash

It’s never been officially stated, but reportedly the IOC has expressed to the IHF its concerns about handball being too European. And, it has been rumored that this concern even included a warning about handball perhaps being taken off of the Olympic Programme. It’s hard to believe that handball would really be removed from the Olympics, but there is some validity to the underlying point of handball being too European. And, if a little IOC pressure has served as an impetus to put more focus on developing a U.S. handball market I sure won’t complain. And, I also wouldn’t complain about an Olympic slot being awarded to the NACHC as that would be a phenomenal development for the U.S. and the entire NACHC.

But, who would complain… and loudly? The European Handball nations; because in most instances it would result in a slot being taken away from a European side.

Current Olympic Qualification Slots

For reference, here is how the 12 Olympic slots are currently awarded for both the Men and Women:

  • Host Nation (1)
  • Reigning World Champion (1)
  • Europe (1)
  • Africa (1)
  • Asia (1)
  • Pan America (1)
  • Qualification Tournaments (6)

And, here is how the different continental federations have fared in the Olympic Qualification Tournaments since the current format was implemented in 2008.

  • 2020 Olympic Qualification Tournaments
    • Men: Europe (5); Pan America (1)
    • Women: Europe (6)
  • 2016 Olympic Qualification Tournaments
    • Men: Europe (5); Africa (1)
    • Women: Europe (6)
  • 2012 Olympic Qualification Tournaments
    • Men: Europe (6)
    • Women: Europe (6)
  • 2008 Olympic Qualification Tournaments
    • Men: Europe (6)
    • Women: Europe (5); Asia (1)

So, it hasn’t been a clean sweep for European nations, but it’s been close. If a slot were to be given to the NACHC it would likely remove a European team. A European team that would probably have made the quarterfinals and would have had a legitimate shot of medaling.

A Change in Time for 2024?

Because of the likely ramifications, I’m not very surprised that this hasn’t been publicly addressed by the IHF. It’s more often the sort of thing that’s discussed informally at coffee breaks and dinner parties. Not the sort of thing that gets promulgated until there’s an agreement in principle by the parties affected. Wiederer’s response in the interview is simply confirmation that this discussion has taken place and Europe is aware of it. Actually, likely been a party to the discussions since they would face the negative impacts.

However, if this change were to be made in time for the 2024 Olympics the clock is definitely ticking. Under the current qualification system the 2023 PANAM Games would again serve as qualification for the Olympics for the NACHC and SCAHC. That may be two years away, but qualification for the PANAM Games would start next summer with regional qualification in South, Central and North America. So, basically, just a year is available to change course and for the NACHC and SCAHC to come up with new separate qualification plans. This is doable, but action would be needed fairly quickly.

And, barring a change in time for 2024 one might wonder whether a change would be made for 2028. This is because the NACHC would already have a representative due to the U.S. hosting. Such a change would in fact result in 2 NACHC nations participating in the Olympics. Yes, given the sometimes glacial pace of change… this might end up being a change for the 2032 Olympics.

What’s Your Hombrados Number?

6 Degrees of J.J. Hombrados. My Hombrados # is 2. What’s Yours?

This past weekend, as I do almost every weekend, I watched a variety of different handball matches featuring U.S. National Team players. One of those matches had circle runner, Drew Donlin, and his Spanish club team Leon taking on Guadalajara. And, in goal for Guadalajara was a blast from the past, Jose Javier Hombrados. I say a “blast from the past” in that he was playing back when I was playing, but I guess if you’re still playing… well, then you’re still the “present”.

And, at age 49, he’s still getting the job done in the Liga ASOBAL. His reaction speed is still pretty decent and as many matches as he’s played he’s got a ridiculous experience advantage over every player he’s up against. He read Drew Donlin pretty well on this wide open 6 meter opportunity. See how he leaves one side of the goal covered and one side wide open. Except it’s not so wide open because he’s moved out from the goal. He patiently waits for the shot and deftly stops it with his arm.

More highlights from the match: Link

Side note 1: Laligasportstv and it’s streaming of the Liga ASOBAL is just awesome. Check it out and follow my twice weekly updates with the start times and direct links to matches.

Side note 2: If you want you can check out Hombrados yourself he plays live on Wednesday as Guadalajara takes on Cuenca at 2000 before the EHF CL Quarterfinals: Direct Video Link

6 Degrees of J.J. Hombrados

Kevin Bacon has been in a lot of movies and it’s been noted that just about any actor can be connected to him pretty quickly. As the 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon Wikipedia explains with this example:

  • Ian McKellen
    • Ian McKellen was in X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) with Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy
    • McAvoy and Fassbender were in X-Men: First Class (2011) with Kevin Bacon
    • Therefore, McAvoy and Fassbender have Bacon numbers of 1, and McKellen has a Bacon number of 2.

For Handball it works the same way. Here’s 1 example;

  • John Ryan
    • I played for the U.S. vs Sweden (Stefan Olsson, Robert Hedin, etc) at the 1993 World Championships
    • (Olsson, Hedin, etc) played for Sweden vs Spain (Hombrados) at the (I’m sure they played against him several times)
    • Olsson and Hedin have an Hombrados number of 1, I have an Hombrados number of 2

I suspect almost every pro or national team player for the last 40 years or so has a Hombrados number of 1 or 2. Amateurs all over the world have an Hombrados number of 3.

In some respects this is less remarkable than it might first appear. If one plays even just 1 match vs a big star it opens one up to a lot of possible connections because that big star has probably played a lot of matches vs a lot of teams. One could do this with a number of other players and get similar results. Kiril Lazarov and Nikola Karabatic would be two examples for sure.

However, what separates Hombrados is the length of his active career. He’s been playing professionally for 31 seasons. 31 seasons! Kiril Lazarov was just 10 years old when he started out. Think about it… Back in 1990 he probably played some matches against some players in their mid to late 30s. Somebody, say 37, who would now be 68 years old today. That senior citizen, via Hombrados, is now directly connected with 18 year old players just starting their careers in 2021. Some old guys on the couch in Spain are watching, surely chuckling to themselves and feeling a little bit younger with the comforting knowledge they can still say, “Yeah, I played against him” when they watch a match.

2 Generations, 3 Generations… Do I Hear 4?

Here’s another way of looking at it. There are a number of father-son handball player combos where the father and son have played against common players. Think Talant Dujshebaev and his sons, Alex and Daniel. Or Jackson Richardson and his son Melvyn. They’ve all played against or even with athletes like Lazarov or Karabatic. But, the length of Hombrados’s career pushes it to the possibility of 3 generations all playing against him. Yes, it wouldn’t surprise me if indeed it’s true, that some grandfathers in Spain can share personal experience tips on Hombrados with their grandsons. And, it one wants to stretch the generational math just a little bit… 4 generations (great grandfather, grandfather, father and son) could theoretically be possible.

If Hombrados keeps making saves like he did this past Saturday and if he wants too keep playing that just might happen in a few years.

Faroe Islands Handball Success and What it Means for the U.S.: Paradoxically, the Right Conclusion isn’t so Obvious

Elias Ellefsen á Skipagøtu is a real life handball Jimmy Chitwood (From the Movie: Hoosiers)

As someone who has a keen interest in both geography and handball it should come as no surprise that I’m a bit fascinated with the Faroe Islands and their recent handball success. Geography wise it’s a country so far off the beaten track that most people don’t even know it exists. In between Scotland and Iceland, the Faroe Islands have 52,000 citizens and similar to Greenland they are an autonomous territory of Denmark.

Handball wise they won the first two IHF Emerging Nations Championships in 2015 and 2017 and more recently they played several competitive matches against much larger nations in 2022 European Championship qualification, including a 27-26 win over the Czech Republic. Their most impressive accomplishment?: winning the European U17 Championship in 2019. And, it was not a fluke, they clearly were the best team at this tournament, beating the likes of Norway, Spain, Hungary, Belarus and Sweden.

Further Proof that Small Nations can Compete Effectively in Handball

In the past I’ve highlighted how Iceland with a small population (368,000) has been a pretty successful handball nation. They’ve yet to win a major title, but they are often in the running and they won the silver medal at the 2012 Olympic Games. And, now the Faroes Islands (1/6th the size of Iceland) are taking this concept of small nation handball success to even further extremes.

But, what does this remarkable success mean for a much larger nation like the U.S.? There are a couple of conclusions one might come to. One wrong; one right.

The Wrong Conclusion: If the tiny Faroe Islands can win with modest raw talent… Then the U.S. can accomplish even more with top notch raw talent

If one watches a bit of the Faroe Islands matches from European Championship qualification vs Russia or the Czech Republic it is absolutely striking to see the size disparity of the teams playing. From wing to wing, the Faroe Islands are giving up several inches in height and overall size in general. If you’ve played handball even just a little bit, you know that size isn’t everything. Plenty of smaller, quicker and craftier players have put bigger players in their place.

Case in point, is 19 year old, Elias Ellefsen á Skipagøtu. Check out these plays from Euro Qualification: As Rasmus Boysen pointed out on Twitter: The hype is real part 1; The hype is real part 2 He sure doesn’t look like much, but he’s a big reason behind the Faroe Islands success.

That being said… while size may not be everything, it’s still something. And, not even considering size (which can be easily seen) I think the Czechs and Russians, with the exception of Skipagotu, are also better in terms of raw talent. I don’t think there are any Faroe Islands athletes that would get much playing time if they were playing for the Czech Republic or Russia. Actually, there are probably only 1 or 2 players who would even make the Czech or Russian roster. That’s not a knock on the Faroe Islands handball team. No, on the contrary, it’s the ultimate compliment of their spirit and team play. The old saying that sometimes a “team” is more than the sum of it’s parts really applies here. Big time.

And, here’s where an American watching the Faroes Island’s success might come to a bad conclusion as to what it means for American handball. That train of thought goes something like this:

“Why look at what the Faroe Islands have accomplished with the limited talent they have to work with. Oh my God!  We can easily find 16 better athletes in the vast U.S. and put together an even more competitive handball team.  Bigger, quicker and stronger athletes. They are all over the place in the U.S.  It doesn’t even matter if they’ve never played the game.  We’ll just take athletes that don’t turn professional from other sports and assemble a team.”

Coming to this very wrong conclusion is somewhat understandable. Seriously, more than once during the last two matches, I said to myself, how are the Faroes doing it? But, the more you know about handball… the more you know it’s a very naive and arrogant perspective. One that totally doesn’t understand how hard it is to learn how to play handball at the highest level against professional athletes that have been playing the sport all their lives.

The Right Conclusion: The Faroes Island’s success against more gifted athletes shows what would likely happen with a “quick fix’ American team composed of great raw talent athletes. Perhaps we should instead focus on long term grass roots development.

No, paradoxically we shouldn’t be zeroing in on the raw athletic talent shortcomings of the Faroe Islands as much as we should be looking at their strong technical handball skills and team play. That train of thought goes something like this:

“Look at what the Faroe Islands have accomplished with modestly gifted athletes that have played the sport for several years.  They even compete well against teams with significantly better athletes that have also been playing handball for several years.  I wonder how the Faroe Islands would fare against a bunch of great American athletes that haven’t played handball for very long?   Answer:  The Faroe Islands would beat such a team… relatively easily.

I know this logic runs counter to American exceptionalism. And, if one were to contemplate the juxtaposition of the Faroe Islands squad facing off against a bunch of former NCAA Division 1 athletes who weren’t quite good enough to go pro in basketball, football or some other sport in a game of handball it’s hard to imagine such athletes getting schooled. The size disparity would be dramatic. The quickness and athleticism would also be clear. During warmups one would look at the two teams and think the Faroe Islands has no chance… but dollars to donuts they would school such a team of raw talent transfers.

Why wouldn’t they? After all, they’ve shown they can compete just fine against the Czech Republic and Russia. Pretty good athletes that already know how to play handball. And look closely… the raw athletic talent level of those Czech and Russian national teams is very comparable to the type of raw athletic talent one might see at a number of NCAA Division 1 basketball programs. Guys not headed to the NBA, but maybe to European pro leagues if they want to. Exactly the type of athletes the U.S. has recruited to varying degrees of success for the last 50 years or so.

So when we see the inevitable string of articles, podcast commentary and tweets this summer during the Olympics about how Lebron, Mahomes and others would easily win handball Gold keep in mind the following:

  • We’re never getting that level of athlete… we would instead have to settle for good, but lower level talent probably similar to the Czech and Russian teams.
  • The Czechs and Russians didn’t even come close to qualifying for the Olympics and they had some real trouble with the Faroe Islands.
  • It would probably take a couple of years for such a team to be even capable of beating the Faroe Islands.

Turning Raw Athletic Talent into Handball Players

I’m not saying it’s impossible to take athletes with great raw talent and turn them into handball players. It’s been done many times before… But, always at a significant cost over a long period of time. We can debate as to how much it will cost and how long it will take in today’s current handball landscape. A handball landscape that is way more professionalized today than it was during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.

We can and we should have that debate… Put some real dollar figures in terms of cost per athlete per year of specialized and focused training. And compare that cost to the costs to implement various grass roots programs. Maybe, after one runs the numbers it still makes sense to focus on a program similar to our residency programs of the past. Maybe it’s rebranded as more of a European style Academy effort. Maybe a very few, very high quality athletes are identified and sent quickly to Europe. Maybe, but let’s also consider the Faroe Islands and what they have accomplished with a radically different strategy.

Our Dual Citizen, Faroe Islands-like National Team

Also, needing to be factored in: A pretty decent talent pool of dual citizen American athletes which are sort of a Faroe Islands unto themselves. They’ve grown up playing the game, but they are dispersed all over Europe: USA 20 Man Roster for the 2021 WC

It would actually be pretty interesting to see this current U.S. team play the Faroe Islands. The U.S. would probably be around 5 goal underdogs, but we could beat them… probably not in Torshavn though.

  • Previous related commentaries
    • The “Iceland Strategy”: Focus a large percentage of USA Team Handball’s resources on one geographical location Part 1Part 2
    • Expatica Americana: In recent years, Americans that first learned to play handball in another country have played an ever increasing role with U.S. national teams.  This series takes a closer look at what can be expected from this key cohort. (Aug-Sep 2019)
      • Part 1:  What is a handball American Expat and Philosophically, What is an American?:  Link
      • Part 2:  Understanding this 51st state and its handball demographics: Link
      • Part 3: Can a small, but determined handball nation be competitive against larger nations? Can they win a title?: Link
  • For more insight on the Faroes Islands and Portugal (another smallish nation making noise) check out this session from the Scottish Handball Association Conference: Link