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

Handball Airing 9 Times/Week in the U.S. on the All Sports TV Network

Handball on TV in the U.S. (With a Few Caveats)

Since mid-April a relatively new start up TV network, the All Sports TV Network, has been broadcasting handball 9 times/week in the U.S. If that headline sounds too good be to true, let’s just say that it does come with a few caveats. Probably the biggest caveat (for already converted handball fans) is that the handball being broadcast is simply repeats of the IHF Olympic Qualification Tournaments that took place in March. Matches that we’ve already seen and can re-watch anytime on the IHF YouTube channel: Link

Another caveat is that the network isn’t available on traditional cable or satellite packages. Instead their strategy is to focus on digital over air channels and on Over the Top (OTT) options like Roku and Amazon Fire. Their website indicates plans to reach up to 70 million homes, but it’s not clear whether that target has been met.

When and How to Watch

The All Sports TV Network is currently showing handball on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 0300, 1100 and 1900 (US ET).  I think a different Olympic qualification match is being repeatedly shown each week and this week it’s a rebroadcast of the Germany vs Sweden Men’s match.

I checked it out via my Roku. To do that first search and add the All Sports TV Network to your channel lineup. Then click on the channel and watch. It’s a pretty decent stream with an HD picture.

Any Handball Exposure is a Good Thing

While this handball viewing opportunity isn’t a big deal for the handful of dedicated handball fans in the U.S. the old adage any promotion is good promotion applies here. The U.S. is a big country and undoubtedly some folks out there unfamiliar with handball are being exposed to the sport for the first time.

Here are a few quotes from the press release highlighting those opportunities:

“We are very excited about having the opportunity to bring team handball to American viewers,” stated ALL SPORTS President Roger Neal Smith. “We truly believe that the United States could, and should, become a major force in team handball. To that end, we plan to do everything we can to help make the American public become more aware of its existence.”

“This is a fantastic opportunity for an American audience to watch top tier handball as the sport continues to gain momentum leading up to the Olympic Games this summer”, stated Ryan Johnson, Chief Executive Officer of USA Team Handball. “The more exposure we can get for this sport in the US, the better. We’re grateful for ALL SPORTS’ efforts to make this happen.”

Future Opportunities?

Again, while today this isn’t a big deal for the dedicated handball fan it does point the way for future opportunities. More and more TV viewing is shifting away from cable/satellite towards streaming/OTT options. Inevitably more handball will be finding its way to channels like the All Sports TV Network. Indeed beach handball has already been shown there and one could envision U.S. National Team matches and our Collegiate and Open Club National Championships eventually finding their way to channels like the All Sports TV Network. Maybe international viewing options too.

Would I prefer to have more prominent OTT options like ESPN+, Peacock and Paramount+ show handball instead? Of course; the more eyeballs the better. That being said sometimes networks like ESPN+ don’t provide the sort of promotion we would like. Case in point: ESPN’s promotion (or lack thereof) of during the 2021 World Championships.

Time will tell, but with handball’s low profile and very small fan base it might be necessary to first start at the lower end of the spectrum and then gradually work our way to more prominent networks. Further, as TV options become more and more fragmented and available for free/low cost a big name network might not even be a requirement to get the handball “foot” in the door.

Scottish Handball Association Hosts International Conference

Sign Up for this Handball Conference

The Scottish Handball Association is hosting an International Conference on Wednesday and Thursday (28-29 April). The theme of the conference is “Beyond Winning and Losing: Collaborating for More Important Results” and all of the briefings and interviews can be viewed online.

  • Conference Website: Link
  • Speakers: Link
  • Schedule: Link
    • Start and Stop times both days
      • 1600-2000 CET
      • 1500-1900 Scotland
      • 1000-1400 US ET
  • Registration: Link

There are several interesting items on the schedule (check it out), but here are a few that I’m looking forward to seeing

  • Wednesday, 28 April
    • 1800 CET: How to build participation in Handball within Scottish Schools
    • 1900 CET: Big Sport, Wee Countries, Big Ambition: What Scottish Handball and other ‘minority’ sports can learn from success of Faroes and Portugal in growing their game
  • Thursday, 29 April
    • 1600 CET: Challenges of Growing Handball: A North American perspective (with yours truly, John Ryan)
    • 1930 CET: British Handball – past, present and future (with handball TV Commentator and British Handball’s Paul Bray)

Challenges of Growing Handball: A North American Perspective

A few notes on this, as it was a fun, informal discussion with yours truly and Scottish Handball’s Stephen Neilson. We covered several topics including the following:

  • How the U.S. and other English speaking countries have tried to varying degrees of success to capitalize on Olympic Opportunities
  • Whether the need to field competitive national teams can be a “distraction” that negatively impacts grass roots development
  • Which English speaking nation might be best on track for a “breakthrough” in the handball world
  • How the current U.S. reliance on dual citizens might impact stateside development… (My perspective might surprise you)

The conference is free and available to all who register.

USA Team Handball Opens Job Search for a Women’s National Team Head Coach… And a Whole Lot More

USA Team Handball seeks a U.S. Women’s Coach that can both build a Women’s National Team program and coach them too. Is there a Handball Bill Belichick out there willing to work for $4,800/year?

On Monday, USA Team Handball posted a job announcement for a Women’s National Team Head Coach.  While the job of a national team coach might be a be a relatively straight forward position in most countries with the U.S., the title of head coach has often come with extra responsibilities.

The main job responsibilities of a coach are pretty well known: They are responsible for selecting the best handball athletes available, preparing them during training windows and then coaching the team in international competition.

And, while U.S. National Team coaches have had those responsibilities, historically, this model was insufficient due to the reality that very few people in the U.S. know what handball is, let alone play the game. In other words, there have been few athletes, if any, to select. And, historically, that has meant the added responsibility of creating a team from scratch.

A Nice Addition to the Coaching Search: An Actual Job Description

I’m not exactly sure how the U.S. hired its coaches in the past. I suspect it was mostly done behind the scenes with word of mouth recommendations, followed by lengthy discussions about how the U.S. job would be “different” and how the coach would be responsible for teaching gifted athletes from other sports how to play handball. A not to unreasonable approach given the circumstances and the course of action that had been chosen.

But times change. Circumstances change. And, I think it’s great that USA Team Handball is having an open search and has more clearly defined the job with an actual job description that lays out these extra roles.

First there is a Scope section that summarizes how the job is different:

“Under the general supervision and with the support of Chief Executive Officer of USA Team Handball
(“USATH”), the Head Coach of the Women’s National Team will lead the planning and implementation of the Women’s National Team Program, including, but not limited to, design and implementation of an athlete identification and transition pipeline.

In contrast with athletes that participate in many U.S. sports and the handballers that grow up in Europe, most U.S. athletes will join handball later in life (between 16 and 22 years old). Athletes will oftentimes have elite sport experience in other disciplines (such as basketball, baseball/softball, volleyball, or water polo), prior to starting a career in handball. It is, therefore, the chief responsibility of the Head Coach to facilitate the recruitment of athletes into the USA Team Handball pipeline and to provide the path for their transition into an elite handballer.”

And, then some of these extra responsibilities are further defined:

  • Work  in collaboration with USATH CEO and the designated High Performance staff of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (“USOPC”) on the development of annual and quadrennial high performance plans.
  • Recruit and retain elite athletes for the Women’s National Team pool, both domestically and internationally.
  • Leverage existing global handball infrastructure for placing athletes with professional clubs, handball academies, or other similar situations to enhance athlete development opportunities outside of Team USA training camps and competitions, and to establish team opportunities for tournaments and training camps.
  • Evaluate the athlete talent pool and continuously upgrade the pool to improve the national team’s competitiveness in international competitions.

The State of U.S. Women’s Handball

Laying out the added responsibilities is all well in good, but probably what’s missing is some context as to just how hard it will be design and implement an athlete identification and transition pipeline.

A while back I started a series of commentaries to address some much needed planning that USA Team Handball needed to undertake.  This series, Charting a Way Forwards for USA Team Handball (Reboot), first identifies “What we have”, then takes a look at “What we want” and then tries to figure out “How we get there”.  I’ve got the first two steps covered, but had paused on the very difficult and challenging 3rd step.  I paused for a number of reasons, but one of those reasons was the enormous chasm between “What we have” and “What we want.”

The series covers everything from National Teams to finances to marketing to grass roots development, but here are the commentaries that specifically address Women’s Handball:

  • Demographics: American Citizen Female Athletes (Overview): Link
  • Demographics: USA Women’s Elite Player Pool (Overview): Link
  • USA Women At-Large and Collegiate Clubs: Link

There are a number of factoids in these articles regarding the current state of the U.S. Women’s program, but underlying everything is the reality that world-wide, there are maybe around 100 American Women that play handball on a regular to semi-regular basis. And, that number will go up or down depending on how loose or strict you want to define “play handball”.

Reality… And, these estimates error on the conservative side.

So, if you’re an outside observer, not familiar with handball in the U.S., you’re reaction might well be, “What the hell? I knew handball wasn’t very popular in the U.S., but that’s ridiculous.”

I could go into a long diatribe on why the U.S. is in this position, but that’s not the point here. (If you are interested, there’s plenty to read up on: Link) No, the point here is simply to understand that it is, indeed, reality. And, it’s why the USA Team Handball since it’s inception has almost entirely relied on “transfer talent” from other sports to field it’s national teams. Because…it’s the only way we could even field a team. Further, I should point out that the ages of talent transfer (ages 16-22) listed in the job description are more “aspirational” than a reflection of current reality. Historically, there have been only a handful of stateside national team athletes that first started playing handball prior to graduating from college. And, for the past 20 years or so the average age has been creeping up to somewhere in the mid 20s.

The U.S. Men as a Reference Point: A Focus on Dual Citizens as an Option?

This stateside challenge, as described, is not just a problem for the U.S. Women, it’s also a problem for the U.S. Men. This is perhaps mostly clearly demonstrated by the rapid transformation of the U.S. Men’s National Team from a mix of stateside/dual citizens to almost exclusively a dual citizen squad. Notably, the final 20 man roster for the 2021 Men’s World Championships was comprised of 17 dual citizens and just 3 athletes that had first learned to play the game stateside.

There’s been talk about conducting tryouts and expanding opportunities for stateside athletes, but the reality is that such athletes either entirely new to handball or training at levels significantly below European standards will struggle to make a U.S. roster for years to become. Not because our state side athletes aren’t dedicated or lacking in terms of raw talent, but because the U.S. has been gifted with a pretty good, if not golden, generation of dual citizen athletes. This generational good fortune has meant that very quickly U.S. Men’s Coach Robert Hedin has been able to put together a respectable side that I think would have surprised some folks at the World Championships. Further, the bulk of this roster is actually pretty young and will be around for years to come. That’s not to say I don’t see stateside efforts being built up and eventually more stateside athletes making U.S. rosters. It’s just that it’s going to take several years.

Could the new U.S. Women’s Coach follow the same blueprint as Coach Hedin? Well, undoubtedly whoever’s hired is going to take a look at his current talent pool and try to duplicate it. Unfortunately, while, the U.S. Women have some solid dual citizens they can rely on they have nowhere near the quantity or quality that U.S. Men’s coach, Robert Hedin can rely on. At least, I don’t think there are any hidden Hueter sisters that will magically appear out of nowhere, but I’m open to being pleasantly surprised.

Lacking this dual citizen option and a very thin talent pool means the very difficult task of creating a team from scratch has to be more aggressively pursued. Because if it’s not pursued the U.S. Women will struggle to field a competitive side.

Maybe Coaches Should be Hired to… Coach?

Having been around awhile and having observed and experienced first hand U.S. efforts to create national teams mostly from scratch I’ve come to a conclusion. You can call me old fashioned if you like, but personally I think coaches shouldn’t be hired to design and implement an athlete identification and transition pipeline. I think coaches should be hired to… well, coach.

There’s a couple of reason for this. First, the skill set inherent in planning, designing and implementing a National Team Program doesn’t match the skill set of most coaches. Coaches conduct practices, prepare their teams and lead them in competition. They really know the game and they know how to make their players better handball players. Some of those raw skills could be applied to the very complicated task of planning and designing a National Team Program, but I would argue that it’s a different job requiring greater planning and organizational skills.

The second reason is directly related to the “different mind set” most coaches have. Coaches, at least any coach worth his salt, are hard wired to focus on winning matches. Maybe in the back of their minds they are taking long term goals into consideration, but the focus is primarily figuring out how to win their next match. It’s what they do. It’s what’s expected of them. At the end of the day it’s how their performance as a coach will ultimately be judged. This reality is in direct conflict with the long term goal of building a National Team Program. And, in the unique case of the U.S. with a 2028, seven year timeframe to consider the required mindsets couldn’t be more different. Yes, smart long term program building decisions could in some instances be extremely detrimental to the prospects of near term results.

The analogy (while imperfect) that applies here is the General Manager (GM) / Coach roles and responsibilities split typically used in professional sports organizations. The GM makes the decisions that affect the long term direction of the organization. He ultimately decides what players are acquired and at what cost while the coach is responsible for taking the players he’s been given and… coaching the team. This doesn’t mean that the GM and coach don’t work closely together, just that there is a lead/follower relationship in terms of long term/near term responsibilities.

A Bill Belichick for USA Team Handball?

But, maybe there’s somebody out there in the Handball world who can actually do both the way that Bill Belichick is both the GM and Coach of of the New England Patriots? I guess he’s been relatively successful. That remains to be seen, but I’m guessing he might have higher salary requirements than the $4,800/year currently being offered.

Handball on ESPN (Final Review: Part 2): My Long Standing Prediction was Wrong… Here are some Reasons Why

Totally Bewildering: ESPN promotes handball to new fans… but, does so only after the World Championships on ESPN+ are over.

In Part 1, I documented how ESPN’s broadcast of the 2021 Men’s Handball World Championship was a disappointment in terms of viewership and buzz. In Part 2, I look at some of the reasons why it came up so short of my expectations.

So, why weren’t handball broadcasts on ESPN+ a major game changer like I predicted? Here are some reasons that I’ve come up with:

Reason #1) ESPN+ Viewership is Nowhere Near Traditional ESPN’s… Yet

It’s hard to predict the future, but there are a lot of signs that streaming or Over the Top (OTT) video is the future. More and more content is being placed on streaming platforms, be it Netflix, ESPN+, NBC Peacock or Paramount+. But, the future is not the present and in the present world we live in regular TV is still king, especially for sports.

A recent NY Times article on the NFL’s new TV rights deal highlights that money is the primary reason this is the case:

“Streaming is the present of movies and TV series and the future of sports, and growth in that sector is what is currently rewarded by Wall Street. But the number of people who pay to stream sports, and the amounts they pay, are dwarfed by the tens of millions of American households that still spend $50, $100 or even $150 each month for a television package.”

The number of Cable/satellite subscribers has been steadily decreasing. At one point the traditional (or linear) ESPN channel had over 100M subscribers, but it’s now closer to 80M. But, while that number has been dropping, it’s still far more than the number of ESPN+ subscribers, which just passed 12M. Don’t get me wrong, 12M is still a lot of people, but it’s not as many we’d like and it’s on a streaming platform that’s just starting to get traction.

Reason #2) ESPN+ “Discovery Opportunities” Were Very Limited

When it comes to marketing team handball in the U.S. the sport has a huge awareness problem in that the vast majority of Americans are not even aware that the sport exists. Over the years, TV broadcasts, particularly in the Olympics have been the single biggest way to dampen that awareness problem as it exposes millions of people to the sport.

I had hoped that placing handball on ESPN+ would have a similar, albeit smaller, effect. Unfortunately, this failed for a couple of reasons. First, I suspect that many ESPN+ subscribers are not in the habit yet of wandering around looking for something to watch the same way many of us are now when it comes to finding something to watch on Netflix. That’s somewhat to be expected and I would bet that changes over time.

What was really disappointing, though, was how hard ESPN made it to find handball on ESPN+. During, the World Championships I fielded dozens of messages from worried handball fans wondering where the next handball match was on ESPN+. Heck, I myself, was worried a couple of times as I scrolled all over the place trying to find a match that was scheduled to start in 15 minutes or so. However, as I came to learn, ESPN typically did not post the icon for upcoming matches until 5 minutes before they started. Worse, even though it was a live event it was often nowhere to be seen on the main page and only viewable after scrolling past several basketball games that were scheduled to be played later.

And, we can forget about the possibility of “forever content” that I was hoping for as there is no handball icon next to the rugby or cricket icon for potential new fans to discover handball. Just a few weeks after the World Championships, all handball match replays have already disappeared so, for sure, no one poking around ESPN+ is going to stumble upon handball.

Reason #3) ESPN’s Promotion of Handball on ESPN+ was Very, Very Limited

But, the most disappointing, frustrating and at times bewildering reason for ESPN+ having little if any impact was ESPN’s lack of promotion on their TV, radio and social media platforms.

In fact, over the course of the tournament, to the best of my knowledge there were zero handball mentions on radio and zero social media posts about handball. And, the only TV mention I’m aware of was Swedish GK Andreas Palicka’s great save against France making Sports Center’s Top 10. That was nice… But why couldn’t ESPN have turned that great play into an Instagram post with a USA Team Handball tag and a reminder to their 22M followers to head over to to ESPN+ to watch more handball?

That would have been such an incredibly simple and smart thing for ESPN to do… But, instead we got nothing… nada… zero… zilcho. It was almost as if ESPN was purposely hiding its handball content.

What really has me shaking my head, is that in the past ESPN had been responsible for some of the greatest handball promotion ever in the U.S. Yes, the 2 most viral handball related social media post are still 2 old ESPN SportsCenter Instagram posts: Sigurdsson’s penalty rebound goal with 2.2M views in January, 2018 and Diego Simonet’s nifty behind the back goal with 1.2M views in September, 2017. Each of those posts also have thousands of comments along the lines of, “What a cool sport!”; “That looks like fun.”; and “Where can I play this?” And, these videos were posted when handball broadcasts actually were on another TV network. Yes, ESPN was inadvertently advertising for beIN Sports.

So, why on earth couldn’t we even get one (just one) handball shout out when handball was actually having 2 matches broadcasted daily on a ESPN platform?

You would think that would be a no brainer, but, we couldn’t any love, until, get this: ESPN randomly posted some top plays from the EHF Champions League a couple of weeks ago with the words, “Handball looks too fun”. This timing is just so puzzling. It’s as if someone is mocking me, but the reality is probably simpler. The right hand doesn’t talk to the left hand at ESPN or they just don’t really care much about promoting their own content on ESPN+. Regardless, sometimes I just don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Reason #4) Team USA did not Participate in the World Championships

Finally, there’s also an underlying reason that perhaps more than anything resulted in less buzz overall and promotion at ESPN. And, that reason is that due to multiple positive COVID test results the U.S. had to withdraw from the World Championships. We don’t know how well the U.S. would have done, but, Team USA participating for the first time in 20 years would have drawn more interest in the halls of ESPN and I’d like to think better promotion across the board. More mentions and some highlights on SportsCenter. Some handball talk on ESPN radio. Maybe even an interview or two with the U.S. coach and some players. Instagram posts, Tweets, etc., etc., etc.,

At least that’s what I like to think would have happened. Alas, with the U.S. dropping out we’ll never know if it would indeed have been significantly different. Or, as I had hoped an epic game changer.

But, hopefully there will be more chances for handball to make some TV waves in the not too distant future. In Part 3, I’ll take a final look at the ESPN experiment and explore some other possibilities coming up in the not too distant future.

European Nations at the Olympics: A Gradual Shift Westward is Now Fully Realized

2020 Men’s Olympic Qualifiers: The West has Won. No Eastern European Nations. No Balkan Nations Either

Christer Ahl has retired from handball journalism and commentary, but I still get the occasional email from him regarding the latest competition.  The latest missive sent last night was simply titled:  “Remarkable” and started off like this:

“Never thought I would see it happen in my lifetime: all the European men’s team in the Olympics either Nordic or Latin; absolutely nobody from the Eastern part; Of course, many decades ago, Austria was the easternmost team where handball existed; but then the idea of Portugal playing handball, or even Spain…..”

Christer, who was involved with the IHF in one capacity or another from 1977 to 2009 has seen it all and indeed this is the first time there will be no nation from Eastern Europe participating in the Olympics. For that matter it joins 1992 as the only Olympics in which no nation from the former Yugoslavia has qualified. And, prior to that Yugoslavia participated in every Olympics from 1972 to 1988.

A Gradual Shift

Yes, indeed, if one looks at the 1970s and 1980s maps below the 2020 map does look a bit strange. It didn’t happen overnight and if one looks at the maps below, it’s been a gradual shift westward. There surely are a number of reasons this has occurred, but for the most part I think it mirrors the growing professionalism of handball in Western Europe and the corresponding decreasing state support to national team programs in Eastern Europe.

This doesn’t mean that handball isn’t being played in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. One just has to look at the rosters on pro clubs to see that isn’t true. But, what has changed over time has been the ability of Western European nations to develop better home grown talent. Gone are the days of club rosters totally reliant on ringers/jokers from Eastern Europe. For sure those ringers are still on rosters… but, they are more complimentary than dominant. They help bring up the overall quality of play which in turn develops more talent across the board.

Momentary Blip or a Trend for the Future?

So is this just a momentary blip or a trend for the future. I’m thinking it’s a blip, but only because Eastern Europe is looking more and more like Western Europe as the clubs and leagues become more commercialized. Poland and Hungary have decent leagues and top clubs like Szeged are building new arenas. The SEHA league is also enabling some of the clubs in smaller nations to get better competition. More talent will be able to stay home and that will trickle down and support the development of more in country talent.

European Nations Participating in Men’s Olympic Handball Competitions (1972-2020)

USA Team Handball Parts Ways with Coach Latulippe: The Right Decision… but, Why Did it Take 8 Years? and is the Timing Right with a Big Tournament Coming Up?

Coach Latulippe addresses the U.S. Women. After 8 years as coach his contract was not renewed.

Yesterday, USA Team Handball announced that after 8 years it was parting ways with USA Women’s Coach, Christian Latulippe. There are a lot of euphemisms for getting fired and “parting ways” is one of them. My understanding is that his contract was up and that the decision was made not to renew it. Here’s my take on this decision:

A Strange Hire to Begin With

I’ll make no secret that I didn’t think coach Latulippe should have ever been hired in the first place.  The U.S announcement didn’t mention it, but this was actually Latulippe’s 2nd stint with the U.S. Women as he was also coach from 2004-2007.   As I pointed out in this commentary back in 2013 his first stint with the U.S. was less than stellar.  The metrics included a poor W-D-L record, mediocre recruiting and a failed residency program at Cortland, NY.  He was also fired (or resigned) just prior to a PANAM Games qualification tournament in 2007.  Based on all those factors I saw little rationale for bringing him back in 2013.

A Closer Look at the Latulippe Record

Coach Latulippe’s 2nd time around has produced better results than his first, but there clearly have been far more low points than high points.  Here’s a summary of results from all the major competitions that the U.S. has played in under his tenure.  (Major competitions being defined as events that are either part of World Championships or Olympic Qualification.)

A 19-2-22 record can be described as mediocre or disappointing depending on one’s perspective.  The U.S. has not come close to beating Brazil or Argentina, but can be considered roughly on par with the half dozen teams below those two regional powers.  That being said, more often than not, the U.S. has come up short in the big matches between those similar foes.  Probably the biggest and most disappointing was losing the 2 match PANAM Games qualification series to Uruguay in 2015.  At the time, Coach Latulippe was running a full time residency program and most of the team was practicing together on a regular basis.  To not even qualify for the PANAM Games was a major failure, one that arguably and reasonably suggested that it was time for a major overhaul.

Instead, the U.S. Women’s program has muddled along for the past 6 years.  It was never clearly reported, but the nature of Coach Latulippe’s coaching role shifted in 2015 from a full time residency coach to more of a part time role.  He moved to France, but still coached the team in major competitions and in periodic training camps combined with friendly matches.  The U.S. National Team also started to recruit and add more dual citizens to the roster.  It’s not clear how much Coach Latulippe was paid and what his fully defined responsibilities were, but arguably he did a pretty decent job cobbling together a National Team program with very limited resources.  Certainly the U.S. was travelling and playing quite a few matches vs respectable competition all on a shoestring or nonexistent budget.

Still, the results in the big competitions never materialized.  Meanwhile, similar teams also with limited resources managed to qualify for the World Championships.  Puerto Rico in 2015, Paraguay in 2017, Cuba in 2019.  The 2019 North American & Caribbean Championships were another big disappointment.  The U.S. had qualified for the PANAM Games, but with a World Championship berth on the line the U.S. ended up finishing in 5th place behind Cuba, Puerto Rico, Greenland and the Dominican Republic.  With then recently hired CEO Barry Siff in place, it seemed like a logical time for a coaching change, but no change was made. I’m not sure why, but I suspect with the PANAM Games coming up it was assessed that there wasn’t time to effectively install a new coach before a major tournament.

2019 PANAM Games (The Best U.S. Performance in Years)

At the 2019 PANAM Games the U.S. Women arguably had their best performance in the Christian Latulippe era.  Handed a favorable draw, they took care of Peru and the Dominican Republic and qualified for the semifinals.  It was no surprise that they got overwhelmed by Brazil, 34-9, but they came very close to a bronze medal losing a close match to Cuba, 24-23.  Yes, ironically, Coach Latulippe is getting fired after arguably the best performance by a U.S. Women’s team in a major competition since the 2003 PANAM Games (where the U.S. also placed 4th). 

The Right Decision… Why Did it Take 8 Years?

How a team performed in the last tournament is pretty important, but coaching changes should still be made after assessing the entire body of work. And, if one assesses the entire body of work it’s hard to argue that the U.S. had made great progress or was headed on an upwards trajectory. Results were mediocre at best and really the only logical question is why wasn’t the trigger pulled earlier?

There are likely several reasons, but here are a few that probably came into play:

  • Tempered Expectations: With limited resources being applied to the Women’s program could anyone realistically expect significantly better results? No, not really. Slightly better results could and should have been possible. The U.S. should have qualified for the 2015 PANAM Games and probably attended 1 World Championship since 2015. But, qualify for an Olympic Games? Beat Brazil or a European team? Not a chance.
  • Minimal Compensation Requirements: It’s not clear what Coach Latulippe’s compensation was during his 8 years at the helm. Initially, he was paid an annual salary, but after 2015 I suspect he was paid minimally. In the USA announcement, National Team player Jennifer Fithian is quoted as saying, “Time and again, Christian has donated his time, money and efforts to give us the opportunity to compete over the past 15 years.” I’ve bold-faced the “donated his time, money and efforts” and that’s pretty telling. Certainly, no handball power National Team Coach is in the practice of donating time and money. Volunteering on some level, however, is a somewhat common practice for developing programs like the U.S.
  • Lack of Other Options: Again, the donation of time, money applies here. Behind the scenes, I suspect Coach Latulippe was actually pretty effective at running a shoestring operation. Over the past few years, the U.S. women managed to play quite a few friendly matches in Europe and S. Korea. He also seems to have a great relationship with a core group of athletes that he’s managed to keep together. Could a new coach have been hired to do the same sort of job with the same sort of compensation?

The Right Decision… The Right Time?

The U.S. has a big tournament hopefully coming up this Summer: The North American & Caribbean Championship. The winner will qualify for the World Championships and it may even be hosted in the U.S. The favorite will be the 2019 winner, Cuba, and Coach Latulippe and the U.S. Women came very close to beating that Cuba side at the 2019 PANAM Games. Having coached the U.S. Women for 8 years he knows his roster and his competition inside and out.

We’ll see who the new coach is, but if they are a newcomer to the program they will be coming in blind with a roster and opposing foes they are not familiar with. Making the transition to a new coach even tougher will be the COVID situation likely making it challenging to prepare for the tournament. Maybe they will get a good training camp with some competitive friendly matches before the tournament… Maybe they won’t.

Regardless, it goes without saying that a new coach can be a catalyst for better performances. Heck, it often doesn’t even matter if the new coach is a better coach. Change, in and of itself, is what’s needed. But, on the other hand, sometimes the disruption that results from change presents new problems that can’t be overcome. Assuming there is indeed a Championship this summer it will be very interesting to see how the U.S. Women will respond and perform.

While the upcoming North American & Caribbean Championships are important, the far bigger question is what the plan is for the U.S. Women’s program going forward. Arguably, figuring out that forward is more important than selecting a U.S. coach. In fact, the U.S. probably shouldn’t even hire a long term coach until it figures out what that coach will be responsible for. This will be discussed in more detail in a follow on commentary.

Handball on ESPN (Final Review: Part 1): My Long Standing Prediction was Wrong… Totally Wrong

My prediction that ESPN handball coverage would be a major game changer for the U.S. came up short… way short.

The Prediction

Before the 2021 IHF Handball World Championships I trumpeted that handball being shown on ESPN wasn’t just big news, but that it was, in fact, the biggest and most important development in the entire history of team handball in the United States. The logic behind this prediction was my basic premise that getting more handball on TV trumps all other marketing objectives for the sport… because it’s a true force multiplier that greatly improves the likelihood of better results in all other areas. And, that ESPN, even if it was just their streaming platform (ESPN+), was still the world-wide leader and it would be unprecedented exposure.

A Failed Prediction

Now, a little over a month since the conclusion of the World Championships it’s pretty clear that it hasn’t had anywhere near the desired effect. How do we know? Well, there are metrics such as website traffic and social media engagement that can be tracked. I know this website had better traffic than it has during previous Men’s World Championships, but not a dramatic increase. There were a few viral moments such as Gauthier Mvumbi getting some new U.S. fans such as Rodger Sherman of the Ringer and Palicka’s great save vs France, but these moments weren’t super viral in terms of numbers and less than the brouhaha with Jay Cutler which was also not as buzzworthy as we thought it might have been.

It would be really interesting to see the actual number of viewers on ESPN+, but in the age of streaming such numbers are a closely guarded secret that platforms like ESPN+, Netflix and Hulu don’t share openly.

What Google Trends Tells Us

Lacking hard viewership numbers Google Trends data is a fairly decent proxy of viewership and general handball related interest as it tracks how many people are searching for terms like “handball”. It’s by no means a perfect measurement, but generally when more people are searching for a particular topic it’s a strong indication that something has triggered their interest. The CDC even uses such trending data to track coronavirus spread. (i.e. When more people start searching for “COVID symptoms” it’s an indication of possible virus spread. With that in mind here are the results for “handball” searches in the U.S. since Dec 2018.

As you can see there are two big spikes, both Men’s World Championships, but the 2021 WC is actually a little bit below the 2019 WC. Or, to put it another way, the NBC Olympic Channel in 2019 actually trumps ESPN+ in 2021 a little bit.

If ESPN+ handball broadcasts had truly been groundbreaking this chart would have looked much different. In particular, the 2021 WC spike would have been at 100 and the 2019 WC spike would be much smaller in relative terms. For some insight as to what that chart would look like take a look at this chart which tracks handball searches for a longer period, since January, 2016.

Think the Olympics aren’t a really big deal for handball in the U.S.?… Think again. Look how just two weeks of Olympics exposure on NBC dwarfs everything else and turns the big WC spikes on the first chart into little bumps of minor significance. Now I wasn’t expecting ESPN coverage to create another Olympics sized bump, but I was certainly hoping for it to have some positive effect.

What I Wished Google Trends had Told Us

What was I hoping for? Perhaps something like this:

Yes, maybe half an Olympics bump and with a trailing edge that stays higher with more handball continued to being broadcast on ESPN. Content like the EHF Champions League and the upcoming Olympic Qualification Tournaments. Maybe even USA related content like our College National Championships or the upcoming NACHC Sr Women’s Handball Championships later this year.

Instead, a month later handball is gone from ESPN. It’s almost like it was never even there.

So, two weeks of handball on America’s top sports network had little effect. In Part 2, I will assess “why” this was the case and what might be needed to improve the end results for future handball broadcasts on American TV and web streaming platforms.

What if Shaq Had Played Handball?

The Shaq of Handball and the Shaq of Basketball

I generally am pretty annoyed with 10 second newbie analysis of how great athletes from other sports could take up handball and totally dominate. But, the exploits of Gautheir Mvumbi got me thinking… What if Shaq had played handball?

Gauthier Mvumbi: The Shaq of Handball

With little doubt the most fun story of the 2021 IHF Men’s Handball Championships was RD Congo’s Gauthier Mvumbi. Christened the “Shaq of Handball”, Mvumbi was officially listed as 6’4″ and 242 lbs (192 cm / 110 kg), but some reports indicated he was closer to 300 lbs / 137 kg).

Regardless, of how much he actually weighed he was an absolute blast to watch. When he first ran out on the court I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who chuckled a bit as he lumbered in from the sideline and posted up on the 6 meter crease. I’m sure there were many who also snickered at the overweight player and said to themselves, “This guy has no business playing handball in a World Championship.”

However, it didn’t take long for everyone watching to assess that once he got the ball the circle runner was pretty darn effective, scoring 20 goals on 23 attempts. And, remarkably agile for some of his size. I’m a little taller and also played circle runner, but my playing weight was closer to 200 lbs. I can’t even imagine moving the same way with another 100 lbs on my frame. But, for Mvumbi it was no problem. Gather the ball… turn… shake off the would be defenders… and dive in to score.

Mvumbi’s play generated quite a bit of media attention. He even got a shout out from the Shaquille O’Neal on Instagram.

Article with links to several photos and videos of Gauthier Mvumbi in action: Link

Shaquille O’Neal: The Shaq of Basketball

But, if we are going to call someone the Shaq of Handball, it’s worthwhile spending a little time remembering the impact Shaquille O’Neal had on the sport of basketball. Our memories fade and, if one is younger, such memories don’t even exist. Shaq, especially in the early days of his playing career was a very agile player. I don’t know how many times I heard a commentator say that “it was almost unfair that a player of such size could move so well.” At the apex of his career if Shaq got the ball in the low post he was pretty much unstoppable. About the only thing most players could do was foul him and make him shoot free throws. A strategy that eventually evolved to the infamous “Hack a Shaq” whereby teams started fouling Shaq even when he was nowhere near the basket. The rules were also changed to allow zone defenses and this also made it easier for teams to defend against him and over time it arguably led to the NBA game’s greater emphasis on the 3 point shot.

For more insight this video provides a pretty good in depth analysis of just how hard he was to defend: Link

My Encounter with Shaq Many Years Ago

Just about everybody has stories where they’ve met someone famous and, while I never actually engaged Shaquille O’Neal in conversation my brief encounter with him way back in 1989, as I will explain, was a real eye opener. How brief of an encounter? Real brief. Seriously, all I did was stand next to him in the cafeteria line at the 1989 Olympic Festival in Oklahoma. The Olympic Festivals were a multi-sport event that the U.S. held in non-Olympic years and I was there playing handball while a 17 year old Shaq was there, of course, for basketball.

Back then I was a close follower of NCAA college basketball and I had heard about this big center that was going to play at LSU next year. That he had dominated in high school and that was going to be the next Patrick Ewing or David Robinson.

Well, I’ve never stood next to either of those big centers, but I’ve stood next to other folks in their height range. When you’re used to being taller than 99% of the people you meet on a daily basis it’s always a bit of a novelty to look up to someone else. And, if you’re an athlete you size them up and wonder to yourself, “I wonder if I could play against them? Could I get my turn around jumper off if I really faded away.” And, I could actually rationalize playing against taller players on offense. Not, that I would get the best of them, but that I could compete. Defense against a taller player, however, would be tougher. It’s just the nature of the game in basketball. Against taller players you’ve got to be physical and hold your ground. Still, if you’re an athlete you always think you can compete.

And, then I stood next to Shaq…

It’s one thing for someone to be tall, but it’s another thing entirely for someone be immense. And, Shaq is immense. I’ve never felt so small in my entire life. Back then he was probably around 7’1″, 290 lbs. Could I compete against Shaq on defense? If he posted me up could I have held my ground? Uh… Sorry, no chance in hell. I would have needed two of me to double team him. And, even then it would have been all about keeping him from getting the ball.

Shaq… as the Shaq of Handball

But, enough of this basketball talk. What, if Shaq had played handball? How would that have played out? It’s actually a question that I’ve pondered about since that brief encounter with Shaq many years ago.

I’ve played defense against some burly circle runners and they were always a bit of a challenge for my slighter build especially if they established a solid position on the 6 meter line. But, usually it was a challenge that I could counter with a height advantage and long arms to fend off would be entry passes. I’m not saying I won all these battles, but I am saying that I could compete.

However, I never played against anyone the size of Gauthier Mvumbi and during the World Championships I got to thinking how I would have played him. And, basically it would have been a lot of darting back and forth trying to stay between him and the ball. I’d like to think that I would have deflected a few entry passes into him, but I also saw how defenders were struggling to get around to the other side. Mvumbi takes up a fare amount of space and it’s a long way around.

And, then one contemplates the hypothetical of Shaquille O’Neal taking the place of Gauthier Mvumbi…

6’4″/300 lbs (192 cm/110 kg) vs 7’1″/320 lbs (216 cm/145 kg).

Heavier and taller. And… way more mobile and athletic. One defender guarding Shaq on the 6 meter line and keeping him from getting the ball? Sorry. No chance in hell for me and most humans. Maybe all humans? Why, I think even a guy like Bence Banhidi of Hungary/Szeged would struggle and he’s listed at 6’9″/265 lbs (206 cm/120 kgs).

Further, Shaq would not have been a one dimensional offensive player. I think Shaq would have had some limitations on the defensive side of the court, but he’d do alright. Basically he would be a quicker and more physical Dainas Kristopans. Someone that might struggle 1v1 against quicker players, but also someone that backcourt players wouldn’t like running into.

The “Would Be” Shaq Effect

How good of a handball player would Shaq have been? Well, offensively, especially after he figured out the basic circle runner placement and moves, I think he would have dominated the game much the way he did in basketball at his peak. Arguably, if Shaq were paired with one of the world’s top backcourts such a tandem would be unstoppable and even more dominating than the Kobe-Shaq 3 peat Lakers.

As I see it a Shaq that knows how to play handball would require at least 1.5 players guarding him at all times. Because of Shaq’s size and quickness it’s a virtually certainty that with just a bit of maneuvering he could set up shop anywhere he wanted to on the 6 meter line. Watch this video of Shaq pushing 7’1″, 235 lb David Robinson around: Link

One defender would need to closely guard him to deny the entry pass and one defender (the half) would need to keep an eye on him ready to closely guard him should the ball swing to the other side.

Of course, this is how defense against circle runners is often done against mere mortals. There’s some variance as to the defense alignment and the relative strengths of the offensive players. And, that’s where a Shaq like player would just trash up defenses. That’s because that “1.5 players” guarding him would sometimes become for all practical purposes 2 players.

And, if one pairs Shaq with a backcourt like Mikkel Hansen or Sander Sagosen… What does the defense do? If they come out to help out at 9 meters they leave Shaq with just one defender and he’s a big target for an entry pass. If they stay close to Shaq it’s too easy for a quality backcourt to score.

In a sense we already have an example where this dilemma is played out. It’s basically what happens when defenses pull their goalkeeper and go 7v6. The extra circle runner typically forces defenses to a 6-0 defensive alignment thereby opening up backcourt scoring opportunities. Of course, the drawback of the 7v6 is the open goal at the other end.

But, the Shaq effect would essentially be almost like playing 7v6 without having to pull your GK.

There’s Only One Shaq

Long time readers to this site know that I’ve religiously maligned and taken to task handball newbies who speculate how athletes like Lebron James (Part 1 and Part 2) would dominate team handball. So why doesn’t this logic also apply to Shaq? Two reasons:

  1. Shaq would clearly have played circle runner. Circle runner is the easiest position to learn how to play. Not surprisingly it’s also where there have been some successful transitions from other sports like basketball. Teaching someone how to play backcourt effectively is a much more difficult prospect. It can be done, but not quickly.
  2. There’s only one Shaq. Seriously, only a couple of people have even come close to the combination of size and quickness. Wilt Chamberlain in his era. Zion Williamson is kind of a miniature Shaq. But, yeah Shaq is pretty much literally a 1 in 10 billion kind of a guy. And, just like he forever changed basketball he would have done the same thing in handball.

2021 Handball World Championships Betting Review (Part 1): Hunches, Descat and a Humbling Performance

Hugo Descat: Sharp Action’s MVP for the 2021 World Championships.

During the 2021 IHF Handball World Championships, I conducted another daily betting experiment. Joining me this year was Sharp Action, who’s Twitter profile reads, “Former Handball player for HBC Nantes providing expert advice for sport betting.” We both started with a $1,000 bankroll a couple of days after the tournament started. Our bet sizes varied, but the standard “unit bet” was $100. Here’s how our respective bank rolls went up and down on a day to day basis:

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who had a better campaign. I lost a hypothetical $282 while Sharp Action made a tidy profit of $732.69.

Overall, I made 12 bets, winning 4 and losing 8. As most of my bets were less than 50-50 propositions, a .500 betting mark would not have been required to break even. Probably, a winning percentage of .460 or a 6-7 record if I had made 13 bets instead of 12. Regardless, I clearly fell short of that expectation and lost money.

As mentioned, Sharp Action had a phenomenal tournament with several good calls and far fewer misses. His betting W-L record for the tournament was 18-9. Since he tended to bet favorites this record is a bit inflated, but no matter how you slice it’s pretty damn good.

Arguably, his most astute pick and observation was noticing a huge disconnect on the total goals scored props that were being offered for French left wing, Hugo Descat. Descat was sharing a lot of playing time with veteran Michael Guigou and perhaps the bookies didn’t think he would get enough playing time. Or, maybe they did not recognize what an effective and consistent scorer he was. Regardless, Sharp Action saw that they were really underestimating Descat, and “Victor” Hugo came through 3 times for a nice profit of $273. Seriously, seeing how Descat blew right past 2.5 goals each time, after the fact, it looks like taking candy from a baby.

Sharp Action “Victor” Hugo Bets

Humbling Results, but Don’t Feel Sorry for Me

Well, the hypothetical debt is start to pile up. Last year, I participated in a similar experiment and lost $115. This year I did even worse, losing $282. Maybe, I’ve got a gambling problem? Good thing I moved out of Vegas, but maybe not such a good thing that online sports betting is now legal in Colorado?

Rest assured everyone. I didn’t lose my shorts. Let’s just say my typical betting unit is around $10 (not $100), meaning I loss $28.20 for the bets recorded above. And, did I make other bets? Did I by chance, jump on the Sharp Action bandwagon for some of his suggestions I found persuasive? I sure did. I haven’t done a full accounting, but I’m actually on the plus side for the World Championships in real money.

Really, the only thing I’ve lost is my handball expert pride. Because I clearly don’t have anything to back up my would be knowledge. On the contrary, there’s now documented evidence that clearly demonstrates that I don’t know what I’m talking about. And, this leads to the following rhetorical question:

Ever Wonder Why “Experts” Rarely (if Ever) Make Betting Predictions?

Seriously, there’s probably not a more powerful way to demonstrate how much you really know about a sport then to open your wallet and go out and consistently pick winners.

Well, there are a number of reasons why so called experts don’t make predictions. It could be that they have personal morality issues with gambling or simply don’t want to be seen as endorsing something that others have issue with… But, there’s one reason that rises above all others.

  • It’s really hard and there’s a solid chance when all is said and done that they are not going to look like much of an expert.

Yeah, your credibility is at stake. It’s better to just take a pass.

Flensburg 2014

At times like this I will always, always take solace with having been remarkably right once. And, that was when I made my EHF Champions League Final Four predictions prior to the 2013-14 season. I selected all 4 teams that would make it to Cologne and the eventual winner, Flensburg before even a single match had been played. It’s on YouTube and no matter how poorly I screw up forever forward, I will always look back and smile… They can’t take that away from me.

Gloating from 2014: I Heart Flensburg: Link

Preseason Perfection: Documented on YouTube

But, could someone be more consistently win on handball bets by relying less on hunches and more on discipline and predictive models. The answer appears to be yes and I will explore this in more detail in a follow on commentary

USA Men after the 2021 World Championships (Part 1): A Review of What Might have Happened

The U.S. Team training in Denmark. How the U.S. might have fared at the 2021 World Championships.

Summary page of all USA news and commentary related to the 2021 IHF Men’s Handball World Championship: Link

A Missed Benchmarking Opportunity

Participation in a major handball tournament is often a point for further discussion. An opportunity to assess where a program currently stands and where it might be headed. Most definitely, the U.S. Men’s participation in a World Championships for the first time in 20 years would have been such an opportunity. Alas, due to multiple positive COVID test results such benchmarking didn’t get to take place. However, that doesn’t preclude me from providing some informed speculation as to what might have happened.

Projected Team USA Results (Assuming our Full Roster had been Available) 

As someone who has seen almost every match the U.S. has played in the past two years I feel that I’ve a pretty good idea of what they were “capable” of achieving and I was really looking forward to the prospect of Team USA surprising the Handball world. I say “surprising” because the expectations of most people were pretty low based on past results that simply weren’t very relevant anymore. In particular, much was written about how Greenland had performed historically better in North American Championships, but such writeups also neglected to mention that the U.S. roster had recently added several accomplished dual citizens to its roster.

Overall, with these new roster additions, I would assess that the U.S. is roughly comparable now to a 2nd Division German Bundesliga team. A big part of this logic are two of those additions, Ian and Patrick Hueter, who both start for Dormagen, currently in 4th place in that league. If one substitutes the other positions at Dormagen with athletes like Drew Donlin (Leon) and Alex Chan (Cisne) who play in the Liga ASOBAL, Pál Merkovszki who plays in Hungary’s top division (Gyöngyösi KK) and Abou Fofana (Angers SCO) in France’s 2nd division, I essentially see another HBL 2 team, perhaps a bit further down in the standings. Further down because our wings and backups at other positions are playing for lower level clubs in Europe. Still some very capable players, but just a notch lower in talent.

And, while a middle of the pack, 2nd Division Germany team would have had little hope against teams like Norway and France, such a side would have done fine vs many of the teams in the President’s Cup. And, if the U.S. had played really well and gotten some luck, they could have even beat Austria, a side that might be comparable (with their 2 top backcourts missing) to an all star 2nd Division Bundesliga side. I’m not in any way saying such a victory would have happened, just that it wasn’t as crazy a proposition some people thought it was.

For a more detailed analysis of the U.S. 20 man roster check out this previous post: Link

Taking into account the relative strength of the U.S. roster and their would have been opponents here is my assessment of how likely each team would have won a head to head matchup

  • Preliminary Group E
    • USA (10%) vs Austria (90%)
    • USA (<1%) vs Norway (>99%)
    • USA (<1%) vs France (>99%)
  • President’s Group II
    • USA (60%) vs Morocco (40%)
    • USA (15%) vs Chile (85%)
    • USA (75%) vs S Korea (25%)
  • Placement Match (would have been one of the following)
    • For 25th: USA (10%) vs Tunisia (90%) or
    • For 27th: USA (60%) vs DR Congo (40%) or
    • For 29th: USA (40%) vs Angola (60%) or
    • For 31st: USA (win by forfeit) vs Cape Verde

Team USA Results (Assuming our Full Roster had NOT been Available) 

It’s worth noting, that the U.S., according to press reports, briefly considered sending a significantly weaker roster to the World Championships after several players tested positive for COVID-19. This roster would have consisted of 12 players that had tested negative with the addition of 8 more athletes from the provisional roster that hadn’t been at the training camp.

I don’t know the exact composition of who would have been on this revamped roster, but U.S. Head Coach, Robert Hedin, is quoted as saying we didn’t have any defense. That could be interpreted in a number of ways, but I’ll interpret it to mean that it wasn’t clear who our goalkeeper would be and that most of our stable of 6’4″ plus defenders in the middle 4 positions would be unavailable.

While I respect the hard work and effort of all of the athletes on our 35 man provisional roster, there’s a considerable drop off in talent after the first 10 or so players. I would assess that a U.S. team missing several key players would not have won any matches and I suspect some of the losses could have been major blowouts in the 30 goal range. Again, it’s hard to say without seeing exactly who would have been available. But, keep in mind, that most, if not all of the 8 athletes that would have been added had not, due to the pandemic, even played handball for several months. Further, there probably would have been even more positive test results after the team arrived in Egypt that very likely would have resulted in a Cape Verde situation with limited athletes available and an eventual withdrawal from the tournament.

In short, it would have been a very bad look for a U.S. team returning to the world stage. I don’t know how everything was factored into the U.S. decision to withdraw, but this announcement does indicate that the U.S. would have been unable to field a competitive team prior to the first match vs Austria.

The USA Withdrawal Announcement

Benchmarking the USA Team

So, assuming that the U.S. had been able to send a full roster what would have been the overall assessment? Well, this largely becomes an assessment of how the U.S. would have performed in all of their matches. Using the expected win percentages of individual matches above here’s my qualitative assessment of how the U.S. might have fared overall:

  • Spectacular: Upset over Austria or Winning the President’s Cup; Further, surprisingly competitive matches against top teams like France and Norway.
  • Great: 3 wins (S Korea, Morocco and RD Congo) for 27th place
  • Average: 2 wins (S Korea and then either Morocco or Angola) for either 28th or 29th place
  • Disappointing: 1 win (S Korea) and 30th place
  • Disaster: No wins and 31st place only because Cape Verde had forfeited

There are so many variables and circumstances to consider here that it would be an increasingly speculative narrative to guess what might have happened. With that in mind, I’ll benchmark with what I think was the most likely outcome: 2 wins in the President’s Cup.

But narratively, there would have been a lot more to talk about than those 2 wins. I think the U.S. would have first performed respectively in the Preliminary Group, perhaps giving Austria a good match before a run of turnovers put the match out of reach. Against France and Norway there would never have been any doubt as to the outcome, but there would also been sequences of good play where folks watching the match would have said, “These Americans are competing. They’re making France/Norway work a little here.”

In the President’s Cup against teams with similar individual talent levels, there would have been more revelations especially with the U.S. picking up a couple of wins and showing further improvement and cohesiveness as a team.

By the end of the tournament, the consensus of most would be that this was a U.S. team that had shown they could play some real handball. Further, thanks to a relatively young roster and an Olympic Games in 2028, it was a side with strong potential for further improvement.

We’ll Never Know… but there’s a Point to this Speculation

Frustratingly, we’ll never know what would have actually happened. So, you might rightly argue what’s the point of this speculation?

Well, the point is that whether folks realize it or not some major decisions will need to be made in the not too distant future regarding the future direction of the U.S. Men’s National Team Program. These decisions will center around how to make the U.S. team more competitive and how much should be spent to make that happen.

And, what does the U.S. want to officially make happen? Well, according to the USA Team Handball Strategic Plan the U.S. wants to finish in the top 12 at the 2023 World Championships, qualify for the 2024 Olympics and finish in the top 6 at the 2028 Olympic Games: Link

Is that realistic? I’ve got my doubts: Link But, regardless if one is going to plan for the future you really, really need to benchmark where you currently stand first. How else can one even begin to project what “more” is needed if you don’t understand what you have?

It would have been far better to have the definitive benchmark of actual competition, but lacking that informed speculation is the next best thing.

So, it’s not perfect, but we’ve got an idea now of “what we have”. In part 2, I’ll address what’s needed to further improve the U.S. Men’s National Team.

3 Quarterfinals at the Same Time: Big Problem? Not Really. Just Watch 2 of Them on Thursday

Why not watch These 2 Huge Quarterfinals on Thursday. Even with Bonus English Language Commentary from me and Chris O’Reilly.

I haven’t written about “time shifting” in a while, but with 3 quarterfinal matches scheduled for the exact same time… There may never be a better time for handball fans to adopt this viewing strategy.

What’s Time Shifting?

Basically, it’s just a fancy way of saying watching something later instead of live. It’s certainly not rocket science, but honestly I’m a bit puzzled why more folks don’t do it. Basically, all you’re sacrificing is real time social media engagement. And, yes it actually is a bit of a sacrifice when you’re watching a match alone. Reading tweets and IG during the match and at halftime can create a fun “two screen” community experience.

But, with 3 matches all at the same time? It won’t be a two screen experience. No, it will be a 4 screen experience and that any pilot will tell you that is “task saturation.” Honestly, two matches at the same time is impossible for me… At least from a true enjoyment/engagement perspective. I typically end up spending 90% of my time on one match and occasionally glancing at the other during timeouts. Heck, I often even find myself psychologically happy when the other match is a blowout because I can say to myself, “Well, I’m not missing much.” But, tomorrow, I won’t be surprised if all 3 of those late matches are close. Surely, at least two of the three will be.

Don’t Worry. We Got You Covered

So here’s the game plan for the quarterfinals. Watch the 1st match between Denmark and Egypt which is on all by itself and then watch the Sweden-Qatar match live. Both of these will have English language commentary with Paul Bray. In the U.S. you can watch these matches on ESPN+. In the rest of the world you can watch them on the IHF Youtube channel. Depending on where you live though you might need to take some extra measures.

Then after you’ve watched those 2 matches live you can watch Norway-Spain and France-Hungary at your leisure. And, with the semifinals not taking place until Friday, you will have all of Thursday to watch.

Bonus English Language Commentary

As an additional bonus I’ll post some English language commentary for both of those matches. I’m doing the France-Hungary match while ehfTV commentator, Chris O’Reilly will do commentary for Norway-Spain. These commentaries will be on an MP3 file and I will provide instructions on how to synch up the English with the video here: Link

UPDATE: Here are Direct Links to the Video and Audio

  • Spain vs Norway (-1.5) (YouTube)
    • Commentary MP3 with Chris O’Reilly: Full Match MP3
      • 1st Half (Set YouTube Clock to 7:30)
      • 2nd Half (Set YouTube Clock to 1:00:30) (MP3 time: 42:20)
    • Be sure to listen to Chris and the other lads on (Un)Informed Handball Hour
  • France (-2.5) vs Hungary  (YouTube)
    • Commentary MP3 with John Ryan

Social Media Habits Die Hard

Of course, for maximum enjoyment you’ll want to watch oblivious to the final outcome. And, doing so can be real hard…But, just do it. Put down the phone. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

Handball on ESPN+ (A Review at the Halfway Mark)

The current Handball icon at ESPN+. Can somebody out there design a better one?

As we are about halfway through the IHF Men’s Handball World Championships I thought it might be a good time to review the ESPN+ Handball web streaming product.

The Viewing Experience

Overall, the viewing experience has been pretty good, albeit with a few hiccups. For me personally, watching streamed content is pretty much like watching regular TV. Occasionally, I’ll get a little buffering or pixelation, but overall the picture quality is outstanding and better than what I get via YouTube. I’ve been watching via the ESPN+ app on Roku and it’s pretty much like watching Netflix or Amazon Prime for me.

There have been a few glitches with the audio as sometimes the English commentary track has been missing. Usually, just a few minutes at the start of the first match, but on the 19th it went missing the whole day for some reason. I tweeted to @espnfansupport, but perhaps a few more voices were needed to get their attention to fix it.

Finding the matches has also been a bit challenging at times. Most notably, upcoming handball matches don’t show up in the upcoming matches section on the app until maybe 5 minutes prior to the start of the match. This has led to my consternation and to others who would message me “where’s the match?” when there is nothing to see on the ESPN+ app related to handball.

A Disappointing Lack of Promotion (So Far)

As one who’s trumpeted ESPN’s broadcasting of handball as the biggest and most important development in the entire history of team handball in the United States let’s just say that so far the promotion of the sport has been underwhelming. (For an amusing discussion on my expectations and the resigned viewpoint from another longtime follower of the sport (Chris Cappelman) check out this Facebook discussion: Link).

I guess my expectations were directly related to the way ESPN hypes and promotes sports on their very popular social media channels. Most notably, two Sports Center Instagram posts (Link 1 and Link 2) from back in 2017 and 2018 are probably the most viral handball related posts in U.S. history. Simonet’s behind the back shot got 1.2M views and Sigurdsson’s penalty shot punch in got 2.2M views. My logic: Wow, if ESPN was hyping handball when it wasn’t even being shown on ESPN, just imagine what they will do when it’s their content. (Background stories on ESPN posts: Link 1 and Link 2).

Sigurdsson on ESPN’s Instagram Account

And, if one goes back further in time, who can possibly forget the attention that Scott Van Pelt and others paid the sport during the 2012 Olympics: Link

Scott Van Pelt’s “Handball Talk” was a daily feature during the 2012 Olympics

Again, I kind of figured that if ESPN talk radio got excited about handball when it was broadcast on NBC, maybe they would get really excited when it was their own product. At the very least I thought they would talk a little bit about handball while it was simultaneously being broadcast on ESPN+. Interviews with U.S. coaches or players. Maybe some discussion on Gauthier Mvumbi’s viral videos and shout out from Shaquille O’Neal? Instead, I haven’t heard a peep. Heck, at times it feels as if handball was still on beIN Sports.

We’re only half way through the Championship, though, so there’s time for things to pick up. We shouldn’t also forget that the U.S. withdrawal from the tournament was a huge setback. One, that for a short while even had me worried that ESPN wasn’t going to broadcast any matches. It also didn’t help that the NFL playoffs were in full swing. After Sunday’s conference finals there’s a two week lull until the Super Bowl. And, at the same time the World Championships really get going with the Quarterfinals, Semis and the Championships on the 31 when there is no football on TV. Yes, things could definitely pick up.

A Bright Spot: Handball on ESPN+ Long After the World Championships are Over

While I would greatly prefer for the World Championships to be on ESPN’s linear channels where it would reach virtually every home in the U.S. there are some advantages to being on the lower profile, web streaming only, ESPN+.

A Targeted Audience: The first advantage is that this smaller audience is also very, very sports oriented. Or, to put it another way, the type of sports fan who would be more inclined to watch something they maybe have never seen before or perhaps just once or twice during the Olympics several years ago. Further, they are more inclined to become a greater fan of the sport. And, if they are young enough they might even investigate finding out more about possibly playing the sport.

A Home for More Handball Content: This ties to another advantage of ESPN+. Namely, it could become a home for additional handball content. Suppose these new fans want to continue to watch handball. Many of those potential new fans probably think they will have to wait for the next Olympics or World Championships. After all, this is just some game that a P.E. teacher made up. Well, what better way could there possibly be to educate these new fans on the wonders of the EHF Champions League than to put Champions League matches on ESPN+ (ATTN ESPN: Those rights are available) Or, what about adding some U.S. content like our National Team matches or the Collegiate National Championships. Just think what a recruiting tool this could be? Why imagine some intramural all-star at Wake Forest seeing North Carolina playing Virginia in the Collegiate Handball Final Four and instantly thinking, “We could kick those guys asses.”

Forever Content: And, this leads to the final advantage of handball on ESPN+. The fact that streaming services aren’t limited by hours in a day. During the dog days of summer when there’s nothing new on TV, handball could still be on ESPN+ just waiting for someone new to discover. New fans, new player, new sponsors not just during a magical two weeks during the Olympics every four years. But, a trickle coming in at all times of the year. Here’s what that handball sub-channel could look like:

A Better Handball Icon is Needed

It took awhile, but ESPN has finally added handball to its list of sports on the ESPN+ App.

Unfortunately, it’s not the best icon or logo for handball, but just a placeholder. Maybe we can help out ESPN with a better icon. There are several examples from other sports there for comparison. But, this is actually a little bit tricky, for a couple of reasons. One, there is the other handball in the U.S. so that causes confusion. And, then a simple ball drawing could easily result in something that looks like another soccer ball. So, we need something simple that says “our handball.” If anybody out there has got some artistic or design talent… show us what you got.