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

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

Retrospective

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

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

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

The New Reboot

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

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

Bottom Lines… Up Front

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

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

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

Picking Winners and Losers

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

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

Subject to Revision

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

Yet Another Reboot (2024)

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

The Original Series (2014)

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

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

The First Reboot (2019)

Introduction: Link

What We Have

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

What We Want to Be

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

How We Get There

  • Part 1: The Project Management Triangle: Link
  • Part 2: National Team Targets: Link
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USA Handball Talk (Episode 10): Hueter Goes to Hamm

On the podcast we discuss the following topics:

  • USA National Team player Ian Hueter’s move to ASV Hamm-Westfalen next season: Link
    • Hueter Brother’s interview from 2021: Link
  • USA GK Billy Kessler interview: Link (I don’t think he ever played in the HBL)
  • A tangent on the HBL from my 1993 education:
    • “Coach, what’s the Bundesliga?” Link
    • Video of Finland’s Michael Kallman in action (watch a minute: You’ll see a 2 minute call followed by the exact same jump shot that caught me woefully unprepared): Link
  • A couple of high level players, reportedly with USA citizenship
  • Video of NYC Handball’s Togba Aboubacar in action at the Samala Cup this past December: Link
  • More discussion on U.S. competition structures
    • Upcoming Carolina Blue Cup: Instagram
    • Should handball in the USA have a shorter “season” similar to other U.S. sports? (instead of the long European season model that over time has gradually been adopted)
    • List of U.S. urban areas by population: Link (Very highly correlated with existing U.S. Handball clubs)
  • Our new and likely recurring topic assessing how good athletes from other sports would be if they played handball. First up: Serbian and Denver Nuggets basketball player, Nikola Jokic
    • JD’s brief discussion with Barstool’s PFT commenter on Jokic: Link

Watch on YouTube or listen/download the mp3 file at the top of the page

If you have any suggestions for future topics, a title for our podcast or have some intro music you would like us to consider please let us know on social media.


Don’t miss an episode:

  • Subscribe on YouTube: Link (Earliest Availability)
  • Subscribe to the podcast in iTunes: Link
  • Follow the Team Handball News podcast on Spotify: Link
  • Or use this RSS Feed to sign up for the podcast in your favorite podcast aggregator: Link

And, be sure to check out the podcast archive with interviews and great handball discussion going all the way back to 2006: Link

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USA Team Captain, Ian Hueter, Moving to New Club this Summer

USA National Team Captain, Ian Hueter, will have a new club starting next season. Hueter, 26, who has been with TSV Bayern Dormagen since he was 10 years old recently signed a two year contract with ASV Hamm-Westfalen. Both clubs are in the Handball Bundesliga 2nd Division (HBL 2), but Hamm is currently in 3rd place and in a tight battle for promotion to the HBL. Here are some quotes from German news sources:

Ian Hueter:

  • On leaving Dormagen: “It wasn’t an easy decision. After all, TSV is something like a family for me. Until the end of the season I will give TSV my full commitment. I hope to be playing again soon and to contribute to our big goal of staying in the league,” (Hueter is currently injured with a pulled hamstring)
  • On potentially playing in the HBL next season if ASV Hamm is promoted: “That is, of course, a goal of mine. ASV is welcome to win all games, just not against Dormagen.”

TSV General Manager, Björn Barthel: “The fact that Ian is looking for a new challenge outside of Dormagen at the age of 26 is a shame for us as a club, but it is certainly understandable. We would like to thank him for his many years and hope that together we can avoid relegation so that we can say goodbye to Ian with a good feeling.”

ASV General Manager, Guido Heerstraß: “With Ian we are getting one of the top center backs in the 2nd Handball Bundesliga with leadership qualities,”

In 2021, I interviewed Ian and Patrick Hueter and one of the questions I asked was regarding the prospects of either of them playing in the HBL. Here’s that interview queued up to that discussion

Sources: TSV Bayern Dormagen, ASV Hamm-Westfalen, HBL

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USA Handball Talk (Episode 8) The British are Coming. The British are Coming

Stephen Neilson, the Chair of British Handball joins the podcast to discuss the Great Britain – Kosovo Euro 2026 Qualification match played in Derby, England on 13 January.

We take a deep dive into what was probably the best ever handball match atmosphere and presentation in a “non-traditional” handball nation. We discuss the crowd, venue, organization, logistics, finances and British Handball’s future plans to stage matches like that again.

Watch on YouTube or listen/download the mp3 file at the top of the page

If you have any suggestions for future topics, a title for our podcast or have some intro music you would like us to consider please let us know on social media.


Don’t miss an episode:

  • Subscribe on YouTube: Link (Earliest Availability)
  • Subscribe to the podcast in iTunes: Link
  • Follow the Team Handball News podcast on Spotify: Link
  • Or use this RSS Feed to sign up for the podcast in your favorite podcast aggregator: Link

And, be sure to check out the podcast archive with interviews and great handball discussion goi

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USA Handball Talk (Episode 7): The Standard is the Standard

On this week’s episode we discuss what standards USA Team Handball athletes, administrators and board members are required or perhaps, should be obliged to follow. What’s appropriate in one’s private life and what’s appropriate in an official capacity? And, is it possible to entirely separate the two in a world where one’s thoughts and actions are amplified by social media? Here’s a rundown of the show and some links to the topics we discussed.

  • Pittsburgh Steeler’s Head Coach, Mike Tomlin’s “The Standard is the Standard” philosophy: Link
  • San Antonio Spurs Head Coach, Gregg Poppovich on standing during the national anthem: Link
  • USA Team Handball’s Code of Conduct Policy: Link (Note: I think there was once a separate, more athlete specific code that had to be signed as part of team selection, but I could be wrong.)
  • Towards the end we discuss a potpourri of topics to include:
    • Discussing handball outside our handball sphere and the “shade” often thrown our way
    • Relatives never really fully understanding what handball we play
    • My discussion with CalHeat’s Martin Bilello on youth handball challenges
    • The need to define objectives and establish metrics for handball initiatives… so one can then better assess what consitutes success or failure

Watch on YouTube or listen/download the mp3 file at the top of the page

If you have any suggestions for future topics, a title for our podcast or have some intro music you would like us to consider please let us know on social media.


Don’t miss an episode:

  • Subscribe on YouTube: Link (Earliest Availability)
  • Subscribe to the podcast in iTunes: Link
  • Follow the Team Handball News podcast on Spotify: Link
  • Or use this RSS Feed to sign up for the podcast in your favorite podcast aggregator: Link

And, be sure to check out the podcast archive with interviews and great handball discussion going all the way back to 2006: Link

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USA Handball Talk (Episode 6): Far, Far, Faraway Island

On this week’s episode we discuss two handball miracles: The remarkable showing of the Faroe Islands (population 52K) at the European Championships and the great handball atmosphere at the Great Britain-Kosovo Euro 2026 qualification match in Derby, England. Here’s a rundown of the show and some links to the topics we discussed.

  • Faroe Island’s Men’s National Team (Wikipedia): Link
  • John’s “Iceland Strategy” commentaries: (Part 1Part 2)
  • (Un)Informed Handball Hour podcast on the Faroe Islands: Link
  • John’s commentary that compares the Faroe Island’s challenges with the current US team (which is sort of like a geographically dispersed Faroe Islands): Link
  • The Final Season (a movie about Norway, Iowa’s baseball team): Link
  • Jóhan Hansen: Right Wing from the the Faroe Islands that now plays Denmark: Link
  • ehfTV video of the Great Britain – Kosovo match: Link
  • Daily Oklahoman article about Chris Havlicek trying out for handball mentions the USA – Brazil match and the USA women playing Iceland in 1996: Link
  • Article on the USA – Drammen match that was part of the USA Men’s training camp in Norway: Link
Watch on YouTube or listen/download the mp3 file at the top of the page

If you have any suggestions for future topics, a title for our podcast or have some intro music you would like us to consider please let us know on social media.

Don’t miss an episode:

  • Subscribe on YouTube: Link (Earliest Availability)
  • Subscribe to the podcast in iTunes: Link
  • Follow the Team Handball News podcast on Spotify: Link
  • Or use this RSS Feed to sign up for the podcast in your favorite podcast aggregator: Link

And, be sure to check out the podcast archive with interviews and great handball discussion going all the way back to 2006: Link

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USA Handball Talk (Episode 5): Handball Tryout… or Try Out Handball?

On this week’s episode we discuss handball tryouts and the complications that result from two very different cohorts: Stateside and and Overseas athletes. The catalyst for the discussion was this USA Team Handball Tweet and the reply it elicited from former USA Jr National Team athlete, Aaron Hamm:

Here’s a summary of the topics we discussed:

  • Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for handball. For what it’s worth my most recent Google search has the USA Team Handball website ranking 3rd for “team handball and 12th for “handball”
  • Here’s a 3 part series that John wrote in 2019 on handball dual citizens:
    • 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 (Note: this commentary contains some discussion on the Faroe Islands)
  • USA Team Handball Facebook post on the recently conducted tryout in Los Angeles: Link
  • The MLB “all comers” tryout scene from the movie, The Rookie: LInk
  • JD’s Jr National Team tryout and John’s Olympic Festival tryout in 1987
  • The lack of an intermediate stepping stone between clubs and the national team and how the good deals from the IHF might unintentionally be hindering such a development
  • How the U.S. handball development “pyramid” is actually a “tower”

And, here’s a couple of bonus commentaries on youth development

  • A commentary on the Tower/Pyramid: Link
  • Analysis of 2017 Youth and Jr teams (you’ll see some familiar names and some names that have moved on…): Link

Watch or listen/download the mp3 file at the top of the page

If you have any suggestions for future topics, a title for our podcast or have some intro music you would like us to consider please let us know on social media.


Don’t miss an episode:

  • Subscribe on YouTube: Link (Earliest Availability)
  • Subscribe to the podcast in iTunes: Link
  • Follow the Team Handball News podcast on Spotify: Link
  • Or use this RSS Feed to sign up for the podcast in your favorite podcast aggregator: Link

And, be sure to check out the podcast archive with interviews and great handball discussion going all the way back to 2006: Link

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USA Handball Talk (Episode 4): New Year… and Same Old Handball

It’s a New Year and the more things change… the more they stay the same. Here’s a rundown of the topics discussed:

  • The upcoming Men’s European Championships and the record setting crowd planned for the opening matches in Düsseldorf. It was Andy Schmid who was not a fan of handball in football stadiums: Link
  • How Ohio State’s starting QB’s transferring to Syracuse might correlate contextually to the U.S. Women’s national team (News article on the topic: Link)
  • The USA Team Handball Board Meeting Minutes drop: Link
    • The minutes from September reference a dialogue with the Handball Development Center in Dallas: “Mr. Branick had started to establish a dialogue with the Texas project leadership to determine how a partnership may evolve and impact the efforts to develop the women’s National team.
  • Why handball promotion is important and the USA Team Handball Working Group that will address ways to better promote Handball during the 2024 Olympics
  • The podcast with Joey Williams of Detroit where we discussed handball promotion: Link
  • The possibility of a handball demonstration in conjunction with the NBA All Star Game in Indianapolis
  • The EHF promotion process and the video that was shared in real time:
  • The Samala Cup played this past December and John’s view that it’s high time to rethink the concept of the “weekend tournament.” (Tentatively, the topic for our next podcast)

Watch or listen/download the mp3 file at the top of the page

If you have any suggestions for future topics, a title for our podcast or have some intro music you would like us to consider please let us know on social media.


Don’t miss an episode:

  • Subscribe on YouTube: Link (Earliest Availability)
  • Subscribe to the podcast in iTunes: Link
  • Follow the Team Handball News podcast on Spotify: Link
  • Or use this RSS Feed to sign up for the podcast in your favorite podcast aggregator: Link

And, be sure to check out the podcast archive with interviews and great handball discussion going all the way back to 2006: Link

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USA Handball Talk (Episode 3): Boxing Around the Handball Drama

It’s a Boxing Day edition of USA Handball Talk and we take a deeper dive into the challenges the U.S. Women’s program faces. Discussion points include:

  • Why it will be tough for the U.S. Women to duplicate the success of the current U.S. Men’s team
  • Why there isn’t time now for a grass roots solution
  • Three different paths forward for the U.S. Women
  • The need for USA Team Handball to make a decision on the path forward
  • Why a decision to focus on transfer talent athletes will require a lot of planning
  • Why a transfer talent focus will need credibility and quality to successfully recruit athletes
  • Could a reality show documentary simultaneously fund a talent transfer program and provide great promotion?

We didn’t solve anything, but there was lots of great discussion and we addressed a lot of issues. Let us know if we missed any key issues that you would like to see us address.

Watch or listen/download the mp3 file at the top of the page

If you have any suggestions for future topics, a title for our podcast or have some intro music you would like us to consider please let us know on social media.


Don’t miss an episode:

  • Subscribe on YouTube: Link (Earliest Availability)
  • Subscribe to the podcast in iTunes: Link
  • Follow the Team Handball News podcast on Spotify: Link
  • Or use this RSS Feed to sign up for the podcast in your favorite podcast aggregator: Link

And, be sure to check out the podcast archive with interviews and great handball discussion going all the way back to 2006: Link

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

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

Decision Making Processes

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

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

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

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

Inaction, the De Facto Course of Action?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intervention is Coming… Sooner or Later

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

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

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

I Vote Sooner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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USA Handball Talk (Episode 2): John… I think I’m having a moment

This week’s topics:

  • 1996 Handball Olympian, Denny Fercho suffered a massive stroke a year ago and is making great progress with his recovery. Please consider a donation to help with his medical and therapy bills at this Go Fund Me Campaign: Link
  • A very brief recap of this past weekend’s IHandball Tryout and the Samala Cup
  • A review of the 2023 Jr Women IHF Trophy/NORCA Championship
    • Video of the USA-Mexico Match: Link
  • A recap of the 2023 IHF Women’s Handball Championships
  • A discussion on the current state of the USA Women talent pool, how it will likely change as we get closer to the 2028 Olympics, and the apparent lack of a plan to take that future fully into consideration

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Every Athlete has a Ceiling: Here was Mine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every Athlete has a Ceiling: Here was Mine

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

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

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

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

Small Talent Pools and How they Warp Athlete Ceilings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The SF CalHeat 2023 IHF Super Globe Roster

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

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

Takeaways

Here are some takeaways from this roster

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

Minimal Promotional Value and Unintended Consequences

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

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

Addressing Mercenary Teams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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