Saturday, July 30, 2005

Time for an Anglophone Alliance

Question: What do uncompetitive teams at the Olympics and World Championships often have in common?

Answer: In addition to the obvious traits of inexperience, lack of talent, etc., the language they are speaking is often English.

Now in a previous post I pointed out that Team Handball is not the World's second most popular sport. I'll go on record, however, to State that Team Handball is probably the World's most popular sport without any significant representation in the English speaking world. When you think about it, that's a fairly profound fact which has had a number of implications on the sport's world-wide growth.

That's not to say that English isn't spoken in Team Handball circles. I recently saw the live draw (via the web) for the Champions League. The only language spoken was English. Both the IHF and EHF websites are also principally in English as well. Now in terms of "why" the sport hasn't become more popular in the Anglophone world I think it's pretty much a result of the sport not being invented in an Anglophone country and the sports "plate" being too full for the addition of another sport. I certainly don't think there is something inherent with the Anglophone culture that inhibits the sport's growth.

The implications of this sport not having secured a foothold in theEnglish Speaking World are significant. First off, the Anglophone market is a large affluent market. Even if only a very small slice of that market could become interested in watching and playing Team Handball it would add significantly to the current market. The Outreach this market has is also much greater due to the exporting of all things English. Go into any hotel room in a major city world-wide and chances are BBC World and/or CNN are one of your options. But good luck finding a Handball highlight on either station's 30 minute daily World sports show. What the IHF and EHF should realize is that if they want to expand their sport from its core base in Europe it needs to have a greater level of awareness in the English speaking world.

In theory, the Olympics should be the jumpstart to take a program to the next level. Yet this hasn't panned out for the US or Australia. And with London being awarded the Olympics, yet another 3rd tier team (or minnow in UK English) will get to play and likely be clobbered by the World Handball Elites.

And what is the IHF doing to correct this imbalance? Practically nothing from what I can see. One telling anecdote is an exchange between a Wall Street Journal reporter and the French National Coach at the 2004 Olympics:

"At a postgame news conference the other day, to the amusement of the European reporters present, I asked why the U.S. isn't very good at handball. France's head coach, Claude Onesta, answered in perfect, dismissive French: "As far as I am concerned, there are a lot of games at which the United States does not excel.""

Now granted the French National Coach and the amused European reporters do not represent the IHF, but this parochial, mocking perspective isn't growing the sport any. It's almost as if they are happy that Handball is a niche sport in their little corner of the world. It would have been nicer to hear a response like, "It is perplexing; this sport should be a natural for the US. I know that the IHF has ambitious plans for the sports growth. They're working closely with the US and other countries to get this sport broadcast to a world-wide audience."

I've seen words to the effect that the IHF is working to grow the sport. It's time to see more than words, though. It's time for action. Don't dribble a few development dollars to Federations that may or may not spend it wisely. Instead focus your resources to expand the media exposure of this sport in the Anglophone market. Specifically, the IHF and the EHF should make it a top priority to get Team Handball matches aired on TV in the US, UK, Australia and Canada. In the past getting Team Handball on TV was too difficult. Too few stations, too little air time dedicated to sports, and probably poor marketing pitches, prevented Handball from greater exposure and coverage.

Surely, the IHF and EHF have seen the NBA invade Europe successfully. Living in France, I have a dedicated 24 hrs/day NBA channel! Yes, they have basketball in Europe, but the NBA is recognized as the best league and people follow the teams there. Especially, when a native son like Tony Parker plays. The NBA has been extremely shrewd in this development. If the EHF had half a brain they would at least attempt to do the same thing on a smaller scale.

The 2004 Olympics with the expanded coverage in the US was the first sign of what could happen. More channels and broadband makes it even more feasible today for Handball to make it on the schedule. Today, good quality TV broadcasts of Team Handball are being shown regularly throughout Europe. All that's principally needed is quality English commentary and a decent marketing pitch. And maybe Eurosport 2 is doing the English already. The marketing pitch is where the IHF and EHF come in. They should develop a slick marketing package with an EHF game of the weekand then aggressively knock on doors in the US to get it shown on TV. Heck, even pay to have it broadcast the first couple of years if you have to. The Return on investment could eventually be huge-- ask the NBA.

So where does the Anglophone Alliance come in? Instead of one nation making this case to the IHF/EHF, get together and speak as one bloc. The US, UK, Canada and Australia together are small potatoes when it comes to Handball, but in terms of national markets they are huge. Heck, I would even consider putting India into the mix as Handball is more popular in this country then you might think. What the Anglophone Alliance should do is send a joint letter signed by all of their Federation Presidents to the IHF/EHF asking for their assistance indeveloping and marketing English language broadcasts of Team Handball in their nations. The letter could highlight the 2012 award to London and the need to expand the sports awareness. Then follow it up with phone calls and office visits.

This is a no-brainer win-win situation that just needs a push and some organisations with vision.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Just How Popular is Team Handball?

I am frequently amused, and also sympathetic, to various rants I have seen or heard related to lack of Team Handball broadcasts on TV. Usually, these rants are along the lines of “If I see one more showing of (insert obscure sport here) I’m going to flip out. Don’t they know that the rest of the world loves Handball?

Well, while I concur that Curling is not a sport and the World’s Strongest Man is a silly, albeit strangely compelling competition, the sad fact is, is that those sports have a greater following in the United States. In fact, depending on how you want to define a sport’s popularity, Team Handball is down in the pecking order in the rest of the world as well. An oft-quoted comment is that Team Handball is the world’s second most popular sport after, of course, soccer. I’m not the first person to see that quote and think, “Oh really.” The folks at this website
even tried to quantify sport popularity. Of course, as they discovered, this is not a simple task and it depends on what metrics you use.

The IOC even spent more time and energy to produce the following report:
Based on the metrics used in the report, which while not perfect, are quantifiable, it’s hard to make a case for a very high number for handball on simply the Olympics Sports Program. Team Handball did survive the axe, so at least we know 150 IOC delegates think it’s better than Baseball and Softball.

My own perspective is that there are a few countries in the world, mostly in Europe, where Team Handball has a significant level of popularity. But even this popularity in Europe has to be viewed in the context of a comparatively speaking, more diverse sports scene. I will not try to measure the sport's popularity on an entire continent, but I do feel that I can speak with some authority on France, now that I’ve lived here 3 years.

Handball in France certainly has a significant level of popularity here and the National Teams have enjoyed success in the past few years including both men’s and women’s World Championships. That being said, it’s clear to me that Handball is behind Soccer, Rugby, and Basketball in terms of popularity. And just a notch above volleyball. This is based on newspaper coverage, television coverage, match attendance, and participation. And I’m not even considering sports such as Tennis, Formula 1, motorcycle racing, rally racing, bicycling and petanque. When you put into context that France has the 3rd most developed Professional League, after Germany and Spain, and consistently top notch National Teams what does that say about a sports overall popularity?

Well, I think it can be safely said that it’s not the world’s 2nd most popular sport. What would be more accurate is to say that Team Handball is a dynamic sport with a significant hard core dedicated fan base in many European and North African countries. Which, when you think about it, that really isn’t too bad of a thing to say. Now if we could just expand that to include North America we could get a little more TV coverage. Or does the TV coverage have to come first?

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Congratulations British Handball

Well with London's surprise victory a couple of days ago, the UK has qualified for the 2012 Olympics. Out of curiousity, I decided to do an internet search on Handball in the UK. My only knowledge prior to this search was playing against a Scottish club team at West Point a few years ago. Talking to some of their players afterwards, I was under the impression that the sport's popularity in the UK was similar to the US.

Here are a few interesting factoids on UK Handball

- Both Scotland and England have their own federation. In fact, depending on the sport England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland either have their own National team or play together under the UK or British banner. It looks like they will be combining teams for the Olympics as there is a letter on London 2012 that is signed out by the British Handball Association, vice England Handball. Since it's Britain instead of the UK, I would guess that means you're out of luck if you're from Northern Ireland.

- The sport is a little more developed there than I thought. If you look at their websites you'll see they have fairly organized leagues. More than what we have in the US.

- They sent a youth team to a tournament in Malta and ended up playing the US twice. The write-up talks about the US-UK games. (Heck, I didn't even know that a US team had gone to Malta for a tournament. How come that wasn't put on the USA Website?) The writeup mentions that US coach, Darrick Heath was outcoached in the semifinal showdown that theUS lost, 21-10. They did give Darrick kudos as the most successful US player, though. (The document can be read on the England website under documents- EnglandreportMalta)

It should be interesting to see the path they take in terms of development over the next 7 years. Here's hoping that we can join them in London as the PanAmerican Representative.