Monday, September 12, 2005

European Team Handball 101

Here is my attempt (with a little help from Bjoern Brembs) to explain how Team Handball is organized in Europe and how it is different from sports organized in the US. Europeans might be amused and think I’m stating the obvious, but trust me- its taken me 3 years living in Europe to figure all this out. And now I also know why Euros who have moved to the US are conversely just as confused. Here are the key points as I see it:

1) The season is long.

Typically the Handball season runs from September to May. The American concept of rotating seasons (with some overlap) between football, hockey, basketball, and baseball does not apply here. Just about every team sport follows the same yearly schedule. Practices start in August and clubs play friendly matches against other clubs. These friendly matches are either scrimmages or exhibition matches with no real consequence. Essentially, they are an opportunity to gauge the state of the team’s preparation and to see where further work is needed in order to start properly into the season. The season then starts in September and continues with breaks for Xmas and either the World Championships or European Championships in January. The season typically wraps up in May. In June, there usually are some qualifying National Team Games for World’s or European Championships as well. July is typically the vacation month.

2) Games are less frequent. (compared to US indoor sports)

Typically, club teams play 1 game almost every weekend. The exceptions are weekends that have been designated for National Team competition and the Xmas holidays. Teams will also occasionally play a game midweek. In most cases these games are makeup games caused by rescheduling for Champions League or National Cup games.

3) There are multiple opportunities to win a championship

In France, for example, they could have 3 separate champions for 3 different competitions. Each championship has no relation to the other and in many cases are taking place during an overlapping timeframe. Now one would think that it would be simpler and better to have one champion clearly crowned at the end of the season, but that is just my naive American perspective.

Here’s a summary of the French titles. Other countries are organized much the same way.

a) French League championship. Every team plays every other team twice (home and away) from September to May. Winning the Division 1 National League is the most prestigious French Championship.

b) Coup de France: This is a single elimination tournament for all clubs in France. Games for this tournament are schedule and played throughout the season. The early rounds are played between lower division clubs with the higher division clubs receiving byes until the last rounds. The lower ranked team usually gets to host the match, but the difference in talent usually results in the lower division teams getting beat. To my knowledge, no team lower than the second division has ever made it to the semifinals. Most countries also have a similar tournament for soccer, and occasionally a lower division club makes a spectacular run. Soccer, with the possibility of a lucky goal and packing it in on defense, however, is more prone to such miracles.

c) Coup de la Ligue: The top 7 teams and a host club, play a single elimination tourney over 4 days at the end of the season. This was added recently to the French slate.

4) There are Multiple Divisions (1st Division, 2nd Division, 3rd Division, etc)

When I first started playing Handball, I was always confused at the Euros who would typically state their credentials by saying, “I played in the Elbonian 2nd Division for 2 seasons.” Just what exactly does that mean anyway?

In general, the handball leagues in each nation are divided into divisions of increasing quality and professionalism. The structure is also like a pyramid. In France the Divisions are grouped like this

Division 1: 1 League with 14 Teams
Division 2: 1 League with 16 Teams
Division 3: (National Mens 1) 2 Leagues, each with 14 Teams
Division 4: (National Mens 2) 4 Leagues, each with 14 Teams
Division 5: (National Mens 3) 8 Leagues, each with 14 Teams
Division 6: Pre-National
Division 7: Department Excellence
Division 8: Department Honneur

Geography also plays an important role in this hierarchical structure. The top leagues cover the entire country while the lower leagues are increasingly more regional in nature.

5) Leagues are Well Organized at the Lower Levels

The lower leagues usually consist of teams from the same county, city or even neighborhood, depending on the abundance of teams. In this way, there is also a layering of financial investment: teams in lower leagues travel less, need to pay smaller fees for the referees, but also practice less and have less revenue from sponsors and paying spectators. This means that whatever the level a player can play at, he will usually be able to find a team that suits his talent and his willingness to dedicate time and effort.

Incidentally, from my experience the organization of the leagues at the lower levels far exceeds similar city leagues in the US. This is probably another source of confusion for Euros living in the US as they often can’t figure out why US Team Handball competition is so poorly organized. What they don’t realize is that even well established sports like basketball also have limited organization outside of college and high school competition. I’ve played a lot of basketball and the over-35 basketball league I currently play in is easily the most organized that any basketball league I’ve played in since High School.

6) Promotion and Relegation is a key component of the structure

This is probably the most dramatic difference between European and American leagues. Typically in a European league the top 2 teams at the end of the year are promoted to the next higher division and 2-4 teams are relegated to the next lower division. There are many pros and cons to this system that I have observed and read about. Here are some:

- Teams have something to play for besides a Championship title. Quite simply, it’s nice to be a champion, but it’s even better to move up to the bigger league with better competition, larger crowds and at the higher levels significant financial game. Conversely, moving down is something that everyone wants to avoid. The end of the season can also be quite interesting in the “drop zone” as teams try to eke out enough wins to stay in their league. I’ve personally experienced both sides of this system in my “over 35” basketball league in Paris. Trust me you don’t want to drop down a division and play a bunch of weak teams for a whole year- been there, done that. One more lousy win, would have avoided our team dropping down, but we couldn’t get the job done. Disappointing for sure, but the bright side is that our team wasn’t just going through the motions at the end of the season. We were playing games with real meaning to our team.
- Teams don’t have to petition to join the better league, they simply can play their way in. Conversely, the dead weight at the bottom of the standings can easily be removed. Imagine the impact this would have on Major League Baseball. See you later Montreal and Kansas City. Washington DC would simply have had to wait two or three seasons to ascend to the big leagues, rather than beg and bribe a bunch of owners to get a new franchise

- The instability of these leagues results in a case of haves and have nots. Sure you can move up a division, but staying there is going to be tough. Especially, if you don’t have the arena and fan base to compete dollar wise with the perennial top teams. Often what happens is that these “elevator teams” just bounce around back and forth between the two divisions. Instead of a stable environment where every team has a shot (the NFL, for example) relegation tends to create a permanent second class citizenship in the top leagues.

7) Clubs are Independent

In general, each club in Europe is an independent entity. In other words, the concept of “farm teams” owned by the parent club that exists in American Baseball does not apply. In principal, clubs in the higher divisions are seeking to win and get promoted, not to develop new talent for the 1st division. Of course, 1st division teams may “poach” talent from lower division team, but it’s not a simple phone club. Typically a player transfer will require compensation to the parent club depending on the contract the club has with the player.

Top Club programs often have their own youth division programs and strive to develop players in house. They also have 2nd teams, but they typically play in the lower division to give young players experience and to allow injured players to convalesce. There are however, special rules to limit the shuffling of players from the upper team to play in a lower team match in important games.

8) Leagues and National Federations are closely linked

In general, each nation has one tightly linked league structure which is administered by their National Federation. In other words, there are no independent minor leagues like the alphabet soup of American Basketball (USBL, ABA, CBA, NBDL). The lower divisions, are similar in some respects to US minor leagues, but the teams are independent and they can aspire to the top league through the promotion/relegation system. Often the top league has a significant degree of independence in terms of scheduling, administration, TV contracts, etc, but they still work closely with the National Federation. This administration and organisation is much different than the US when one considers the relatively small influence National Federations (USA Basketball, USA Hockey, etc) have in the organisation of major US sports.

9) National Team Competition is more important

Unlike many US professional sports, National Team competition is taken very seriously in Europe. Each sport typically has designated weekends for National Team competition that are coordinated with each nation’s Club competition schedules. In other words, if it’s time for the European Championship, the elite players start practicing with their National Team and everybody else takes it easy for a few weeks. Contrast this to the NBA’s difficulties in getting players to play even at the Olympics, let alone the World Championships or qualifying matches. Europeans, at least L’Equipe anyway, are totally bewildered by this lack of interest.

10) European Club Competitions

The European Handball Federation (EHF) conducts 4 tournaments throughout the season involving club teams from the different nations. Games for these tournaments are scheduled and played throughout the season. These 4 tournaments are:

- The Champion’s League: The highest level championship. This championship consists of each European nation’s regular season champion from the previous year. Additionally, the top nations also get to send their second place team and/or 3rd place team.
- The EHF Cup: This is the 2nd level championship and teams further down in the standings represent their nation
- The Cupwinner’s Cup: This is the 3rd level championship. Teams either send their National Cup winner or their next ranked team.
- The Challenge Cup: This is a developmental championship for the weaker national programs in Europe. (It would be interesting to put the North American Club champion up against this winner.

11) The Champion’s League

How countries are awarded bids: Based on how well each nation’s teams have done in previous years, the IHF assigned slots in each tournament. If the clubs from your nation do well, you get more entries in the Champion’s League. This is evident in that Spain and Germany are the only nations that get 3 spots in the Champion’s League. (Of course, if they really wanted to make it fair there would probably be 6 teams from each of those nations participating in the Champion’s League).

Champion’s League structure: Don’t be misled by the title- this league is really more tournament-like in its organisation. Because every country gets at least one entry the competition starts with 40 teams. The bottom 16 teams are paired off and play a two game playoff (see below for an explanation of this format) to eliminate 8 teams and narrow the field to 32. The teams are then drawn into 8 groups of 4 teams each. Each group then plays a double round robin with the top two teams from each group advancing to a round of 16. These games are played over 6 different weekends and are the only part of the competition that resemble a league. The top 2 teams in each of these groups then advance to a round of 16. This round of 16, and all subsequent rounds, use the ever popular, 2 game playoff format to determine the winner.

The 2 Game Playoff Format: Coming from the land of “best of 7” playoffs, the Super Bowl and the lose one and done NCAA Basketball Tournament, this format takes a little getting used to. Perhaps the simplest way to look at is to think of it as playing one, 120 minute game. Albeit with a week long halftime and a change of venue. If one team wins both games, they, of course, advance. If they split, the team with the better overall goal differential advances. If the goal differential is identical the team that scores more away goals advances. This format, while strange, does have an advantage in that there is no “garbage time” during the first game, because you never know what will happen in the second game. (Read my account of the Montpellier – Flensburg game to get an idea of what can happen; even 14 goals is not a safe victory; Link: )

Champion’s League shortcomings
- The teams participating are last year’s champions. It would be much better to somehow have a tournament with the current year’s champion. With player transfers, the team being rewarded sometimes bear little resemblance to the team won their National League the previous year
- As discussed above, it’s really more of a tournament then a true league.
- Too many weak teams with no real chance of winning are in the tournament. I would rather see more games between the top teams. Of course, it’s also fun to root for the underdog. The reality is, however, the two game format makes it pretty tough to overcome a big gap in talent.

A “Big Picture” Analogy

As one can see from the comparisons above there are a lot of differences between how American sports and European sports are organized. One big picture analogy that I like to use is to compare Team Handball in Europe to NCAA basketball. As most Americans are familiar with NCAA basketball let’s start with that structure and adapt it, as needed, to fit European Team Handball.

Currently there are 300+ NCAA Div 1 basketball schools, playing in 31 conferences. Let’s do away with the NBA and all other minor professional leagues in the US and turn NCAA basketball into a professional sport. (OK, I know some of you are saying it already is a professional sport.) Also, while we are at it, let’s pretend those 31 conferences are actually 31 separate nations, each with their own labor laws. In terms of scheduling, pre-conference games will now be considered exhibition with no meaning whatsoever. Conference games are the principal priority and there are no truncated schedules, everybody plays everybody twice, home and away. The bottom 2 teams in the conference each year are demoted to the local Division 2 conference and the top 2 teams from the Div 2 conference are promoted to the Division 1 conference. There is no longer a post season conference tournament, but a single elimination tournament with Division 1 and Division 2 schools in the local area has been added. These games are played sporadically throughout the season. There is also no March Madness, but the top teams from last year’s standings play in the Champion’s League against schools from the other conferences.

I think you get the idea. To carry this analogy further, one could consider Spain and Germany to be like the ACC and Big Ten conferences. France and Hungary would be “mid-majors” like the Atlantic 10 and Conference USA and Iceland and Slovakia would be the 1 bid conferences in the NCAA tournament. The analogy is far from perfect, but it’s the best I can think of.

If I were King for a Day

There are many things I like about the European system, but it has many shortcomings. The biggest by far is the fact that they have too many leagues and this fractures the growth of the sport. Taken as a whole, Europe economically and population wise is similar to the US. If instead of several rival leagues, one Super (NBA like) League was formed, Team Handball would have a much greater profile than it currently has. The level of play would be higher, attendance would be greater and TV coverage fees would increase substantially. Right now the two top leagues are Germany and Spain. Other countries also have some decent leagues and a couple of teams that can compete with the top German and Spanish teams. The reality is though, is that these leagues have difficulty keeping their top players from jumping ship to the German and Spanish leagues. This is even true for small countries with strong Handball traditions because they simply do not have the population base to support several teams within their own country at the same level as the German and Spanish leagues. They could, however, easily support 1 team on the same level as the top German and Spanish Level clubs.

As I envision it, a Super League would probably have 5 German, 5 Spanish teams, 2 French teams, and 1 each from Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Slovenia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Poland, Czech Republic. While the teams would likely have a preponderance of native players, there would be nothing to prohibit someone from playing on a team in a foreign country. Money talks, but cultural and language ties are also strong. The Oslo Vikings might not be able to pay their world class Norwegian goalie quite as much as the Kiel Sailors, but they would be able to pay a salary close enough to keep him home. As much as I like certain aspects of relegation and promotion, I also would be vary wary of it’s implementation for a Europe wide league. In some countries for instance, the economic reality is that only one city (usually the capital) would be capable of supporting a team at the Super League level. And since I am the King, I would also impose a salary cap and revenue sharing between the clubs. Finally, I would shorten the season and add some playoffs at the end of the season. Perhaps, best of 3 or best of 2 for the format. Additionally, I would schedule these playoffs for March outside of the other sports big championships in May.

Why it probably won’t work. While the US and Europe (taken as a whole) are similar, the simple fact is that Europe, is not a “whole.” One just has to look at some of the difficulties the NBA, MLB, and the NHL have had with simply working the economic differences between Canada and the US. And we are talking about two countries with a great deal in common. The different economies, tax structures and laws in Europe would present even greater challenges.

But there is one recent example of a multi-national league started from scratch: The Super 14 Rugby League (formally the Super 12). The Super 14 has teams in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa and is now generally recognized to be the top rugby league. And the primary reason for its creation was simply to give Rupert Murdoch’s TV empire something to show exclusively.

Rupert are you listening? Have I got a proposition for you.