A Handball Nation with a Basketball Problem

Why isn't the US better at a sport it should so clearly be dominating?
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Photo courtesy of www.denverhandball.org

Anyone would watch a sport whose best players explode through a gap like Arian Foster, launch themselves through the air like Russell Westbrook and throw a ball like Cole Hamels. Right?

Meet team handball, the best sport you’ve never heard of. It’s a six-on-six team game that’s incredibly popular throughout much of Europe. It’s fast-paced, high-scoring, hard-hitting and played by some terrific athletes. It’s ripe to conquer America, as it has every single attribute we love in our team sports. And America is ripe to conquer team handball, since our best athletes were made to dominate the sport.

Yet team handball has absolutely no stateside following. Only about 500 people here follow the sport with any seriousness, according to TeamHandballNews.com editor John Ryan. At best, when Americans hear the word handball, they probably associate it with the New York playground game likely captured in some Lou Reed deep cut.

“[Team handball] has a combination of skills we see in our most popular sports. People have expected this sport to blow up in the US,” said Dave Gascon, the interim general manager of USA Team Handball, the governing body of the sport in America.

(On top of his involvement in USA Team Handball, Gascon is the answer to an interesting trivia question. While working for the Los Angeles Police Department, Gascon announced O.J. Simpson’s arrest warrant which proceeded the infamous car chase.)

But instead, the US Men’s National Team just lost to Greenland in this year’s 2012 Pan-American Games. Sadly, it wasn’t too much of a shocker as the US team lost to The Polar Teddy Bears in 2006. How the hell did an American team in any sport lose to Greenland? And what will it take for us to ensure that American team handball doesn’t lose to Greenland ever again?

How team handball got to this point is a tale of the severe dysfunction that ensues when a small group of people fight over a smidgen of power. The story of how to get out of this hole has yet to be written, but there are a few people who have some ideas.

***

The US men’s and women’s handball teams have combined for a mere eight wins since 1972, the year team handball was reintroduced in the Olympics. (It made a brief appearance in the 1930s.) The best finish the men have made was 9th while the women captured 4th place in 1984. Those finishes are fairly respectable when you consider handball’s obscurity.

But neither team has qualified for the Olympics since the 1996 Atlanta Games, where they both automatically qualified as the host nation. Since then, the US has fallen so off the map that they’re regularly beaten by a country with a population roughly the size of a Pennsylvania suburb that’s technically a colony of Denmark.

There are two reasons for this.

The first comes from national funding. The US Olympic Committee is the primary backer of Olympic sports without many local professional outlets—everything from popular competitions like track-and-field and gymnastics to events like badminton and modern pentathlon.

The USOC, however, doesn’t run these sports. Each sport has its own national governing body (NGB) which oversees its operations. For years, the USOC supported less popular sports largely because America had no real challengers. But China’s economic rise also fertilized its national athletics along with its geopolitical clout.

America’s international pissing contest with China came to a head in the Beijing Games. The USOC shifted its attention—i.e., cut the funding—away from sports like team handball, where we had no chance of earning one lone medal. But many Olympic sports—shooting, archery, etc—are individual events which offer medals based on distance and type of equipment. It’s playing the margins—the US is fairly competitive in these sports and is more likely to pick up a few medals.

“Team sports got devalued and the USOC started to tie funding to performance,” said John Ryan, the editor of TeamHandballNews.com, the go-to source for any and all people in the US interested in the sport. “That’s the biggest factor which caused us to become weaker.”

The second is—to be frank— that no one who ran USA Team Handball for most of its history knew what the fuck they were doing.

Ryan says there are probably somewhere between 300 and 500 people in the US who care at all about the sport. And all of those people have seemingly at some point served on the NGBs board of directors. And very few of these people liked each other.

Foreign-born board members thought they had the experience to organize the sport. American-born members resented this. Some former players thought they knew the best ways to grow the sport. Others wanted to find outsiders with business and marketing experience. Some board members balked on doing the dirty work of fundraising but were the first ones to raise their hands to take a free flight to Germany to watch an international tournament. There were board room coups. There were controversial reformists who quickly alienated the old guard. There was an old guard that was solely looking out for its fiefdom.

Instead of attempting to find ways to grow the sport and become internationally competitive, the board looked to serve its own interests. At the same time, funding was slowly going down.

The USOC finally intervened in 2006 and decertified the team handball NGB and took over the sport’s operations.

“What you have to understand about these NGBs, the smaller the sport, the more inefficient they are and the harder it is to break them down. They become a total cash cow,” said Bogdon Pasat, a Romanian-born Houstonian who is considered a firebrand in the US Team Handball community. “It beomes a game of whose ass you kiss and how much you cater to their needs. It’s a good-old-boy network.”

This sounds oddly, and unfortunately, like much of the American education system. Cities with struggling students deal with boards of educations more concerned with political interests than doing what’s best to help their children. They do so with ever decreasing amounts of funding. In many cases, school boards and city governments end up taken over by distant state governments.

After a year of managing team handball’s affairs, the USOC sought a new NGB to run the sport. The new president was Dieter Esch, a German fashion modeling agency magnate, who appointed a Major League Soccer executive to serve as his GM. They left in 2011, a year before their terms ended, with the new USA Team Handball embroiled in debt, its accounting measures heavily criticized by independent auditors and its staffing reduced to a bare-bones level.

USA Team Handball selected Jeff Etz, an insurance industry executive, from the board as its new president. He and Gascon worked quickly to get the NGB’s accounting house in order. They’re out of debt. A new full-time GM (likely from Europe) will be appointed soon.

But don’t look for funding to increase anytime soon. The USOC, like everyone else, has hit hard times after the post-Lehman Brothers sub-prime abyss. It’s also not likely to increase funding to a NGB with a history of not doing what it’s supposed to do.

But it’s hoped the bad times have ended. The dark days of petty machinations and politicking have seemingly come to an end. Essentially, USA Team Handball is a blank slate. A poorly funded blank slate, but a sport that’s starting over.

So, what next?

***

Dave Gascon discovered the sport through his daughter, Sarah—an accomplished woman’s baseball (yes, that exists) and volleyball player. But with baseball and softball eliminated from The Olympics, that eliminated that avenue for Olympic glory. And while a terrific volleyball player, she was on the fringe of making the national team.

But USA Team Handball representatives were at the volleyball trials. They showed a video of the sport. Sarah gave it a try and fell for it immediately. She’s now on the US Woman’s team.

National team players almost all share a similar story. They come to the sport from other sports, usually after college, usually at the age of 21 and 22.

(True story, hopefully: Ryan says it’s rumored that NBA great Shawn Kemp once inquired about playing handball for the 1996 Olympic Team. After much deliberation, team handball officials told him he’d have to try out for the sport. No one ever heard from him again.)

Every sport has its own nuances to learn; team handball is no different. For instance, team handball players can advance the ball by dribbling, but the dribbling rules are completely different than basketball dribbling. Team handball experts say it takes newbies about five years to become experienced enough to learn the subtle things to become an elite-level player.

But, by that time, most US players are in their late-20s and are now approaching their athletic decline. They’re also now entering the age where trying for fleeting Olympic glory becomes less of a priority and settling down and starting a family all of sudden makes sense.

USA Team Handball officials all understand that it has to draw from a larger pool of players at a younger age in order to field a competitive team. But how to do just—with extremely limited resources— is the question at hand.

Some folks would like to start trying to grab players just a bit younger. For instance, a basketball player on the non-scholarship D-3 level might instead be interested in playing for a national team. If a few colleges could be lobbied to start teams, and the NCAA sanctions the sport, perhaps players would take up a new sport in order to earn a scholarship. But that’s many, many meetings with athletic departments and college bureaucrats away from even becoming a pipe dream.

But others want to get potential players hooked younger. Team handball is an ideal sport for American gym classes. It’s cheap and easy to store—it requires two nets and a ball. It’s also easier for children to play than a height-dependent sport like basketball. Some school districts around the country have already incorporated team handball into their elementary school athletic programs and a few YMCA’s also sponsor youth clubs.

But, as soccer in this country showed, it takes time for a grass roots effort to blossom. It wasn’t until the mid-nineties when the US men’s soccer team became a viable enterprise. Even now, the US men’s team looms formidably near dark-horse status in international soccer.

With limited money and so few people spreading the handball gospel, the current NGB administration faces some tough choices ahead. But at least the organizational structure to make tough choices without causing furious e-mail chains seems in place. The USOC also looks like it will bid for the 2024 Olympics. If America gets these games, then the US automatically is entered.

With some good planning and some lucky breaks, maybe a few people in the US will develop into quality players. And then one of the US teams could go on a “Do You Believe In Miracles?” type run in the tournament, with these games broadcast live in American prime time. Maybe, just maybe, America could develop a fever for a sport they should already embrace.

Now if they can only get past Greenland first.


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