A Handball Nation with a Basketball Problem

Why isn't the US better at a sport it should so clearly be dominating?
Share |

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.


Share |

Comments

Your site is truly cool and this is an awesome motivating article. Much thanks to you to such an extent. Tax Investigation Self Assessment

Much thanks to you so much Love your web journal.. Tax Investigation Specialists

I truly delighted in perusing this post, enormous fan. Keep doing awesome me when would you be able to distribute more articles or where would I be able to peruse more on the subject? Tax Investigation Advisors

I real glad to find this web site on bing, just what I was searching for : D likewise saved to bookmarks . AquaCal Dealer Bradenton Fl

You make such a large number of extraordinary focuses here that I read your article two or three times. Your perspectives are as per my own generally. This is extraordinary substance for your perusers. Tax Investigation Accountants

I enjoy styles own personal blog post. It's good quality to look for an individual express during key phrases of this heart and chastity during this selected important specialized niche shall be immediately suffered. cryptojobs

Much obliged for setting aside an ideal opportunity to examine this, I feel unequivocally that affection and read more on this theme. On the off chance that conceivable, for example, pick up learning, would you mind overhauling your site with extra data? It is extremely valuable for me. limo services los angeles

It's really nice and meanful. it's really cool blog. Linking is very useful thing.you have really helped lots of people who visit blog and provide them usefull information. Classic Rock Cover Band Colorado

You should all material. It is always terrific to run you can expect to express during key phrases with quotes for depression centre in addition to picture quality through this worthwhile material is only established.

I have perused your article, it is exceptionally instructive and accommodating for me.I respect the important data you offer in your articles. A debt of gratitude is in order for posting it.. Thankyou

I likewise conceive thus, perfectly written post! . ads30 blog comments

Howdy! Pleasant stuff, do update me as often as possible when you post again something like this! Tax Investigation Self Employed

That is some inspirational stuff. Never knew that opinions could be this varied. poker online

Exceptionally helpful data. Would like to see more posts soon!. Tax Investigation Specialists

It’s nice to definitely arrive a website the location where the blogger is skilled. Thank you for creating your website. Palmetto FL Pool Service

It’s nice to definitely arrive a website the location where the blogger is skilled. Thank you for creating your website. Palmetto FL Pool Service

This is such an awesome asset, to the point that you are giving and you give it away for nothing. I cherish seeing blog that comprehend the worth. Im happy to have discovered this post as its such a fascinating one! I am dependably watchful for quality posts and articles so i assume im fortunate to have discovered this! I trust you will be including more later on... https://qrius.com/

a debt of gratitude is in order for the tips and information..i truly welcome it.. Tax Investigation Self Assessment

Unique variations of dissertation internet websites on-line for quite some time equally experience simply alleged into your ınternet site. GE Monogram refrigerator repair

A great website with interesting and unique material what else would you need. zein kurdi

Awesome Information sharing .. I am extremely upbeat to peruse this article .. a debt of gratitude is in order for giving us experience info.Fantastic pleasant. I value this post. satta matka

Love what you're doing here folks, keep it up!.. Tax Investigation Advisors

I must say, as a lot as I enjoyed reading what you had to say, I couldnt help but lose interest after a while. Its as if you had a wonderful grasp on the subject matter, but you forgot to include your readers. Perhaps you should think about this from far more than one angle. Or maybe you shouldnt generalise so considerably. Its better if you think about what others may have to say instead of just going for a gut reaction to the subject. Think about adjusting your own believed process and giving others who may read this the benefit of the doubt. voyance telephone

Usually there are some dissertation sites making use of the website whenever you develop into in plain english reported in the site. half scale bowling

Cool stuff you have and you keep overhaul every one of us. Tax Investigation Accountants

if this post was likened to a flavor of yogurt, what flavor would it be? Banana, I think. sattamatka

Immediately this specific website may possibly irrefutably turn out celebrated involving every single producing a lot of people, as a consequence of careful content along with testimonials along with evaluations. https://www.punkt.ch/en/products/es01-extension-socket/

These are some extraordinary devices that i unquestionably use for SEO work. This is an awesome rundown to use later on.. Tax on Buy to Let Property

Blogs ou should be reading… [...]Here is a Great Blog You Might Find Interesting that we Encourage You[...]…… babykidshq

Found this on MSN and I’m happy I did. Well written article. Parrish Outdoor Kitchens

When visiting blogs, i usually discover a very good content like yours Palmetto Outdoor Kitchens

When visiting blogs, i usually discover a very good content like yours Palmetto Outdoor Kitchens

Your articles don’t beat around the bushes exact t to the point. poker online

I truly adored perusing your web journal. It was extremely all around composed and straightforward. Not at all like different online journals I have perused which are truly not that good.Thanks alot! Best Forex Robots

I think this is an instructive post and it is extremely helpful and learned. thusly, I might want to thank you for the endeavors you have made in composing this article. vigour

Eminently composed article, if just all bloggers offered the same substance as you, the web would be an obviously better place..

Greetings, I find perusing this article a delight. It is to a great degree supportive and fascinating and all that much anticipating perusing a greater amount of your work.. satta

You are a very persuasive writer. I can see this in your article. You have a way of writing compelling information that sparks much interest. Palmetto Pool Heaters

wireless headphones are the best because they do not have those bulky wires~ Parrish Pool Service

That's a great position you folks have been carrying out there. clean eating

Admiring the time and effort you put into your blog and detailed information you offer! Haas Umzug Olten

Wow! I’m genuinely enjoying this template-style for the website. It is very simple, yet effective. Very often it’s very difficult to obtain the ideal between superb usability as well as visual appeal. I actually may state that you’ve done a excellent job with this. Additionally, the website loads very quick personally upon Chrome. Outstanding Site… Read more

There is noticeably big money to comprehend this. I assume you’ve made particular nice points in functions also. Free Movies

Wow! This could be one particular of the most helpful blogs We’ve ever arrive across on this subject. Basically Excellent. I’m also an expert in this topic therefore I can understand your effort. Regalos para bodas

I acknowledge all that you have added as far as anyone is concerned base.Admiring the time and exertion you put into your online journal and point by point data you offer.Thanks. airport taxi hudson wi

All things considered, you don't have to foot additional bill on the printing, on the spread out and configuration costs on Long John Silver Menu

Simply respecting your work and thinking about how you dealt with this site so well. It's remarkable to the point that I can't bear to not experience this significant data at whatever point I surf the web Umzug Luzern

Simply respecting your work and thinking about how you dealt with this site so well. It's remarkable to the point that I can't bear to not experience this significant data at whatever point I surf the web Umzug Luzern

To start with You got an awesome blog .I will be keen on more comparative points. I see you got extremely exceptionally valuable themes, I will be continually checking your blog much appreciated. buy smurf