Team Handball: Long on History, Short on Success

A new CEO at USA Team Handball aims to put the sport on the map

Posted 6/13/21

Team handball is one of the most popular sports in Europe, but it hardly gets a mention in the U.S. Ironically, the game has been played on this side of the Atlantic since the 1920s, but through fits and starts over the decades it failed to pick up traction as a mainstream sport.

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Team Handball: Long on History, Short on Success

A new CEO at USA Team Handball aims to put the sport on the map

Posted

Team handball is one of the most popular sports in Europe, but it hardly gets a mention in the U.S. Ironically, the game has been played on this side of the Atlantic since the 1920s, but through fits and starts over the decades it failed to pick up traction as a mainstream sport. Ryan Johnson, USA Team Handball’s new chief executive, hopes to change that.

“We’re not trying to build a sport out of nothing”, says Johnson in an interview with Sports History Magazine. The game has deep roots in Europe with a wide fan base and a professional class of athletes who make 6-figure salaries. The International Handball Federation (based in Switzerland) claims there are 27 million people playing the sport worldwide.

After spending 10 years at USA Wrestling, Ryan was tapped to head USA Team Handball in January of 2021 to help guide the sport out of obscurity and into the American landscape.

Fundamentally, there is no reason why the U.S. shouldn’t be stocked with talented handball athletes. The sport has elements of basketball, hockey, soccer, and water polo. And for fans, the game offers a fast-paced, high-scoring spectating experience.

On the court, fans are treated to explosive moments of fast breaks, giant leaps, and rocket shots fired into the net. The wings are strategically exploited and a restricted 6-meter (20 ft) zone around the goal keeps attackers at bay when they rifle a melon-sized ball for a point.

With 7 players to a side, including goalie, there is plenty of body checking on the 40 x 20-meter regulation court (131 x 66 feet). And therein lies one of the main problems with handball in North America. According to Johnson, “there is limited engagement in the sport due to lack of dedicated facilities”.

There are certainly no shortages of indoor gyms and outdoor basketball courts across the country, but those dimensions are regulation-sized at 94 x 50 feet, which is significantly smaller than handball boundary lines. Playing on that surface would compromise the game and limit competitiveness on the international stage.

In general, Athletic Directors recognize the sport as an engaging recreation, but investing in courts is a different matter. Johnson notes that without a groundswell of interest among students and parents first, it’s difficult for schools to justify spending money on new infrastructure.

Like rugby, the NCAA doesn’t support Handball on college campuses and the sport is left to the initiative of students, or a dedicated athletic staff to form their own clubs. Less than 2 dozen colleges participate in a national tournament, of which West Point has been a leading powerhouse in both the men’s and women’s game.

Handball originated in Denmark in the late 19th century, but was modernized by the Germans in 1917, the official year of the sport’s birth. It made its way to the U.S. by German immigrants who competed among themselves through German-American athletic clubs based in New York and New Jersey.

When the sport made its debut at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, the U.S. squad was comprised mostly of those German immigrants. Six nations contested the game in what was then an outdoor tournament with 11 players to a team. Germany won gold, while the Americans placed last.

During WWII, the Office of Alien Property Custodian, the government bureau in charge of confiscating property belonging to U.S. enemies, seized all the records of the German-American Athletic Union (GAAU), a sports organization with ties to Nazi Germany.

The GAAU was a leading sponsor of handball tournaments in the early years and the sport’s association with German athletes and their supporters might have stunted its growth in America after the war. Handball in the U.S. did not regain a governing body until 1959 when the U.S. Team Handball Federation (USTHF) was incorporated with clubs in the northeast.

Still, Handball remained underdeveloped on this side of the ocean. The best that Americans had ever achieved at the World Championships was 15th in 1964 when the tournament was held in Czechoslovakia. At the Olympics, the highest Americans had placed was 9th, both in 1984 (Los Angeles) and in 1996 (Atlanta).

One competitive platform where the U.S. did show promise was at the Pan-American Games. Both men and women won gold in 1987 when the event was held in Indianapolis; the women took the top prize again in 1995 in Argentina.

Tasked with selling the sport to an American audience, Johnson is encouraged by the growing Handball club scene across the country and the number of people who want to see the game turn in the U.S. “It’s a matter of mobilizing them and building a system”.

His marketing strategy is to fill a dedicated calendar locally, regionally, and nationally and showcase the sport on the same level as the Olympics. Rather than holding tournaments in large venues like Madison Square Garden, Johnson prefers a grassroots approach where the game can create community engagements.

Since Americans haven’t medaled in Handball at the Olympics, not much financial backing is provided by the US Olympic Committee. The sport’s single largest sponsor is Verizon and as a communications and technology giant, it sees a ground-level opportunity in Handball content and distribution.

It helps that Verizon’s Chairman and CEO, Hans Vertberg, ran the national Handball association in his native Sweden before serving as president of the Swedish Olympic Committee. Branding the Verizon logo on the jersey of a sport that is still in its infancy speaks volumes of its potential.

CEO’s and sports property owners are what Handball proponents will be looking for as they also contemplate launching a professional league beginning in 2023. Reminiscent of Major Indoor Soccer League in its early days, current research and development is being done to bid out a minimum of 10 Handball franchises at a cost of $3-5 million each.

For Johnson, he’ll be looking to generate a pipeline of elite athletes and fill up a sports calendar. The Olympics will return to the U.S. in 2028 and with USA Team Handball’s automatic entry, the game can only benefit.

SPORTS HISTORY MAGAZINE in DIGITAL

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