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Team handball: Where is the U.S.?

By Dawn Allinger Lewis, Special to NBCOlympics.com
Posted Wednesday, August 20, 2008 5:54 AM ET
Team handball has a big following in European countries, such as Germany. Could a professional league succeed in the U.S.?
AXEL SCHMIDT/Getty Images
Team handball has a big following in European countries, such as Germany. Could a professional league succeed in the U.S.?

Without a doubt, the Olympic Games bring to life the tireless efforts, immense struggle and passion of athletes, particularly in "non-trational sports."

But shortly thereafter the storied tales and electricity of the 16 days fade. Critics, for example, no longer ask why, for the third straight Olympic Games, the U.S. failed to qualify a men's or women's handball team.

Why is handball, a sport often deemed "American" for its physical and high-scoring nature, not played in college and every gym class? Friends of USA Team Handball could give you many reasons for this. As a former Olympian and Athlete Representative for the International Handball Federation, I will limit my response to three, of which the primary issue is money, or lack thereof.

Handball is one of only three sports the U.S. has never won an Olympic medal in. The women came closest in 1984, finishing fourth. The men finished as high as ninth on three occasions - 76', 84', and 96'. No medals equates to minimal media exposure or sponsorship appeal. Thus, outside of the sixteen glorious days of the Olympic Games, handball has failed to capture the hearts and minds of the American audience on a regular basis.

Second, the name "team handball" triggers confusion. There is no end to explaining the fact that handball is not the sport your uncle plays inside four walls, typically coinciding with the motion of a cupped hand moving in and forward as if to hit a small round ball.

And perhaps more telling, handball's national governing body (NGB) has been through some laborious times. Most recently, dysfunction and internal fighting about priorities and financial constraints have caused the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) to intervene, to the extent of decertifying USA Team Handball.

Over a year later, team handball has been given another chance.

The newly named NGB is now under the leadership of President Dieter Esch. The German native grew up in a culture with handball in its blood and believes in the importance of a balanced structure that includes recreational, developmental and national teams.

Clearly many things must come together in a short period of time. One step Esch wants to expedite is Olympic qualification of the women's team as early as 2012. With the level of play, parity on the rise, and a budget comparable to most youth club teams abroad, that is unlikely. But should Chicago be named the Olympic city to supersede London, life could change substantially for U.S. handball. Growth and financial opportunity could be plentiful.

USA Team Handball General Manager Steve Pastorino has been given the arduous task of pulling the pieces together.

"I hope to rely less on USOC's grants and high-performance funding," Pastorino said about his financial strategy. "Instead, we will approach this venture like a private business, by seeking private donations and sponsorship."

Taking things a step further, the U.S. is slated to launch a professional handball league in 2009. That date, however, may be pushed back until 2010. The reason? Resources. Although discussions between NBA team and venue owners are currently taking place, finding sponsors and underwriters for the "most underrated Olympic sport" is not as simple as it might seem.

The league will begin mid-June and take place over a 5-week period, concluding with a championship week in eight cities - New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Salt Lake City, Montreal, Canada, and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The league is designed to fit between the end and beginning of the European seasons; and approximately half of the athletes will be from Europe. Participants won't be the athletes we saw during the Olympic Games, but quality of play will be assured since these individuals will eventually vie for positions on their respective national teams.

League Founder and CEO Dennis Berkholtz hopes to create a fan friendly environment.

"The marketing plan centers around family participation at very reasonable ticket prices, encouraging parents to bring the kids for an evening of fun while watching the fast paced action of team handball," Berkholtz said.

With new leadership, revived energy and new plans, team handball has reasons to be optimistic about its future in the U.S. Esch is certain that "once things get in motion, they cannot be stopped."

But, if Olympic qualification and international success are to be attained and a sustainable development structure to be created, USA Team Handball will need a money tree.


Inside this Sport

Team Handball

In Olympic handball, the 12 men's teams and 12 women's teams are split into two groups by random draw. An Olympic handball team's roster comprises 15 players.

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