Women) – Handball Team News

Demographics by nationality at the US National Club Championships last May. American women made up only 12% of athletes. And… Thanks to the participation of only one club from Alberta, there were even more Canadians than Americans at our own national championships.

This article is part of a series, Charting a Way Forward for USA Team Handball (2019 Reboot)

A brief rant on women’s sports in the United States

As with men’s sports, the structure and organization of women’s sports in the United States is very different from the rest of the world. But, in addition to structural differences, there is another major difference: higher participation rates. The number of girls and women playing sports in the United States roughly dwarfs that of the rest of the world, with the possible exception of Scandinavia, Canada, and the Netherlands. There have always been great traditions of girls playing sports in the United States, but with the passage of Title IX legislation in 1972, there was a dramatic and epic shift in participation because… it was the law.

The rest of the world has seen it with our women’s soccer program. While American men might be respectable (even if we failed to qualify for the last World Cup), American women are steamrollers. It’s kind of amazing when you think about it. When I was a child, football was a secondary sport for boys and girls. Little organization, few youth programs and nobody cared. Now it is played coast to coast by millions of children. And, therefore… we have a respectable men’s national team and a fierce women’s team. Yes, overnight the United States had more girls and women than any other country.

And that even includes European countries. Since the United States is populated by a significant number of European descendants, it is sometimes common for Europeans and Americans to think that the United States looks pretty much like Europe, except for this puritanical aspect. and, in some cases, a different language. This is often correct, but not always. Example: Check out this story from NPR about women’s soccer in France and the cultural struggle they had to overcome regarding how soccer is for boys, not girls. And that if you’re a girl who plays, you must be a tomboy. Sounds rather quaint and old-fashioned, doesn’t it?

So what does Title IX mean in terms of international competition? If, (and it’s a big if) the United States “cares” about a women’s sport, it’s almost certain that the United States will kick ass in this sport. And, by “care”, I mean providing sports support in schools and colleges. Because if that happens, we will have so many girls playing this sport that we can only help build a great team. But, if a particular sport doesn’t have that Title IX support… Well, chances are we’re not very good at it. Why? Because all “good” athletes will play sports that are supported.

And that support shows up in college, high school, and NCAA-sanctioned sports. NCAA sanctioning is of particular significance because of the scholarship support that typically accompanies NCAA recognition. You don’t have to look very hard to see a strong correlation between sports that the United States isn’t very good at and sports that aren’t sanctioned by the NCAA. And, while this is also true for men’s sports, the problem is further compounded for women’s sports. Indeed, the overall pool of female athletes (for all sports) is smaller than that of men. And, because Title IX has become a forcing function for equity, there are simply more scholarship opportunities for female athletes. And, in turn, this means that there are fewer female athletes (without scholarships) and therefore looking for a new sport like team handball.

The purpose of this rant: to help the reader understand why women’s team handball participation numbers in the United States are significantly lower than men’s. And why improving the number of female participants might be even more difficult.

United States women’s handball team organizations and activities

The structure of the USA women’s handball team is quite similar to our men’s programs. Similar, but on an even smaller scale.

Training Centres: A Training Center is a place where handball is taught intensively. Two common examples: a European-style academy and what the United States has called residency programs in the past. Currently, there are no handball training centers in the United States, although Chicago’s youth program has some elements of an academy, albeit on a smaller scale.

Clubs: There are approximately 8 adult women’s clubs in the United States. These clubs vary greatly in terms of size, organization, and level of play. Currently, with the exception of Club Rogue, each of these clubs is made up almost entirely of expatriates living in the United States. And, Club Rogue, barely fits the traditional definition of a club. It’s simply a collection of current and former national team athletes living in multiple locations who get together a few times a year for weekend tournaments.

Collegiate Clubs: An important subset of clubs are collegiate clubs affiliated with a college or university. There are currently only 3 women’s collegiate clubs in the United States. It’s also worth pointing out that collegiate club sports are radically different from NCAA-sanctioned sports. There are no scholarships, and colleges generally only provide high-level support. As the athletes are students, in most cases they are between 18 and 23 years old.

Youth Programs: These programs are comprised of middle school (ages 12-14) and high school (ages 14-18) athletes. There are two fairly well-established programs in the United States, one in San Francisco and the other in Chicago. About 10 girls participate in the San Francisco area and they play on male-dominated teams. About 20 girls are training in Chicago for the IHF Trophy tournament in October.

Other Activities: Team handball is played in physical education classes in hundreds, if not thousands, of schools. But this handball is often only a crude facsimile of the game, taught by teachers unfamiliar with the sport, for a few lessons and with many rule variations. There are also a number of colleges offering intramural programs. (Intramural sports are lower level competitions where multiple college teams compete against each other.) Again, the handball being played is often just a facsimile of the game we all know.

United States Women’s Club Demographics (2019 National Championship Snapshot)

Last April and May, the United States held its collegiate and national club championships. Contrary to European countries, there is no national league and these championships disputed over only 3 days are open to all. A Canadian club from Alberta even participated and their presence alone resulted in the odd situation of more Canadians than Americans playing at the US Nationals. This table breaks down the total number of participants in these 2 events.

(Note: The citizenship data in these tables relied heavily on names on the list to assess nationality. Such an assessment is surely subject to error because Americans do not always have “American-sounding” names and , conversely, some expats have misleading “American-sounding” names, although I think that’s a pretty good guess.)

A few obvious points from these tables.

  • An overwhelming majority of our National Club Championship participants are non-US citizens
  • An overwhelming majority of our National College Championship entrants are U.S. citizens
  • The average age of participants in national club championships is several years younger than that of men. (I don’t have hard data to back this up, but I bet it’s because women are a bit smarter than men when it comes to deciding when to retire from the physical sport of handball)
  • Although these data are similar to data compiled for men, the total numbers are significantly lower

US Citizen Demographics (Female)

In terms of national team planning, it is of course necessary to focus strictly on the demographics of American citizens. The following tables break down U.S. club citizen representation and add estimates for U.S. expats playing overseas and youth program attendance. These estimates are based on extrapolation of national league data and national team data. For US-based numbers, I’ve added athletes based on known clubs that haven’t competed in national championships. For overseas numbers, I took the number of expatriate players who played on the Sr, Jr and Youth rosters for the past 10 years or so (25 in total) and doubled that, thinking that this would cautiously account for unknown or lower level players. Anecdotally, I would estimate that the annual total is higher in younger players and drops significantly as players get older. For the most part, I tried to error on the conservative side. The only exception is that I have not supplemented this data with the inclusion of school physical education and college intramural programs.

Key points:

  • The number of active female handball players based in the United States is really, really small. According to semantics, it’s about 100 athletes (or maybe less)
    • Question: Should this harsh reality be considered a “crisis”? And, if so, what steps should be taken to remedy it?
    • Question: Or, does the phrase “It is, what it is” apply here?
  • Because there are virtually no grassroots players, it’s not hard to see why our Women’s National Team has relied on older athletes from other sports and expatriate players. The harsh reality is that we would struggle to field a national team otherwise.
    • Question: Should the United States continue to recruit older athletes from other sports and then devote limited resources to training those athletes?
    • Question: Or should the US handball team “bite the bullet”, forego a national team quick fix and close this huge gap.
  • The only level of competition that is structured in a somewhat normal fashion (right age; predominantly American) is our college championships
    • Question: Should we be spending resources to further develop women’s collegiate athletics or does the general lack of available and interested athletes suggest that efforts should be focused elsewhere?

This is a high-level analysis only. In a future article, I will take a closer look at America’s elite player pool and the pathways for athletes to enter that pool.