Handball is unpopular in some countries due to its lack of media coverage. It is also a new sport, with the first set of rules written in 1906. Other variables such as sponsorships and corruption play their part in its lack of popularity.
Why is handball unpopular? Why isn’t it a popular sport? These questions seem to come up at times, especially at the Olympics. American journalists are puzzled as to why some European countries love the sport so much.
One of the main problems with handball is how people perceive it in the first place. Handball is not the main sport for many nations, even for its native Germany. But this doesn’t mean the sport is not popular. Many sports are subject to historic and even political influences and handball is no different.
Countries where handball is popular
Before looking at the countries where handball has potential in popularity growth, let’s see where its already enjoying plenty of attention.
- There are 4.300 registered handball clubs in Germany, the birth country of the team sport
- The pool for professional players is large by most standards and the success of the clubs and the men’s and women’s national team is living proof.
- The Handball Bundesliga is the first division clubs play in. 2 Handball Bundesliga is the second division German clubs play in
- 18 teams play in the first division
- 18 teams play in the second division as well
- Currently, Germany’s men’s and women’s national teams are ranked number 1 in the world
- The Lanxess Arena in Cologne is one of the largest sporting venues for handball in the country.
- Denmark is a force both in men’s and women’s handball
- 14 teams play in Denmark’s handball league
- KIF Kolding has won the title of champions 14 times
- 12 teams play in the Danish Women’s Handball League
- Denmark is the 2019 Men’s World Champion
- 16 teams play in Spain’s Liga ASOBAL
- FC Barcelona is the 2018-2019 champion
- FC Barcelona plays at Palau Blaugrana, an arena with a 7.500-people capacity
- 14 teams play in Spain’s División de Honor Femenina de Balonmano
- The current champion, Rocasa Gran Canaria ACE plays in an 800-seat capacity arena
- Veszprém KC, from the quirky town of Veszprém, holds most championship titles
- Nemzeti Bajnokság is the women’s first division
- 14 teams play in Hungary’s women’s first division of handball
- Győri Audi ETO KC are the current champions
- Győri plays in 5.500-seats areas
- 14 teams play in Liga Națională, the men’s handball league in Romania
- CS Dinamo București is the 2019 league champions
- 14 clubs play in Liga Națională de handball feminine, the women’s handball league
- CSM București is the current league title holder
Handball is popular in these countries, but as seen above, the indoor capacity of the hosting arenas is quite small. However, handball games from these countries are generally televised.
Sporting nations where handball is not popular
One of the main issues with handball as seen on an international stage is with its appeal in countries that love sports, such as the USA or Australia. Commonwealth countries also largely dismiss handball, which is not the case with other sports spread by the British influence, such as rugby. This is exemplified in the table below.
|Country||Rugby presence||Handball presence|
|UK (England, Wales, Scotland)||Yes||Poor|
These countries have a rugby presence which varies from a world-class level to the levels of the developing stage. But handball presence is generally poor in the Commonwealth countries. Germany’s influence seems limited to Nordic countries such as Denmark, Norway, and Sweden to spread handball’s popularity. But even in these countries, it is not the number one sport.
A few ‘complaints’ about handball and its appeal
If handball’s global appeal is rooted in political and economic influence, there are a few points that sports fans make when judging the appeal of the sport.
- Inability to win medals (the case of the UK)
- Lack of government funding (also seen in the UK)
- Late arrival to the international sports scene
- Complicated rules (for North Americans)
- It’s too easy to score
- Poor goalkeeper ratio percent saves (typically under 25%)
- Changes in possession are hard to achieve
Some of these may be valid reasons while others might not. For many sports fans and athletes, it’s a matter of culture and the sports they grew up with which can make it difficult to make room for handball.
Sponsors and wages are falling behind… but not by much
Wages are generally low compared to other sports, but similar to rugby. Here are a few approximate wages top handball players earn.
Mikkel Hansen – PSG – €1.5M
Nikola Karabatić – PSG- €900.000
Cristina Neagu – CSM Bucharest – €312.000
In comparison, Israel Folau (the highest-paid rugby player in the world) earns approx. €1.12m.
Is the infrastructure a problem? A look towards crowds and their role in handball popularity
What is a sport without its followers? Declining spectator numbers is an issue that needs to be tackled in handball, as in many other sports. Unfortunately, IHF (The International Handball Association) got things wrong with tournaments such as the World Cup with its incommensurable potential of drawing crowds towards handball.
But since handball is played indoors, it needs good arenas and they are not cheap to build or hire. Without funding, players would have to hire the arenas themselves, as seen in the UK. In countries such as Hungary or Romania, handball teams play in municipality-owned arenas where they might or might not pay for the arenas.
One of the richest clubs in the sport, PSG, plays on Stade Pierre de Coubertin and Halle Georges Carpentier. These 2 Parisian arenas have a combined seat capacity of only 8.000 seats. Even with sold-out games, PSG would still struggle to create a spectacular atmosphere seen in other indoor sports such as basketball.
Lanxess Arena with its 20.000 seat capacity is one of Germany’s largest venues to host handball games. But it’s rarely sold out. Things can be different, even in the most unlikely locations. Greece’s Panathinaikos basketball team often impresses with its sold-out O.A.C.A. Olympic Indoor Hall where up to 18.500 fans create a hard-to-match atmosphere.
For many clubs, proper access to infrastructure is an issue, especially as many successful (European) handball teams come from smaller cities. But the problem of actually selling tickets to bring the fans to the game can be an issue.
Broadcasters and where to watch handball on the TV
These days, sports are mainly dictated by media interests. The highest-paid athletes get most media coverage and the best sponsorship deals. One of the main problems handball has is the poor or non-existing media coverage.
Handball popularity is currently stagnant with the possibility of dropping further shortly. Its popularity is heavily influenced by media coverage. Here’s where handball fans can still watch top games on TV.
BeIN Sports USA
*there are multiple other TV channels to watch handball around the world – let us know which stations broadcast the sport in the comments section below
Corruption in handball and how it stalls the sports’ reach
As with most high-level sports, corruption scandals have not passed by handball. Maybe the most disheartening example is the election of Qatar to host the 2015 World Cup. The tiny 300.000 people Gulf state won their bid against other countries with a handball tradition shocking anyone who truly loves handball.
But the story of Qatar hosting a world cup is not new and we’ve seen it in football before. They’re about to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. It’s no surprise big money is actually behind this nominalization and even if there are virtually no fans in love with a handball in Qatar, the International Handball Federation seems not to care, as does FIFA.
The Guardian and even other media outlets showed that the rise in world-class events hosted in Qatar is often based on slave work and the exploitation of migrants who need to build stadiums and arenas in extreme heat, with little money and often under threat. Why didn’t handball nations are not boycotting this world cup? How can hosting a world cup in Qatar make the sport more popular?
Apart from these issues, Qatar has also created a national handball team gathering players from around the world. Players from Serbia, Bosnia, and France play for Qatar, which is an unlikely turn in elite sports threatening handball. Here’s an overlook at other corruption scandals in handball which are truly halting its rise in popularity.
- Kuwait match-fixing in Asian handball scandal
- Montpellier alleged match-fixing and illegal betting in France
- Corruption scandal against Kiel in Germany
- $50.000 dollars in cash found on German referees after an international match in 2006
- Australia lost its place in the 2015 World Cup to Qatar as decided by the IHF Council
- Alleged bribery and corruption investigations on IHF’s president for handball and television rights contracts
It seems corruption is a reality in handball and it remains to be seen what can be done to bring the sport back to its roots. What we know for sure is that these scandals will not help make handball more popular.
Taking handball back to the streets and back in schools
One of the best methods of making handball more popular is by bringing it to schools. Grassroots movements can help make it more popular and it can bring it to countries around the world. Unlike other sports, it doesn’t require any special equipment and it can be played in existing sports facilities.
IHF ran the Handball at School Programme in almost 100 countries. Such programs were indeed revolutionary in the world of sports, providing proper training and coaching for all those involved in teaching kids how to play handball and how to enjoy sports properly.
Unfortunately, most of these programs are funded by public money, which is short across the globe. The UK cut investments after the 2012 Olympics in multiple sports, which included handball.
Only £500,000 per year would have made the difference, compared to investments in other sports. However, new local clubs are emerging but the UK is a special case as young athletes are spoiled for choice when it comes to sports.
The USA also plans to make handball bigger. Having not qualified for a major event since 1996, the men’s and women’s national teams are starting to bounce back. Qualified for the 2018 Pan American Games was the first sign things are starting to improve for the USA. The problem the USA has is attracting more players towards schools, colleges, and clubs.
So why is handball unpopular? It seems that a combination of factors discussed above holds it back. But nothing holds handball back more than the people in handball as seen with poor decisions such as allowing club-level player management to represent national teams such as in Qatar’s case.
However, there are positive examples to follow around the world and to get kids into the sport. Actions that can be put in place right now involve better media negotiations and lower fees for broadcasting rights until the sport gets better traction and rises in popularity. Long-term solutions involve working with schools for better handball integration from a young age.
Since handball looks so different around the world, we can start a discussion on what’s being made right in the area where you live. Is handball popular where you live? Let us know in the comments section below.