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Klaus: Team Handball should be the next great American sport

| Friday, August 26, 2016

This past weekend, the Rio Olympics, with its vast array of health concerns and Ryan Lochte coverage, finally came to an end. While my adverse outlook on sports packaged for non-sports fans limited my viewership of the games, I naturally, like all Americans, encountered multiple Olympic broadcasts over the last couple of weeks. And while most events did not pique my interest, one event that continuously captured my intrigue — and has so in past years — was team handball.

Team handball, for those unfamiliar with it or who have not encountered while watching the Olympics, is essentially a faster version of basketball that combines various elements and visual components of hockey, dodgeball and soccer. Players, in teams of seven, dribble and pass around a ball slightly smaller than a volleyball, with the ultimate objective of throwing it into a net defended by a goaltender. Additionally, referees issue fouls for certain offenses and power plays are consequently awarded to teams.

Nationally, team handball’s popularity in the United States is nothing short of dismal. Those who watch the sport every four years can legitimately claim they are some of the team’s most ardent fans. Though I had the unique opportunity of playing handball during P.E. in my freshman year at Notre Dame, I have yet to hear of anyone who had experienced playing it in their childhoods or high school years.

Team U.S.A. Handball, consistent with its unheralded reputation, has been historically unsuccessful. Though the United States ran away in the aggregate Rio Olympic medal count, both the American men and women’s teams were not good enough to even qualify for the Olympics. In fact, neither team has qualified in the 21st century.

While the lack of success of the U.S. might not surprise many, given that the vast majority of Americans have never even considered playing the sport in their lives, it still astounds me how the United States has been unable to produce quality teams for a sport that so closely resembles basketball. The United States men’s and women’s teams routinely dominate basketball every four years — to the point that most of their games are unwatchable. So why can’t America succeed at handball?

Furthermore, though it would be foolish to say that handball would ever reach the popularity of basketball in the United States, I certainly believe that many people would find enjoyment in watching it if a competitive and reputable league were to be constructed and televised. It is played at a fast pace, requires handling skills similar to those of basketball players and features a considerable amount of scoring, which, in theory at least, should be a perfect recipe for popularity as an American sport. Moreover, though it would be unrealistic to think top athletes would leave basketball and other major sports to pursue handball, the United States undoubtedly has sufficient athletic talent and depth to develop juggernaut teams that can consistently qualify and win Olympic and World Handball events.

LeBron James — or his handball equivalent — most likely will not be playing for the United States handball team four years from now, but the market potential and talented athletic pool to turn around the current, apathetic state of the sport in the United States definitely exists.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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