SBJ/November 5 - 11, 2001/Opinion

Think big: Purchase the entire sport

Most companies get into sports sponsorship by taking a small bite of a large pie, popping for ballpark signage, getting a league's "official" designation for one of their products or hanging their name on a game or tournament. Their hope is that their blip on the crowded sports screen will attract enough eyes to make their sales line jump, sooner or later.

But there's another way to do it, and it seems to have much to recommend it. For what the TV pitchmen would call a low, low price, some farsighted firm could purchase an entire sport.

There are, I'm sure, several possible candidates for acquisition, but the one I have in mind is team handball. I've seen it played and it's a perfectly good game, as good as others that by accident of history are more popular.

It has nothing to do with the wall-ball game most Americans think of as handball. Rather, it's played seven to a side in a regular gym with goals at each end that stand about 7 feet high and 10 feet wide. Its object is to advance by dribbling or passing an inflated ball about the size of a cantaloupe, and whip it past the goalie for a score. It's a combination of basketball and soccer that takes about five minutes of watching to understand.

Team handball has been an Olympic sport for men since 1972 and for women since 1976. It's big in Europe, where it was born in the early years of the last century. It's not so big in the United States, where there are only about 2,000 regular players. Nonetheless, such is the depth of athletic talent in this land that our men have qualified for the Olympics five times and our women four. Our highest Olympic finish was a fourth by the women in 1984.

USA Team Handball, which runs the sport domestically, reckons that this country could challenge for an O Games medal by 2008 if it could intensify its athlete recruitment and development efforts, but that's hard to do on its annual budget of about $600,000, almost all of which comes from the U.S. Olympic Committee. From 1994 through '96, the organization had a sponsor in The Weather Channel, which put up $900,000 over that term. It's had nothing comparable since and currently can't even get a discount on shoes for its top players.

USA Team Handball's president is Bob Djockovich, an executive of a semiconductor equipment maker based in Fort Collins, Colo. His athletic biography is typical of his sport; a basketball point guard at the Air Force Academy in the late 1970s, he decided he wanted to perform in an Olympics, auditioned cold for the national handball team in 1981, made it and went on to captain the '84 men's unit, which finished ninth at Los Angeles. The experience left him with a love of the game and a conviction that the United States could do better at it.

"Our national teams turn over with every four-year Olympic cycle, but it takes that long to just get respectable, and four more years are needed to contend seriously for a medal. With additional funding, we could retain key players for the long haul," he asserts.

Djockovich figures that a long-term corporate commitment for about $250,000 a year would fill the bill. For its money, he says, a sponsor would see its name on jerseys and events, have Olympic access, get international exposure when the national squads travel abroad and be able to utilize their members for promotions.

True, the sport has a low U.S. profile, but that could change as team success grows. "From nothing to a medal would make a pretty good story for a sponsor to share, don't you think?" Djockovich says. I do, indeed.

Frederick C. Klein is a columnist for SportsBusiness Journal.

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