Bob Hanning, the controversial former vice-president of the German Handball Federation (DHB), sees his sport in the fast lane compared to the industry leader. Other protagonists in the scene are less optimistic.
Bob Hanning has always been a guy with a special knack for performing to maximum effect. The former vice-president of the German Handball Federation (DHB) and current managing director of Füchse Berlin liked to show off with flashy sweaters, and once the charismatic official even had his picture taken as Napoleon. Hanning chooses these appearances carefully, he always pursues a strategic objective. This must have been the case before the start of the World Cup in Poland and Sweden, when Hanning spoke in a column in the “Welt”.
“One thing first: I don’t want to put artificial pressure here,” the 54-year-old begins with these words, only to then do just that: increase the pressure on the national team. “The opportunity the German team has at the next World Cup is huge. For German handball. And for all German sport, except football.”
It’s pretty thick, but Hanning’s thrust is clear: in a time when people are turning away from the billion-euro football industry because the protagonists have long since said goodbye to a universe At the same time, handball could be a pleasant and down-to-earth alternative. Almost like a new home for the disappointed.
The captain of the world champion does not believe in the revolution
Concretely, Hanning calls on his industry to highlight the positive attributes that distinguish it from football, which is buzzing around the world: “Handball players, it must be said, whatever their athletic performance, are guys robust. Without a muzzle. And with an irrepressible greed for further success.” At this point he takes “captain Johannes Golla and his teammates to task. Be realistic! Be approachable! Be brave! Be opinionated! But please don’t forget sporting success.”
And Golla fully identifies with these demands: “Our goal is to inspire people – and success is part of that,” said the professional in an interview with ntv.de. “We want to show the good handball that people say, it’s the team that represents us, we like to watch them. If we can do that, we will automatically draw attention to handball.” National coach Alfred Gislason’s team can announce tonight (6 p.m. / ARD and in the live ticker on ntv.de) in the second group match against Serbia that they will qualify for the main round. However, the excitement would likely only come with the knockout round, which is clearly the minimum focus of the DHB Convoy. Knockout games with the prospect of medals are also when people get the most excitement. Nobody in Germany can be excited about a 5th, 6th or 7th place. Hanning also knows this when he formulates big, sometimes utopian goals.
DHB sporting director Axel Kromer doesn’t contradict Hanning, even though he puts it more defensively. The January days with public television on the sidelines offer “a huge opportunity to show what handball is and what personalities this sport has to offer”. And further: “We find it extremely valuable not to act in a vacuum, but to know that the Germany of handball and the Germany of sport are behind us.”
Markus Baur, captain of the German team who crowned winter’s fairy tale with the title at the home World Cup in 2007 and is now on air as a pundit for ZDF, is delighted “that the whole country is watching us in the short term”. However, the 51-year-old has no illusions: “Football is and will remain a popular sport, and nothing will ever change in the hierarchy.” It is rather important to ensure that the number two position is maintained in front of basketball and ice hockey.
The DHB is currently the seventh largest sports association in the country, and the fight for membership is a never-ending fight. Even though handball is still number two among ball sports: in 2022, the DHB had around 720,000 members. This is the lowest value since at least 2002. In the peak year of 2009, the Handball Association still had around 850,000 members. The sensational title victory at the World Cup on home soil in 2007, after a short handball hype spread across the country, led many people to clubs, but in 2012 the level of ‘before the World Cup was already reduced again.
Despite – or probably because of – this experience, Hanning has great ambitions: handball now has the chance “to eclipse football in the weeks to come and stir up a new euphoria”. However, this situation is not new, it is repeated again and again, precisely when a major international tournament (WM and EM always take place alternately) is on the agenda every January and handball players enter on the big stage because football has said goodbye to hibernation. Almost according to the motto: “And every year the groundhog greets”.
More than 8,000 seats in the arena remain empty
In the first weeks of the new year, the gap is taken advantage of as the public broadcasters ARD and ZDF guarantee transmissions and good TV audiences. But as soon as the ball rolls onto the pitch, the sports world reverts to its existing hierarchies.
That will remain the case after this World Cup, as previous impressions from the Polish stadium in Katowice preliminary round suggest. In the German national team’s first group game against Qatar, 2,500 fans just got lost in the 11,000-seat Spodek Arena. 4.85 million viewers followed the match on ZDF, which corresponds to a market share of 22.9%.
After all, the trend should make handball players happy: In the German opening match of the 2021 World Cup, 3.95 million viewers watched at the same time – and also on a Friday. This meant a market share of 15 percent. At the start of EM 2022, also on Friday evening, 3.60 million people logged in, which corresponds to a market share of 15.9%. Whether the extra million in front of screens is an indication that people have turned away from football and towards handball is of course pure speculation. But that would be the narrative handball and its ambassador Hanning would love the most.
At the same time, however, a comparison of these remarkable numbers shows just how distant the throwing guild is from kicking. During the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, 17 million viewers gathered in front of the screen to watch the performance of the DFB team against Spain on ARD and thus generated a market share of 58.8% . Four times more, despite a fundamentally decried event and a German team that ultimately failed. These values show that the two sports are still light years apart.
The new partner should bring more attention, more reach
Handball continues to fight for its place alongside, or at least not too far behind, football. After all, the Handball Bundesliga (HBL) is now being helped by someone who has given the national professional football company huge TV deals in recent years and steered it through the pandemic in the most healthy possible: With his streaming platform Dyn, former DFL boss Christian Seifert is supported by the Bundesliga Show the Handball from the season 2023/24 to 2028/29. HBL Managing Director Frank Bohmann expects more media presence, more visibility and more reach with the new contract.
“This is a great opportunity for greater awareness and great growth potential for our sponsorship,” Bohmann said at the signing of the contract. The contract actually means a quantum leap for handball: the license fee is expected to amount to around 60 million euros, or ten million euros per season – this means the league will double its TV revenue. Around 30 million euros have been budgeted for the television production of league and cup matches. In addition, S Nation Media of Seifert intends to invest around 25 million euros in marketing measures. There is a strong new partner in the game. But it is also a new attempt to increase the reach and reach of handball.
Former handball star Stefan Kretzschmar, today alongside Hanning sporting director of Bundesliga leaders Füchse Berlin, writes in his book “Hölleluja!”, published in 2019: “Handball in this country has a great chance of shine in the shadow of the king of football in his role as prince.” A scenario that we must continue to defend.
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