Good and Bad Developments in Finnish Handball
With the recent news regarding the new head coaches for the Finnish national teams I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the current state of Finnish handball. For people who follow the sport, it should’ve been almost impossible to not at least notice a few major headlines the past few weeks. The past few weeks have been a mix of both positive and highly sad news in Finnish handball.
For people who don’t follow handball and feel that this doesn’t interest you, keep in mind that even though the following text takes a brief look at the state of Finnish handball, several of the issues are quite common in most sports in general, at least at a semi-professional and amateur level. In this post, we’ll take a look at some of the things that have happened and discuss some of the possible reasons behind the outcomes.
First, let’s start with the positives. A couple of weeks ago, HIFK’s men’s team broke the news that they will be playing in the EHF Challenge Cup alongside Dicken the next season. Great news as tough international games bring whole new intrigue compared to domestic league regular season games. I attended some of Dicken’s Challenge Cup games last season and the atmosphere at those games were something else compared to the normal league games. On the women’s side HIFK will once again participate as they have done so many times before. A couple of days ago, we also got the news that Riihimäen Cocks will for the second season in a row play in the Champions League group phase, the premier club competition for handball teams and a true testament of a club’s standing on the world stage. Combine that with the upcoming grand opening of the new arena in Riihimäki and you can assume that people are buzzing about the upcoming season in Riihimäki.
Remember, it wasn’t long ago that no Finnish team participated in these international tournaments and now it’s almost expected that at least two-three teams from the Finnish league do. A great trend in many ways.
Lastly, the Finnish Handball Association recently had press conferences where they introduced the new head coaches for both the men’s and women’s national team. Tomas Westerlund and Ola Lindgren are both coaches who come with great resumes and experience from high-level competition and certainly bring with them a breath of fresh air to both national teams.
All things good right? Well no, not exactly. As the above mentioned great news came out, fans of both the men’s and women’s league were greeted with some disappointing news at it was announced that two teams from the men’s league and one team from the women’s league had withdrawn their applications to participate in the coming season for pretty similar reasons – namely the lack of players to be able to be competitive. First HIK, then Atlas and most recently, BK-46 have all declined their spot in the highest league which naturally puts a dent in the upcoming season.
It’s easy to stand at the sidelines and point fingers but the fact of the matter is that voluntarily giving up your place in a league without being relegated by playing is a catastrophic failure on many levels and a sad development which may take several years to recover from. Let’s take a look at two of the potential reasons why this might have happened.
1. Lack of Proper Youth Development
Every competitive first team, regardless of sport, must have a development program. Regardless of sport and whether it’s a league which has franchise model (American teams) or leagues in which you can get relegated (mostly European) the importance of having a steady stream of new promising players in the pipeline is extremely vital. Why? Well, youth players are almost always cheaper to sign than a veteran of the game. No youth players in the pipeline = the need to spend money increases. You can probably image the unnecessary strain on your organisation if after each season you need to replace a player with a new one by way of recruitment (which is expensive), instead of at least giving a youth player a shot of taking that spot on the roster.
A well-functioning youth system also produces players who have been trained to fit the first team's playing style, be that playing fast with the ball/puck or playing a physical style defence. This translates to better team chemistries and naturally also affects the competition for spots in the squad. The last thing you want to have is a small roster with no competition for playing time – which, quite understandably, leads to stagnation.
Best case scenario, you have a vibrant youth system which gives you at least two to three new players to the first team each year. That means that one, or even two years of mediocre youth teams won’t cripple your first team and consequently increase your spending need.
2. Failure to Adapt One’s Organisation / Keeping Up with League Standards
Going back to the beginning of the text and the positive developments on the men’s side of Finnish handball. The upcoming season a third Finnish team will participate in the men's EHF Challenge Cup. This is of course fantastic news but also puts pressure on putting together a competitive team to be able to compete on the international stage. As a league’s overall standard of play develops, it also increases the need for organisational measures to keep up with the increased demands. As teams in the upper echelon of the league table make organisational investments in facilities, players and overall fan engagement, it automatically affects the other teams (if they still want to be able to compete and stay relevant). What worked last year might not work the following as the level of play increases. For organisations who struggle to keep up with the ever-evolving expectations from both players and fans alike, this puts them in a pretty tough spot.
So, does the pressure of keeping up with league standards automatically put teams in the bottom half of a division (usually teams with less economic flexibility) at a disadvantage? Well, yes. People talk. Players talk amongst each other. If things aren’t working as well as they are in another team – players tend to move. This doesn’t concern only professional players in a sport – it concerns youth players and staff as well.
Most people forget that your team isn’t only competing with teams from your own sport you are also competing against other sports as well as other leisure activities as well (this is however a text for another time as it concerns marketing and communication above all…).
With the above two reasons, let’s take this as an example: Say you work for a company which sells hats. You love selling hats. You’ve worked there for three years since you turned eighteen, you might even have interned in the mail room from the time you turned fifteen, learning the ropes. Your pay is mediocre according to industry standards at best and management wants you and your team of hat-sellers to sell more hats than most of your competitors. However, your team isn’t big enough and you haven’t had a new colleague in some while and even the facility in which you work isn’t really that fresh – also on top of that management really isn’t making an effort to signal that the organisation is really going to implement any changes either. From the company's side things are working fine, aren’t they?
A rival company about the same size as yours has just started selling hats on an international scale and have just moved to a brand new facility and also, they even offer some benefits to their employees and better still – the amount of work you have to put in is basically the same! Now your competitor contacts you and wants you to come over and work for them instead. Do you go? Most people would.
Not all teams and organisations need to be competitive. There will always be a need for teams who focus on well-being and having fun (most youth teams should focus on that anyhow) but if you have a first team in the top league, regardless of sport, the need for long-term strategy can’t be overstated. When the first signals start to appear that your youth pipeline isn’t producing promising players, you are in trouble, especially in smaller sports as handball in Finland.
Finnish handball is currently in a pretty weird phase. On one side you have organisations who are doing a great job and continuously pushing new initiatives and on the other you have organisations who are visibly struggling.
The modern sports landscape doesn’t wait for anyone. Change, adapt, discuss – don’t be afraid to make changes to your strategy or you might end up losing your teams altogether.