Handball is big business across Europe

The European Handball Federation and Infront Sports and Media are long-term commercial partners. As the EHF’s Jean Brihault explains, the sponsorship and television strategy the two organisations have developed is designed to promote the sport at all levels.

The European Handball Federation and Infront Sports and Media are long-term commercial partners. As the EHF’s Jean Brihault explains, the sponsorship and television strategy the two organisations have developed is designed to promote the sport at all levels.

If Paul Goodwin and British Handball are looking for any guidance on how to approach the not insubstantial task of growing the sport in the country in the run-up to the 2012 London Olympic Games, they need look no further than Frenchman Jean Brihault. As vice president of the European Handball Federation (EHF), and a member of the executive board of the International Handball Federation (IHF), the charming 62-year-old veteran of the sport is now one of the most influential men in its hierarchy.

But it is his experience of developing the sport in his homeland that could be of most use to Goodwin and his team in the run-up to 2012. Brihault has been at the forefront of the rise of French handball since the late 1980s. Putting the correct structures in place and promoting the sport successfully paved the way for a surge in popularity, so much so that in Beijing last year France won gold in men’s handball.

“There must be a masterplan”, Brihault says when asked about the strategy for developing a popular sport that remains largely unknown in Britain. “First, they must realise that it is possible to decide to get better and to do so. It cannot be based on good will. And the money must be available. There are many ways of making money available: it can be public money; it can be private sponsorship; it can be money from the players themselves and the clubs; and, preferably, it must be a combination of all three.”

It is a combination that certainly worked in France, where the game is now played widely and, at the very top level, successfully. “I belong to a generation where handball was at a low level in France,” Brihault recalls. “We were maybe 25th in the world and there was a deliberate political decision to improve the country’s standing in the sport. The way we implemented it was that we increased the price of the license that each player had to pay [to be a member of the French handball federation] and there was a unanimous agreement nationally, regionally and locally.” It was a risky strategy, with no guarantees that it would pay off as handsomely as history records it did. With more money in its coffers, more matches could be organised against high-quality opposition at international level. “Our players had more friendly games against the top nations in order to try and prepare for the Olympic Games in Barcelona [in 1992],” Brihault explains. “The work was so successful that we gained a bronze medal, and that was the beginning of the success story.”

It led to all levels of the game in France becoming more organised. With the basics in place, ambitions grew. “Our clubs were not well structured in the late ‘80s,” Brihault says. “We were playing against Great Britain and Italy and were in the C-world championships. We had to produce a tremendous effort. It was a cultural shift from mediocrity to a culture of ambition.”

Brihault insists that the same kind of revolution is possible in Britain, with the carrot of the Olympic Games in London acting as the ideal catalyst for British Handball, the governing body. He says: “The first potential benefit is that it will make handball visible to people who’ve never heard about it, who don’t know what kind of a game it is. Because it is dynamic and spectacular, my hope is that a number of sponsors will be interested in the game. Schools will also possibly realise that it’s a fantastic school game – you don’t need major equipment. I remember in my childhood we used chalk to draw goals on the walls and it’s such a simple game. The primary school teachers and the sponsors with the money – two extremes – constitute a sort of dual potential for the development of the game in Great Britain. There are also structures being set up, and leaders like Paul Goodwin and Paul Bray and others who are becoming real professionals.”

He adds: “Britain has a great tradition for sport, and handball is such a simple game. It’s basically about running, throwing, jumping – and Britain has known how to do those things for years.”

Brihault is currently putting his experience of the sport to wider use as one of the senior executives in the EHF and as member of the IHF senior council. He will serve as vice president of the EHF, under president Tor Lian of Norway, until 2012.

The organisation, based in Vienna, Austria, was founded as recently as 1991 and looks after the interests of its 49 member federations. It has a mandate to develop the game on the continent and organises the men’s and women’s European championships, held biennially and featuring 16 teams, as well as the annual Champions League tournament for the continent’s best club teams, and several competitions for lower-ranked club teams. As the organisation itself puts it: “The EHF is the voice of Europe on handball matters and is in permanent consultation with all its partners. Each year, many meetings, workshops, conferences, congresses and events take place to ensure that this communication process falls into place and that the key link between all handball protagonists from all fields of the sport is strengthened even further.”

Brihault says that, of all EHF activities, it is the European championships that tend to generate the bulk of its revenues. “Basically the EHF has one competition that produces a lot of money,” he says referring to the tournament that was last held in 2008 in Norway and will be held in Austria next year. “The club competition, the Champions League, also produces money. The money we get from the championships is partly used to allow us to do our daily work, pay the salaries of the full-time employees, pay for the trips of the elected members, but also a great part of it is used to finance the training of coaches, of top referees and to support competitions that don’t produce any income such as the Challenge Trophy, the competitions for the younger age categories.”

Some 80 per cent of revenues from the Champions League are redistributed to competing teams, with the remainder left in the hands of the EHF for administration and the sport’s development. The organisation provides support to nations struggling both competitively and financially, in a bid to level the competitive playing field. “We provide support if they are either lower strength in handball or economically. Great Britain doesn’t have a high level yet but we also have to take into consideration Britain’s situation on an economic level. British Handball is not rich because it is not known whereas, if we talk about Georgia, they have a longstanding tradition as they were part of the USSR – they know what handball is and they have a tradition, but they need financial assistance because economically their situation is bad.”

The EHF’s commercial operations are run by a subsidiary company called, predictably enough, EHF Marketing. “We have our own marketing agency which is separate from the EHF – the EHF is a non-profit organisation whereas the marketing company is for profit,” explains Brihault, “but obviously there is a close articulation between the two.”

With seven full-time employees, led by managing director Peter Vargo, EHF Marketing works closely with the Infront Sports & Media agency, the exclusive commercial partner of the EHF for media and advertising rights to the European Handball championships. Infront has been a marketing partner of the EHF since 1993. In June this year, Infront extended its partnership until at least 2020, with the agency also handling media rights to qualification matches. Stephan Herth, Infront’s executive director of summer sports, is well positioned to offer an assessment of the EHF’s work in developing the game. He says: “Television exposure, sponsorship support and the overall popularity of the game have increased markedly over the past few years, to reach a new level. The latest men’s and women’s EHF Euro events in 2008 together achieved a total cumulative audience in excess of 1.5 billion, which is an all-time record for the events.

“The 2008 men’s event in January in Norway had more than 1.2 billion viewers, which also set a record for a single EHF Euro event. It was the most extensively covered and viewed tournament in the history of the competition.” Infront secured broadcast agreements with more than 70 countries, while more than 85 territories broadcast coverage.

The women’s championships, which were held in Macedonia in December, are also growing quickly, if not yet at the same level as the men’s. “We reached a cumulative viewing audience of 352 million, the third best result in the history of the event,” Herth reports. “The duration of the broadcasts increased substantially to a new record figure of 884 programme hours, an increase of over 75 per cent for the comparable 2006 EHF Euro in Sweden.”

For the club tournaments, primarily the Champions League, the EHF’s approach to television rights sales is slightly different. Here, Infront is not involved. Says Brihault: “We tend to have separate contracts with separate parts of Europe, not a global contract – so the German approach for example, is not the same as an Icelandic approach.”

Infront also looks after sponsorship acquisition on behalf of the EHF for both men’s and women’s European championships, with a model made up of eight official sponsors, eight official suppliers, as well as a number of EHF partners including: floor supplier Gerflor; Adidas; fashion brand Jack Jones; and online betting firm Bet-at-Home. As Herth points out, whilst not comparable to soccer in terms of size or breadth, the model does at least offer companies the opportunity to become a sponsor of an international event. “This level of sponsorship cannot really be compared to football, which attracts a huge number of dedicated companies,” as Herth says. “This is probably also the huge opportunity in handball. The field is still not overloaded and companies have great opportunities to build up awareness and business leverage on an exclusive basis.”

Brihault concurs, and suggests that the clean image of handball also makes it an attractive option for would-be sponsors. “Basically I think we [the EHF] are at a high level of credibility concerning partners,” the Frenchman says. “We constitute a form of guarantee because we’ve been going for a long time and we’ve never had any scandal. We supply a label and we have a lot of know-how.”

Herth insists that, in Infront’s experience, handball “attracts companies with international activities and ambitions, but often with locations or key business activities in strong handball countries. The big handball countries, like Denmark, Sweden, Norway, France, Germany, Spain and Russia and many of the smaller countries and eastern European nations are strong contenders in the European sport, making the competition inclusive and adding to its appeal.” According to Brihault, the sport is also growing further afield, opening it up to potentially lucrative new markets. “Countries like Argentina and Brazil are competing at the very top level,” he says. “Brazil is going to organise the 2011 world championships for women, and I bet they are going to achieve a very good level of performance.”

For the EHF, the next major tournament is the men’s 2010 world championships, to be held in Austria – the EHF’s home. Infront’s Herth says the commercial planning is on schedule. “On the sales side, almost all media rights packages have been sold – some minor news coverage and radio packages are still open in some territories. The distribution of marketing rights to the 2010 event has already reached a very encouraging level as well, especially so given the current economic climate – this is a strong endorsement of the popularity of the sport. Just two of the sponsorship packages are still available. Overall, we are looking forward to another very successful tournament.”

Herth insists that the sport has not been too badly affected by the slump in the global economy and paints a positive picture of the way the EHF has approached the crisis. “The fact that we [Infront] have structured long-term contracts with broadcasters helps a lot. Most sponsors who believe in handball will continue to invest. However, having said this, we currently have to work twice as hard to achieve the required results.”

Brihault believes the next step for his organisation is to work on more effective communication between the governing body and its members, particularly individual clubs within each national federation. “At the time when the EHF was founded, club handball was not as well structured as it is now, so we need to find a more adequate balance between the various facets of European handball,” he says, adding: “We also continue to work very closely with the IHF. Europe is the first continent [of handball] but fortunately handball is developing very fast on other continents so we have to work, as the IHF president [Hassan Moustafa] likes to say, hand in hand.”