A hand on the future: Behind the scenes at the VELUX EHF FINAL4

The VELUX EHF FINAL4 is the climax of the European Handball Federation’s signature club tournament, the EHF Champions League, and since 2010 has become a compelling showcase for a sport whose popularity can be underestimated. The 2017 edition at Cologne’s LANXESS arena heralded an era of further growth and change to come.

A hand on the future: Behind the scenes at the VELUX EHF FINAL4

During the final of this season’s VELUX EHF Champions League, the giant LED video cube that hangs in the centre of Cologne’s LANXESS arena displays a tweet from a handball fan: ‘If Vardar overcome Paris Saint-Germain tonight, it will be Macedonia’s greatest sporting achievement.’

Hyperbolic it may be, but not by much. It can be difficult to appreciate the popularity and magnitude of a sport like handball when sheltered in the Anglosphere. This is not a discipline that often breaks through the noise outside of its European heartlands. But inside this 20,000-seater arena, surrounded on four sides by ardent fans from four nations – supporting France’s Paris Saint-Germain Handball, Hungary’s Telekom Veszprém, Spain’s FC Barcelona Lassa and, of course, Macedonia’s HC Vardar – the reality hits in.

Ultimately, HC Vardar do overcome their Parisian rivals, with the last throw in the last game of this VELUX EHF FINAL4 weekend and for the evening, Cologne is transformed into an enclave of Macedonia, with thousands of travelling supporters filling the city’s bars and streets to celebrate victory – which, for tonight at least, is indisputably their country’s greatest. This wasn’t just their first EHF Champions League title, but their debut appearance in the VELUX EHF FINAL4 and, against the might of PSG and Barcelona, the sister clubs of the famous soccer outfits, it was not expected.

2017 marked the eighth edition of the FINAL4 format for the EHF Champions League, after the EHF took the decision to move from a two-legged home-and-away final in 2010. What was initially seen as a risk worth taking to try and freshen up the competition has now blossomed into a huge success.

“I’m always excited to come to Cologne,” says EHF president Michael Wiederer. “From the very first VELUX EHF FINAL4 when we had many innovations, because we decided to change from ordinary finals, we had a big challenge because we opted for the biggest available sport hall. It was a challenge at the beginning to fill up 20,000 seats for a first event, which was unknown at the time. This was exciting. And it worked. The years after it was always the question, ‘Can we continue on that level?’”

The EHF has indeed managed to continue on that level, and more. With Cologne’s LANXESS arena as an ever-present hosting partner so far – “one of the best sport arenas in Europe,” says David Szlezak, managing director for EHF Marketing (below right), the handball federation’s commercial arm – the event has gone from strength to strength, selling out every year.

FINAL4 title sponsor VELUX has backed the competition since its inception

Though Szlezak admits it is “not easy to measure the success for this kind of event,” he does offer one notable fact that demonstrates just how well-regarded the VELUX EHF FINAL4 is. “When you get the information,” he says, “that 10,000 spectators already bought on site during the weekend their tickets for 2018’s edition – without knowing, of course, the four teams qualified for the event – you realise the quality of the product and how valuable this event is for our stakeholders and handball in general.”

This was achieved despite the absence of any German side from the VELUX EHF FINAL4 for the first time since its inception. As the longstanding host of this event, the joint-most successful nation in EHF Champions League history – along with Spain – and one of the biggest territories for handball, there was some worry that this would harm the event. Instead, German fans adopted their guests’ allegiances, variously cheering on the four teams present, with a smattering of boos thrown in for the nouveau riche PSG, who relish the role of pantomime villains for the weekend.

The enthusiasm of German fans unable to be present in the arena was similarly unaffected, as they, along with their counterparts around the world, continued to tune in by their millions to the comprehensive coverage.

“There was no direct influence of the absence of German clubs in the event, and we even could see how the final match played between Paris Saint-Germain Handball and HC Vardar was among the top five matches most viewed in Germany during the 2016/17 season,” says Miguel Mateo, head of TV and media at EHF Marketing.

In 2017, the VELUX EHF FINAL4 was available to more people in more countries than ever before. 39 different channels showed live coverage of the weekend across 80 territories, while anywhere not covered by that could tune in on the EHF’s own over-the-top (OTT) platform, ehfTV.com – a product created eight years ago, relaunched last season and which EHF Marketing is throwing significant weight behind.

On the eve of the VELUX EHF FINAL4, EHF Marketing hosted a business-to-business event at the top of the towering KölnSKY building, entitled ‘European Handball goes Tech’. There, it unveiled a significant new partnership with Sportradar, the sports data company which is rapidly expanding its own remit to include streaming services, with ehfTV.com set to represent a major pillar of the collaboration.

The idea is that you know as soon as you turn on the TV that you’re watching an EHF event.

“ehfTV.com will have a key role in our future,” says Szlezak.  “It will be technically upgraded thanks to the cooperation with Sportradar, increasing then its value not only from business point of view, but also for the sport fans around the world who follow our matches in this platform.”

OTT is viewed as a major opportunity for a sport like handball to break through into new territories, but as yet there is no appetite to move away from linear broadcasting – so little appetite, in fact, that the EHF is going to the open market for the first time for its club and national team competition rights later this year. The tender – which was sent out in September with bids set to be submitted in November – will cover the media and marketing rights for the period from 2020 to 2030, and is described by Wiederer as “priority number one for 2017”.

“Previous partnerships with broadcasters were always continued automatically,” he explains, but the organisation has sensed a major opportunity and will start a bidding process “for a much bigger amount of rights than ever”.

The 2017 VELUX EHF FINAL4 saw the use of the refcam system, with viewers able to watch from a ref's-eye perspective

There are, he says, two reasons for this shift in relationships with the EHF’s longstanding broadcast partners around the world. “One is that handball has improved,” he notes. “The standard, the quality of events has improved, and thus the VELUX EHF Champions League with the VELUX EHF FINAL4 has a strong development and we feel that we are fit for the market. We feel strong enough to go to this free open market.

“The second part is that there is a change in the media world and with a classical approach, we might miss important factors. There is an interesting long-term project and it seems that we can provide a basis for that.”

That long-term project is in part the development of ehfTV.com, which Wiederer says will still provide a vehicle for in-house content even where deals with broadcasters are signed.

“I think it needs a mix,” he says, referring to balancing a move toward OTT and digital with traditional broadcast coverage. “It will be definitely necessary that we continue our in-house work because we are the ones who provide content – along with the players and the clubs, who are logically the protagonists of this – but without content the best platforms are useless. We have to do our work to provide enough material.”

Talking more concretely about this content delivered by EHF and EHF Marketing, Mateo explains that an important element in developing a coherent TV product for the EHF competitions was creating a distinct and consistent style. “So we’ve gone for the same look, the same camera positions, the same overlays, and that was the template whether it was a match played in Barcelona, or Kiel, or Scandinavia,” Mateo says. “The idea is that you know as soon as you turn on the TV that you’re watching an EHF event.”

The broadcast output during the Cologne weekend is overseen by TV director Henrik Saabye, the Danish veteran of every VELUX EHF FINAL4 so far. On the morning of the semi-finals, as Saabye prepares to work his magic on the Veszprém’s tie against PSG, he explains the key element of this kind of production: “The basic thing is, all TV products are about storytelling, and we have to see it as theatre,” he goes on. “It’s no different if it’s Manchester United against Liverpool in the Premier League or the VELUX EHF FINAL4 here; it’s a story that we’re telling. But we don’t know what’s happening. So the camera positions that we have are designed to do that. But we have to be very sure that what is controlling our production is the game.”

The stories that were told throughout the 2016/17 VELUX EHF Champions League season are a particular point of pride for the EHF. All rights holders will tell you that they are working to improve their product on the court as well as off it, but the EHF believes that the evidence is right there in front of spectators’ eyes. During the final weekend, no game is won by more than a single goal, with the second semi-final and the final itself both being won with the very last play of the game.

Our work is focused to help the clubs to organise every match better, and try to create ‘Micro-FINAL4s’ during the season in different markets.

“From a sporting perspective, the show is guaranteed,” says Szlezak. “50 per cent of the matches played in 2016/17 finished with a difference of three or less goals – nine per cent even ended with a draw – and the range of potential winners of the competition is growing constantly.”

Indeed, with Vardar’s late win over PSG, a sixth different winner in the last six seasons was confirmed, with the glory being spread across four countries – a far cry, as Wiederer points out, from Uefa’s Champions League, which has seen three of the last four trophies won by Real Madrid and hasn’t been won by a non-Spanish team since 2013.

HC Vardar celebrate a maiden victory in the VELUX EHF FINAL4

The challenge now, says Szlezak, is working “to complement this spectacle around the playing court in every round, in every match”.

“Of course, the VELUX EHF FINAL4 is the highlight of the European handball club season,” he says. “But there are 196 other amazing matches played along the VELUX EHF Champions League journey. Our work is focused to help the clubs to organise every match better, and try to create ‘Micro-FINAL4s’ during the season in different markets.”

Looking to the future, and toward that 2020-2030 window marked out by the forthcoming rights tender, Szlezak sees the technological developments being introduced into handball every season – including things like the Sportradar partnership – as crucial to the growth of the sport.

“Handball is a modern and traditional sport at the same time, and it is proud of its values,” he says. “But the society where we are living is constantly changing. The big challenge for all kinds of organisations at this moment is the adaptation to this frenetic and changing world, and neither the sport nor the sponsorship markets are an exception.”

The next decade and beyond will bring more opportunities to tell stories like that of Vardar, and more opportunities for the sport to grow into new territories, as long as the EHF, and EHF Marketing, can strike that “balance” Szlezak describes.

“We need to understand and try to keep the values that brought handball where it is now,” he says. “But at the same time we have to look for the new opportunities that the new markets are offering us to develop our product to a next level.”