The best way to understand team handball is to take a bus to the outskirts of Copenhagen. Follow the group of tall blonds in blue jerseys to the modest arena across the street. Smell the sausage. Drink the Carlsberg. Soak it all in.
It won’t make much sense at first — the thousands of roaring Danes, the chicken mascots signing autographs, the strange man at half-court singing the same power ballad over and over again.
But it’s not supposed to make sense. Not yet.
Even the most diehard American sports fan couldn’t tell you the first thing about team handball. It’s the only Olympic sport in which Team USA will not be represented by either gender at the 2012 Games, and sadly that’s nothing new. The last time an American handball team qualified for the Olympics was 1996 in Atlanta, when it received an automatic bid as the host nation.
But in Denmark, where bikes outnumber cars and pigs outnumber people, team handball thrives. The Danish women’s national team has won three of the past four Olympic gold medals. The men are two-time defending European champions. Men’s national team coach Ulrik Wilbek said that among the Scandinavian country’s 5.5 million inhabitants, more than 3.1 million tuned in to watch it win its most recent European championship.
The best way to describe the sport is water polo on land, a hybrid sport with elements of hockey, soccer, basketball and lacrosse. Each team has six outfield players and a goalie. Players can take no more than three dribbles or three seconds before passing. Offenses run set plays around a semicircular crease in front of the goal, and defenses protect the crease using a zone scheme similar to basketball.
According to the International Handball Federation, team handball is played by 800,000 teams across 183 countries. And according to Chairman of USA Team Handball Jeff Utz, it is the second-largest grossing revenue sport at this summer’s Olympics.
“The only reason people aren’t excited about the sport is they haven’t seen the sport,” he said. “It could be one of the top four sports in our country. I genuinely believe that.”
Perhaps it could. But a sport has to be relevant before it can be considered prominent, and in the United States today, team handball is neither. Many fans still confuse it with wall ball, the playground game that involves slapping a blue racquetball up against a wall. Most others remember it as that funny European game they half-played in their middle school PE classes.
“Basically if it’s on TV, it’s during the Olympics. And if it’s on TV during the Olympics, it’s probably on MSNBC or CNBC at 2 a.m. … after rowing,” said Bryan Cothorn, the president/goalkeeper of the area’s prominent handball club, the D.C. Diplomats.
But in Denmark, children start playing a version of team handball called “total handball” as early as age 2. It doesn’t have many rules, according to Finn Jensen of the Danish Handball Federation, but it gets kids used to throwing and catching a handball. The federation also released a story-based training program, allowing children 4 and younger to journey through an imaginary world of trolls and forests — and practice basic handball skills in the process.
Those who avoid the childhood craze can easily pick up the sport whenever they choose. Danish schoolyards often revolve around street handball, a minimalist version of the sport, and beach handball also is becoming popular. As of 2010, 885 handball associations were scattered across the country.
“Once you get the basic rules straight it is a very easy game to follow,” Jensen said. “The number of goals and the very few interruptions create a great flow to the game — a flow that keeps the spectators and TV viewers on their toes.”
Despite the lack of an American team, millions of Americans will have the opportunity to see team handball for the first time at this summer’s Olympics. NBC will broadcast portions of matches on six days beginning July 29. Maybe a little airtime is all the sport needs.