As the LiquiMoly Starligue season begins this evening, with a meeting between defending champion Paris and Istres, handball is at a crossroads, a few weeks after a new Olympic title. Can Liqui Moly Starligue play a driving role in the evolution of handball in the near future when some of its French gondola heads go abroad?
The train is passing, and you must not miss it. The two French teams won the gold medal at the Tokyo games a few weeks ago, and in the two elite handball championships, the question is the same: how to ride this wave to continue to grow a sport that remains relatively confidential, compared to football, rugby, and even basketball. “It is true that with the prospect of Paris 2024 and the medals of last summer, there is a real alignment of the planets. Medals are not enough to advance our sport, but they are a real exhibition medium ” highlighted Patrice Canayer, the manager of Montpellier Handball. But to make a sport climb in the hearts of the French, it takes time, and time, there is little. So it is a question of working twice as hard, so as not to see the other Olympic sports being the only ones to benefit from the Olympics effect.
A new namer for the championship
Some signals are, at the moment, positive. The National Handball League, whose naming contract with Lidl was coming to an end, rebounded quickly by finding Liqui Moly, the German motor oil and additive manufacturer, its namer for the next five seasons. “We can only congratulate ourselves on this, it is a great brand, known throughout Europe, and which collaborates with major sports such as Formula 1” Canayer continues. But a sponsor does not make the spring, and it will take more to put handball on the front page of national dailies. It is a whole marketing strategy that must be put in place, and urgently, according to the players.
And in this frantic search for media coverage, and therefore for the expansion of French handball, we still have the impression that there is a long way to go. And it is not the departure of French internationals for abroad, whether it is Nicolas Tournat in 2020, Melvyn Richardson this summer, or Nédim Rémili next summer, which will facilitate things. The average fan, attracted to handball during the Olympic fortnight, may have a little trouble finding his champions in the halls in the coming years. “It’s always annoying that a club like Paris loses its best French players. But we cannot deny that if the French championship is, from a sporting point of view, one of the most attractive, the best players can go and win more elsewhere, while playing the Champions League every year. If you have a better contract in Poland, with the certainty of being exposed every week, it’s hard to convince the players to stay ” deplores Thierry Anti, the coach of the Pays d’Aix and president of 7Master, the coaches union.
A 360 ° strategy to retain French internationals
One of the reasons that could motivate these French stars is to further develop their brand image with the French public. More complicated to attract advertisers when you play in Barcelona or Kielce, easier if you are in contact with your fans while playing in your national championship. But still it is necessary to find its account there, in a career which does not exceed fifteen years. “Handball is a sport where we have to help build awareness. When we keep Valentin Porte, when we extend players like Yanis Lenne, we are in this perspective of supporting them to grow, both in sport and in marketing ” underlines Patrice Canayer, whose club has chosen to invest in the neo-internationals Karl Konan and Rémi Desbonnet (photo) by 2022.
The MHB manager pleads for a three-year strategy, reinforced collaboration between professional clubs, the league and the federation, to highlight handball as much as possible before the next Olympics. Calendar adjustments are planned for the boys, while the desire of the FFHB to play the selections on national soil more than usual was mentioned. “I think there are many areas for improvement. And it is not only on the financial aspect that the reflection must be focused. The clubs must continue to work with young French people, without necessarily looking abroad, for example ” ends Thierry Anti. His club, the PAUC, managed to bring back Romain Lagarde this summer, the only Olympic champion to have returned to France this summer. But the conditions were there. “He made great efforts to come back, because he wanted to return to France for personal reasons. But otherwise, a club like Aix could never bring back a player like Romain ” still notes Anti. As we suspected, the season will be busy on the pitch, but also outside. Because time is running out, and the Paris 2024 train will not wait.