“It would have been better if the federal league had kicked off earlier”
Mark Schober, Chairman of the German Handball Association, on the issues and opportunities for his sport
By Norbert Krings
Being responsible for a huge sports association is not an especially rewarding task during the corona pandemic. We spoke to Mark Schober, who has held the role of Chairman and led the biggest handball association in the world, for three years. The 47 year old explains how his team and the German handball family have overcome the crisis and are pushing forward with new developments and innovations.
Mr. Schober, would you say your role is very busy at the moment or have daily operations practically ground to a halt due to the corona pandemic?
Mark Schober: I did get the chance to watch a few episodes of Pastewka, a comedy based on the life story of its eponymous protagonist, at the weekend, but otherwise there’s far too much work to be done, which of course is also different to the work I was doing before corona. HR needs more attention as almost all of our employees have been back in home office since the beginning of November. We need a lot more information and communication than we did previously. Big trips are also currently off the cards for me. I’ve also been more aware of this second lockdown at home, as my kids aren’t participating in their sports any more.
What’s been hampered by corona? What have you really had to pay attention to?
Schober: Quite a few things have been turned upside down, particularly as, firstly, we haven’t had much time to find answers and have also constantly had to deal with new challenges. This was also coupled with a high level of uncertainty. Constantly changing direction can result in a drop in motivation sometimes. On the other hand, I always try to spread a positive mood by showing the great things we have achieved, even during the crisis. We’ve tackled new developments and new topics that weren’t on the horizon previously. This was possible because of our amazing team: the 50 employees of the association. So many of them picked out their topics themselves and took the reins.
You offered help to the clubs. What type of help did you offer, and was it accepted?
Schober: We represent all of the clubs in the federal league, right down to children’s sports. We have worked to provide solutions at all levels, including political matters. One positive to come out of the crisis is that we’re now all better connected than ever. I’ve got huge respect for the policies that helped us out here. After a suspension in play in spring, we developed models based on the concept of a “Return to Play”. We have developed hygiene concepts and templates that the clubs can adapt to suit their own needs. The clubs have done a great job, which is overwhelmingly down to their many volunteers. We have just finished collecting all of the provisions from the different German states in order to see what is possible in the different regions in terms of training, for example. We have provided intense support for interim aid and are happy to report that this worked well.
Are you happy that play is back on for the premier to the third league, and that it can continue now?
Schober: When we look at it from today’s standpoint, we could even have started a month earlier. It would have been cleverer to start the federal league at the beginning of August. We’d be further on today if we’d done that. What can I say? Hindsight is always 20/20.
Are the handball players less dependent on audience income than, say, ice hockey players?
Schober: I can’t speak for other sports. The way it works in handball is that the clubs, of course, are dependent on audience income and, to a far greater extent, on income from sponsors. These factors play off against each other. Income from TV is a smaller portion of our income. However, we do need media attention for the sponsors.
What does the German Handball Association do, in order to ultimately overcome the crisis and equip itself for the future?
Schober: We’re investing in digital processes, for example. We are offering training aimed at children, talks and podcasts. That worked well, because we could do something for our members and showed sponsors that we are present. We’ll soon put out more digital offers.
Will we see a drop in visitor numbers, despite this?
Schober: Unfortunately, we are expecting to see one. I don’t have any figures to hand. However, in some ways, it’s bound to happen if popular teams can’t play for almost a year, or if a player stops playing for one of the female teams which isn’t doing so well in terms of numbers. There is a danger that the teams might break up. The danger for children who are becoming adolescents is even greater, as they focus more on the media at home. I’ve noticed this in my own house with my sons. This is why we need to try to get the kids back to training as soon as possible and we provide alternatives, such as forms of the game that don’t involve physical contact. We can start a lot of initiatives, but they need to get through to the clubs. This isn’t an easy task.
Do you think there will be a drop in quality in the top tiers of the sport?
Schober: Yes, that’s also a big risk. At some point in time, the clubs won’t be able to pay their salaries any more. Without income, you have to dip into your wages. Ultimately, all of the clubs are affected by this. We run the risk that the top levels of the sport will lose people.
Are these measures helpful in terms of politics?
Schober: We are also a branch of industry, we’re not just here for fun. Therefore, it is important that the professional clubs can continue playing in November. Numerous employees for the clubs are also dependent on match operations and economic success. It’s important that we can continue working. We’re therefore very grateful for the interim aid. It probably won’t be enough, though, so we’ll have to look at it again. In any case, we have also cut a lot of costs, particularly for courses. We do have a financial cushion left over from the 2019 World Championship, which we organised. We have a turnover of 10 million Euro per year, and it is important to build up a foundation so that we can weather a tough year or a crisis. The next world championship, slated for the coming January, is really important for us all and we are delighted that the German channels ARD and ZDF will broadcast our matches, the majority of which will take place during the prime time slot at 8:15 p.m. This is something we’ve all dreamt of.
Will Düsseldorf play a role in big events in the future?
Schober: We’re working together to ensure that we can hold the opening game in the opening game for the 2024 European Handball Championship in the Merkur Arena. Düsseldorf is also a top candidate for the Handball World Championships for women in 2024 and for men in 2027, I can tell you that much now. The ISS Dome is super, optimal for top league handball. We experienced it in all its glory during the Supercup and the regionals. You’re close to the field, the acoustics are great and the VIP area is perfect. The city is really committed and many people bring their ideas to the table. We thus get enormous support from Düsseldorf itself. Düsseldorf provides us with a lot of opportunities and we feel we’re in good hands. The German International Youth Championships that took place in Düsseldorf in 2019 were also a successful joint project.
And DHB is set to undergo a structural reform…
Schober: We have got a structural reform planned, which we’ve had to postpone until the coming year. It is split into two components: One of these is member development. We want to keep new members and, of course, gain more. There’s a handball club in every village. Football is the only other sport that enjoys this level of popularity. We want to keep handball socially relevant. This widespread tradition is important to us. The regional subdivisions need to be positioned so that they can help the clubs. We need to improve our structure for this. Firstly, we wish to appoint more full-time employees and strengthen cooperation with the regional associations. Professional sport is the other component. We want to centre the professional ranks.
Can you tell us a bit about future innovations?
Schober: We’re currently building a platform, called handball.net, where all the match results are published. We’re investing half a million Euros in this. We’re investing the same sum in internal digital processes for the association. The CRM system plays a role here – it will be ready for operation at the end of January. We have our own broadcasting format, DHBspotlight, on Facebook, which was first broadcast on the eve of the regional match in Düsseldorf. We share training theory content for young people on a learning platform. There are other measures too; all in all, we feel we’re well-positioned.