Handball's popularity continues to surge
By Oisin Cusack
With 170 clubs and over 15,000 members, handball’s popularity has grown significantly in the last few decades.
Martin Mulkerrins from the Maigh Cuilinn club in Galway is one of the sport’s leading players and has witnessed this growth first-hand in his native county which now has 16 handball clubs, second only to Wexford with 17.
“I can categorically say that the numbers in Galway have increased dramatically since I started playing, dramatically,” says Mulkerrins.
“When I started playing handball in 2004 there was only really one club in Williamstown with juveniles, but now there are 11 or 12 clubs.”
“The Cumann na mBunscol competitions have regularly 100-plus in them, this would have been unheard of when I started.
“That’s just a massive growth since 2004 and new clubs are opening and registering all the time.”
With the popularity of handball increasing, the One wall code, or Wallball as it has since been rebranded, offers opportunity for further development.
The game started in Ireland as almost a hobby for the summer months for players to pass the time between the small alley and big alley seasons.
Now, though, Wallball the fastest growing code of handball with numbers increasing substantially in the last five years. It now stands on its own two feet just like handball’s two other codes 60x30 and 40x20.
Darragh Daly, the National Handball Development Officer in Ireland, believes Wallball is the future of the sport
“I think every handball community appreciates that (Wallball) is the way forward,” he says.
“In terms of opening up accessibility to new demographics and new areas of the country wallball is key,” Darragh said.
“In the past eight years, there have been 500 walls put up in schools all over the country. These have been all self-funded by the schools as well. We get weekly emails from schools saying they’ve put up a wall and are looking for dimensions for courts so it is clearly the way forward.”
The construction of these 500 walls has been key to increasing playing numbers and has seen a renaissance of handball in schools.
This would not have been possible to do with big alley or small alley courts that cost tens of thousands to construct. Wallball courts can be erected however for as little as 400 euro.
The 20 by 40-foot dimensions of the court also mean that several courts can be set up in any given area to allow a greater number of people to play. Wallball – with no side walls or back wall - ensures the game can also be watched by more people than a four-wall game.
Wallball is also the fastest-growing code internationally by a considerable margin with 33 other countries playing the game worldwide.
The game has grown particularly strong in New York. With an estimated 2300 courts in the five boroughs of New York, Wallball is now second only to basketball as far as street game popularity goes and is growing in popularity around Europe too.
The profile of the European Wallball Tour is increasing all the time in countries like Spain, Italy, Belgium, and the UK and a new World Wall Ball Association (WWBA) has been established with the aim of achieving Olympic status for the sport.
“In terms of internationally, for handball to ever even have a hope of Olympic recognition, handball associations need to agree on a code and I think everyone is coming together to play (Wallball),” says Daly.
“We need other countries to have handball national governing bodies. In Ireland, we (GAA handball) are the governing body and in America, you have the USHA (United States Handball Association) but so many other countries haven’t got the same recognised bodies.
“The Olympics isn’t on the radar for now but it’s a nice goal to have and hopefully we will get there someday.”
The potential of Wallball can be seen in the progress the code has made in a relatively short space of time. The One Wall nationals, now known as Wallball nationals, started as a fairly poorly attended event in the late 1990s but have since turned into the highest attended event on the handball calendar.
While handball has been making positive strides, Covid-19 restrictions have meant that the progress the game has made has been slowed down the past year.
On the 7th of June, however, the Irish government announced that Indoor sports could resume on an individual basis and GAA handball last week announced the launch of an ambitious new campaign called “Summer Series 2021.”
The series is a promotional and development campaign to help increase the visibility of handball back in the public eye and for handballers to enjoy the game they have been deprived of for so long.
The Summer Series has five key strands. The first involves a series of pop-up events at a number of outdoor locations to showcase handball to new parts of the country.
The second is a push to encourage clubs to run their own outdoor tournaments. The third and fourth strands are incentives for clubs to host summer camps and coaching courses.
The last strand is called the ‘any ball any wall; county challenge which encompasses a campaign to see how many Wallball courts people can get lined out or constructed with prizes given out to counties and clubs who have put in the most effort.
Darragh Daly will be project lead on the Summer Series and is excited about the potential it offers.
“I see so much potential growth for our game through outdoor and recreational play. I can’t wait to see the handball community roll behind the project have some fun and do their part to bringing our game back to the public’s eye.”
Read more about GAA Handball's Summer Series HERE