Interview with England Handball Chief Executive Officer David Meli

David MeliNearly 200 days ago, back on January 16th 2013, England Handball announced their first ever ‘Chief Executive Officer’, more commonly known as a ‘CEO’.

David Meli joined England Handball from Sport England where he was part of the ‘National Governing Body (NGB) Relationship Management Team’ which managed the 2009 £450million investment into sporting governing bodies, one of David’s six sports was handball.

With his wealth of knowledge and skills from within the NGB sector as well as wider commercial and public sector experience from previous roles including positions at Smithkline Beecham, Leisure Connection and the University of Leeds, England Handball appointed him to grow the sport as well as providing guidance and encouragement to their staff and directors.

Tell us about yourself David:
David Meli: I have quite a varied background, predominantly in sport and leisure. Most recently, I was part of the Governing Body Relationship Management team at Sport England, so part of the team that managed 46 sports – including handball. Eight of us covered that with £450 million of development and this gave me good knowledge across seven or eight sports.

Prior to that I had worked in facility operation, sales and marketing and also in commercial development with education; so a quite varied background.

Sport has always been in my life – I am a failed professional footballer like most people, I am a golfer nowadays. I spent a couple of years at Arsenal FC and a few years at Reading FC back in the mid-1980s.

I actually played in the same youth team as (former England international and Arsenal FC captain) Tony Adams – I was a forward, a striker, in 1984. Following my time at Arsenal FC I then spent three years at Reading.

I don’t play as much football now – golf is my poison now. I am certainly not from a handball background, which in some respects gives me a fresh pair of eyes to look at it.

What surprised or impressed you most when you first worked in handball?

David Meli: I managed handball for three years when I was working at Sport England so got to know the guys there quite well and I got to know the passion and enthusiasm that they have for the sport.

It’s a small sport in this country and everybody knows everybody else so it’s a real tight-knit community, but we’ve got that mixture of foreign nationals who just want to play the game and we need to embrace that and grab hold of the skills and knowledge they bring.

There is a real groundswell of interest at grassroots level, especially in schools, from people wanting to try something new and the trick for us is harnessing that. It’s harnessing that enthusiasm; giving them somewhere to play when they are there in programmes like this and the satellite clubs, so they can maintain that outside of school time.

Of course I have watched club handball here in England and was at the Copper Box for the Olympics but I am looking forward, if time allows, seeing some handball events in Europe this year.

How did you cope with the large increase in handball in England after the London 2012 Olympics?

David Meli: It was extremely busy. Getting the increase in Sport England funding for this past four-year cycle from the 1st April (2013) has helped us to enable us to bring in a slightly bigger team, not a huge increase, but in terms of Development Officers, we’re up to about 10 now, but that’s a mixture of one day a week to full-time posts.

I’ve come in and hopefully I am bringing in more to the top end in terms of administration support and guidance to the rest of the team but what we’re not going to do is suddenly end up with a massive great team – we can’t fund it and we can’t sustain it.

Our main aim is to get out into the community, get out into local authorities, get out into local education and train up a workforce that can then deliver on our behalf.

There has been a 40% increase of schools taking part in our national schools competition since the London 2012 Olympics, so a huge increase and that is really where we are going to see the drive.

One of the big challenges that we face with handball in England is the lack of facilities, a lack of suitable-sized facilities to play 7-on-7 handball.

But that’s fine; we’ll adapt – you can play this sport anywhere, with any number of people, in any environment.

A year ago these two weeks saw the London 2012 Olympics taking place, a lot has been talked about legacy and a lot about handball within Great Britain, and England, has been written and said about this – give us one line about the legacy.

David Meli: There’s no doubting , if you’re talking about the Olympic legacy of sports in Britain, that we are one of the few sports that have seen that and we have the power to grow.

Do people within sports development in England finally understand how developing skills in handball at all levels can help ground people in skills for many other sports?

David Meli: The idea that we can be a grounding for all kinds of other sports? You’re absolutely right. Handball has so many transferable skills – hand eye coordination, invasion games – all those sort of skills.

The key bit for us is the Primary School funding that is starting up in September 2013 because at Primary level in the English education system they don’t talk about a ‘sport’ they talk about ‘physical literacy’ – running, jumping, throwing, catching and you think ‘well that’s the four main components of handball’, so why should we not be something they get into?

We want people sticking with handball and what we’re about is giving them the chance to carry on playing, through programmes like this and then linking in with national clubs.

You mentioned the Sport England and Primary School funding, tell us more about them.

David Meli: We received a four-year, whole-sport funding which started on 1st April 2013 and runs to 31st March 2017 – and that is from Sport England and is worth £1.2 million.

The Primary School funding comes direct from the British Government, but we don’t have any involvement in that. It’s basically £150 million, for each of the next two years, from September 2013, with money going directly to Primary School Headteachers, so, on average; they will get about £9,000 each.

It will be up to us as a governing body to say how we can help them – how can they spend that money in a sustainable way.

Anybody can go and put a coach in the school, but we can show how we can train people up so we can leave it there and then come away but handball still gets delivered.

We recently spoke at the Premier League 4 Sport (PL4S) announcement of a new funding cycle which England Handball are closely involved with – how did that partnership start?

David Meli: We were one of the sports that were fortunately involved at the start of Premier League 4 Sport when the funding was split between the Premier League clubs and the governing bodies, so that helped to get the partnership established and we’ve really gone from strength-to-strength from there.

That was probably around 2009/2010, so just at the front end of the 09-13 cycle. It was really a fantastic opportunity for us as a small sport, alongside some of the other more mainstream sports, to get a chance to showcase our stuff and link with the Premier League and that’s gone on to where we are now, part of this still growing programme and the opportunity to link up with more clubs across a wider sphere and geographical area.

This new, three-year funding deal kicks in from September 2013.

Does the link with the Premier League allow the potential for grassroots handball clubs to possibly link up with the football sides and create a multi-sport club using the football brand?

David Meli: It certainly doesn’t hurt having the link with the Premier League. Whatever is, or has been, said about using the power of the brand of the Premier League is great, because it allows and attracts people in and gives them a chance to try something new.

There is no doubt that handball, for the first time last year, in this country, with the Olympics, was the for many people the first time they saw it at an elite level and we were getting phone calls asking ‘how do we get involved in the sport’ from people walking out of the Copper Box (after an Olympic handball match).

We don’t have the opportunity currently, like the large clubs do in Europe, where you can link people (across multi sports within the club), but this is very much an embryonic starting point and whilst the Premier League bit helps undoubtedly, it’s also about us working with our national league clubs, who are not at the same sort of level, to show how they can grow and link into a satellite club programme.

It will allow us, with our focus from an England Handball perspective in schools, to say ‘OK you’ve enjoyed it in school, where next?’ and we can show them a local club, it could be a Premier League club, through a satellite programme, or it may be one of our national league clubs that are already established, but just giving youngsters a chance to carry on playing on a regular basis.

This is absolutely fundamental to what we want to do and how we grow the sport.

How does the PL4S actually work on the ground?

David Meli: It’s very much a partnership; they know their clubs and the power of their brand. So, for example, with Arsenal FC, we would send a coach into one of their existing community programme sports sessions, but we also train their coaches up – we will coach the coaches.

They will have multi-sport coaches, who have done coaching qualifications in other sports, but we can give them a qualification in handball, starting with Level One – it’s all about getting people playing, not about making it difficult for people to play.

If people have done qualifications in other sports, we can do handball add-on, get the technical bit and go and deliver.

The idea is that kids aren’t waiting around to play – five minutes and then you’re playing; it’s a very simple game to play. We’ll train people up so it is not sucking resources out of us on a regular basis, it gives the sustainability of that programme at that local level and the profile of the Premier League being involved cannot hurt.

England Handball Girls Partille 2013This grassroots development involves national teams at a variety of different age levels. England Handball were recently at the 2013 Partille Cup, how has that been?

David Meli: We had our U16 boys and girls out there, and it was a great opportunity for them to experience top level junior handball in the single biggest youth handball tournament in the world.

We have a fantastic partnership with the Swedish federation – they are really, really supportive about what we do – it’s great. There is no doubt about it – this is what we need with England at our age levels; exposure to that sort of competition which is only going to help with our development.

We’ve also been supporting the GB U19s out at the European Open there too and in our first game we beat Israel 26:22. Two years ago we got beat 27:4 – now that to me is progress.

A lot of media attention has been focussed on UK Sport cutting funding entirely for GB Handball under their ‘No Compromise’ policy. What do you say to young people who are progressing through junior handball in England when they ask about representing GB in international tournaments and the money is not there to support entry and support?

David Meli: There is no doubt that this is a challenge and we cannot hide the fact that there is no funding at the elite level.

However, we have a fantastic, growing ‘Advance Apprenticeship in Sporting Excellence’ (AASE) programme, so we will get up to 70 students on that from September and we’ve still got the younger age group teams who we are trying to support, in partnership with Scotland, playing as Great Britain.

We’ve perhaps got the infrastructure and manpower to do that as England Handball, and I think that actually is the real story – the potential in the future.

Yes, there is no funding at the moment, but if we start going back to UK Sport in a couple of years time and say ‘look at how the Under 19s have done at the European Open’, ‘look at how the Under 19 Women are doing’, and we can start that ball rolling and I think that potentially opens the door wider – because, certainly, the door is not closed.

It’s not something we can do on an ongoing basis – certainly not at a senior level. The only way we are going to crack is by coming together, is being united and we’ve got to make sure that Britain is clear in what it wants to do and that we can work to support that, but I think that the more we can do with junior development the better.

If we broaden the base at grassroots level, you are going to get more players coming through, it’s basic number crunching – the more we can get that to increase, the more likely we are to get potential coming through.

You want to see how our U16s are doing because they are our future U18s and U19s, so we will still maintain that progress, but we are still reliant on the parents of those youngsters funding that programme – we can fund it to a point, but if we really want to make it work, is where we can get private sponsorship in.

We’ve done it with the U19s at the European Open this time around; the Multisol Group came in and gave us some funding which meant that the U19s weren’t staying in a dormitory; they were staying in a hotel. It sounds small, but it’s a massive difference in terms of rest, recuperation and relaxation and preparation, so if we can do things like that then I think we can then come back internally to the likes of UK Sport and say ‘that’s the potential’, ‘that’s what’s worth investing in’.

You had your Annual General Meeting last month – anything to update on?

David Meli: We re-elected Mike Briers as Chair of England Handball, there were a couple of new appointments on to the board – Bill Baillie has joined as Performance and National Team Director, Radu Miclaus in onboard as Competitions and Events Director.

The main thing for me was getting some things through in terms of streamlining our membership, just trying to improve that for our clubs and make it easier for them to understand and give them a little bit back.

It’s really about continuing this drive and getting the clubs on board who are our main members with the idea that it is about developing the sport and they are an intrinsic part of that – we cannot do that without them because there is only so much you can do in schools.

You also appeared at the House of Lords last month too, speaking about the London 2012 ‘legacy’, what did that involve?

David Meli: Yes, it was at the House of Lords Select Committee about the Olympics and Paralympic Legacy. It was very positive, but I was sat in a room alongside tennis, football and boxing – perhaps more mainstream Olympic sports in this country, although tennis and football are multi-million pound sports.

It was great for us to be in that sort of environment and put our case across because, if you’re talking about legacy, is there a legacy in tennis and football from the Olympics? Probably not.

Certainly in boxing, in women’s boxing, but with handball, undoubtedly, so to get the chance to get in that sort of environment, in that sort of audience and present the case for handball was fantastic.

In some respects there was a certain amount of education to be done, but it was certainly not a token gesture to get handball in. I think it was a fantastic opportunity to give handball another push and to raise the profile a bit more and keep it in the spotlight.

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