Strategic growth: European Handball Federation on growing its fan base on Twitch and TikTok

Thomas Schoneich, director of media and communications at the EHF, comments on the overall strategy for growing EHF viewership in Europe from Ljubljana, Slovenia at the Women’s EHF Euro 2022

The European Handball Federation (EHF) is forging ahead with its ambition to become the most attractive indoor team sport for fans – old and new – by 2030.

It was founded on 17 November 1991 and is the umbrella organisation for handball in Europe, with 50 member federations and two associated federations.

“Overall, this comes together from a very, very global perspective to turn handball into the most attractive team sport in this decade, to climb up [with] 24/7, 365-day content provision to our partners”

Headquartered in Vienna, Austria, the EHF’s responsibilities include the organisation and management of the world’s most high profile and competitive handball competitions, including the EHF Champions League and EHF Euro events.

Speaking from Ljubljana, Slovenia at the Women’s EHF Euro 2022, being held in Slovenia, North Macedonia and Montenegro from 4 to 20 November, Thomas Schoneich, director of media and communications at the EHF, comments on the overall strategy for growing EHF viewership in Europe. He says it is based on three pillars working towards, “the overarching strategic plan that we are following, and that is to turn handball into the most attractive indoor team sport in this decade”.

Pillars of growth

Those pillars include the growth of the game and its funding, working with its partners Infront and DAZN to create a 365/24/7 approach to its content, and to focus on specific topics within the sport, with a focus right now on the women of handball in Europe.

Adds Schoneich: “Then what we’re trying to do in terms of growth is to grow on a horizontal level and try and reach new people, while at the same time satisfying our existing fan base. You obviously have a hardcore fan base that you also have to supply with content and that you also have to serve, and at the same time, you have to provide content to reach new audiences. In that respect, we work very extensively with the federations and the players, because they are the best ambassadors that we have to promote the sport.

“We work quite extensively with broadcast partners, and supply them with content,” continues Schoneich. “We work with influencers to reach new bases, and that’s the horizontal level. And on a vertical scale, you have to look in terms of the quality of the content that you provide. There’s a lot of short-form content which we do, but there’s also increasingly a focus on long-form, behind the scenes, in-depth content to have a better opportunity to tell the stories of the sport.

“Overall, this comes together from a very, very global perspective to turn handball into the most attractive team sport in this decade, to climb up [with] 24/7, 365-day content provision to our partners.”

The EHF is working hard to increase its social media presence and therefore a new, younger fan base

TikTok time

This goal of becoming the most attractive team sport of the decade is being carefully measured, states Schoneich, and it is going very well. He says: “We have one KPI that we’re following; it’s a very hard number. We want to have 2.5 million followers on our social media channels by 2025.

“Twitch is very, very hard. You have to fight for every follower, whereas sometimes on TikTok you think that they just come to you in comparison”

“In 2020, we started with about 1.1 million across our entire ecosystem, and by now we are actually close to 2.2 million already, as of 11 November. That’s in particular due to the success we’ve had on TikTok. Our efforts on TikTok, and we were lucky enough to have a partnership with them in January 2022 for the previous European Championship, comes back to our strategy, because reaching new audiences also means being present where these people are and trying to supply them with content on platforms which they use. Over the past year, I’d say, if I go back to 8 November 2021 when we had 190,000 followers, our TikTok channel has grown by around 400,000, to now, as I speak now, 590,000 if I’m not mistaken. So more than 200% growth. So that’s a very hard number.”

Schoneich comments on the EHF’s more recent focus on a younger generation of fans, and how it is working to balance that with its existing hardcore fan base. “I think the key for the federation, and I think here we are all in the same boat so what I’m saying is not specific to the European Handball Federation is, yes we obviously all want to target the younger generation, the famous Gen Z; that’s why we’re on TikTok. A year and a half ago already we started our presence on Twitch, and we’re actually quite heavily investing in Twitch at the moment here at the championship. But at the same time, you have to cater for your existing audience, because when it comes to ticket sales, the attendance when we come to live matches is a totally different age group to the ones that we are targeting on TikTok.

“When it comes to a content strategy, that’s how we try to approach it; it’s one thing targeting the younger generation on TikTok and providing them with content, actively engaging with them via community management, but it’s another thing – and it’s equally important – to talk to your existing fan base, try to achieve new customers also in other generations. If we don’t get these young people now then we may not get them in the future, but at the same time, we cannot just only focus on the TikTok generation of the world, and focus 98% of our efforts on pushing out 15 second long reels, or 15 second long TikToks.”

EHF produces its TikTok content almost entirely inhouse, using a dedicated person that works with the content available which is usually filmed inhouse, or by its broadcast partners. For instance, at the Women’s European Championship now, EHF has three mobile reporters on the ground producing dedicated vertical content which is being used for TikTok.

Twitch is not as simple a proposition as TikTok, says Schoneich. “The challenge starts once you’re present on Twitch, because you also have to – to a big extent – alter your content portfolio”

Feeling Twitch-y

The EHF’s relationship with Twitch began in May 2021. Schoneich says that working on Twitch is a markedly different experience to working on TikTok, and that the investment required to make traction on the platform is high.

“Twitch is very, very hard,” he warns. “You have to fight for every follower, whereas sometimes on TikTok you think that they just come to you in comparison. On Twitch, you fight for every follower, but I believe that it’s of vital importance, and I think Twitch offers the opportunity to engage with the people in a very direct way, so to say. Much more direct than on TikTok.

“Creating an account is easy and everyone can do it,” continues Schoneich. “The challenge starts once you’re present on Twitch, because you also have to – to a big extent – alter your content portfolio. We can’t show live content, because that is either on EHF-TV or it’s geoblocked, and geoblocking on Twitch is very, very difficult; it’s technically possible, but Twitch’s approach usually is not to geoblock.

“So we’ve very much gone into talk and engagement formats. For example, one format that has been quite successful is we are partnering with a podcast. We basically get this podcast crew on Twitch for a whole match predictor show; like we have in our app, we have a match predictor for the European Championship. We got these guys to predict all the preliminary round matches, so that’s 24 matches, talking like, “OK, there is Sweden playing Denmark, what do you think about Sweden?”. Twitch, with the engagement tools it provides, offers a lot of opportunities to then engage with the fans, talk to the fans, “What is your opinion? What do you think?”, and allows people to jump in and leave their comments.”

Schoneich continues: “On our level, we are not UEFA or FIFA, so I don’t have endless amount of Euros, so I had to make a judgement call on making a step onto [the Twitch] platform; [you have to commit] to making the step, because it requires resources that you have to invest, financially and on the human side. We have now partnered, for this European Championship [on Twitch] with the Seven League agency for production support. There’s a lot which we still do inhouse, but we’ve got an agency on board to help us, and to eventually grow it.”

He adds: “It’s a lot of time, it’s a lot of investment which goes into Twitch. In the grand scheme of things, our channel is small, just shy of 7,000 followers, so compared to TikTok it’s nothing, but at the same time, when you look at other sports entities who have an account on Twitch, Juventus Turin for example, they have 80,000 followers on Twitch. And at the same time if you look at the Juventus Turin Instagram account, then that probably has more than 50 million, so the difference is not unusual.”

Schoneich continues: “That’s the challenge, I think for a federation of our scale, to invent these new content formats, invent these platform-specific content formats, and then try and stick with them, and try to find the right way to speak to the audience on this platform. There are definitely handball fans on Twitch, and these are the ones that we obviously reach, but at the same time we’re trying to reach the people who are on Twitch who are used to certain formats, and to try to see what their habits are and say, “here’s an offer for you, a different sport, but it might be of interest”.”

“What we’ve managed is that on Twitch, we have the main platform for European Handball. If you want to know about European Handball on Twitch, then we are the reference platform.”

Registering OTT

The EHF also runs its own over the top (OTT) platform, EHF-TV, which has been in existence for several years. Recently this has been bought under tighter control, having been available as a free content platform its early years, but since 1 July 2020, available with a simple user registration.

The registration requirement means the EHF now knows more about its fans and can therefore actively address content to their likes and requirements on EHF-TV, “and thus we are able to bring them closer into our ecosystem,” notes Schoneich. “Suddenly, we have the knowledge and the possibility to not only enter a conversation with them, but to actively turn them into a fan, and eventually also a customer. So in a very ideal way, the people we talk and reach on EHF-TV should eventually also buy a ticket to one of our matches.”

Continues Schoneich: “We were pleasantly surprised how successful this [registration system] is, and we can see that with the content that we can reach whole different audiences.” It now has 400,000 registered users.

Adds Schoneich: “With the Women’s EHF Euro 2022 now, we reach about 80 territories worldwide with our coverage [through rights holding broadcasters], so that means when it comes to the European Championship, our OTT platform is more a dark market platform when it comes to live coverage. It covers and supports us in regions where European handball otherwise would not be present, say Asia for example. Whereas when it comes to lower tier championships like underage European tournaments, the TV coverage happens on a much smaller extent; it might only be covered in the local market for example. Then, with EHF-TV, we can ensure coverage of this specific tournament also in core markets, maybe Scandinavia, or maybe Western or Central Europe, and we reach a different audience that we can then bring closer to us.”

Broadcasters are a key part of the EHF’s ambitions to grow its presence globally. Seen here, players battle it out in the Women’s EHF Euro 2022

Broadcast buddies

Broadcasters are a key part of the EHF’s ambitions to grow its presence globally, says Schoneich. “I think the broadcasters are a very important stakeholder in our entire ecosystem. In Scandinavia we have very strong broadcaster contracts, and broadcast partners such as Viaplay in Norway, or TV 2 in Denmark, so they broadcast the entire championship. But I think it’s very much a symbiosis; we are trying to supply [broadcasters] with extra content to help them fill their pre-match programmes, to help them fill post-match programmes, to help them fill news coverage, and also to help them fill their social media channels. We also provide broadcasters with 9:16 format, so they can then put this on their social media and say, “look, here’s Norway arriving, tune in to follow the live match at six o’clock” or whatever.

“From my point of view, this is fully complementary [to our goals]. We see our role to eventually grow the overall fan base of handball, and support the broadcasters to increase viewership in their respective countries, and also show a global audience what an attractive sport handball is.”

Adds Schoneich: “We obviously work quite closely with Infront and DAZN when it comes to the production of content that immediately derives from the matches, and it’s then not only used on our channels, but it’s also distributed to our partners, for example match highlights, or top goals or top saves compilations. So there’s a digital production unit currently in Madrid producing these highlights, also with the help of artificial intelligence (AI) from WSC Sports. When it comes to long-form content, [they come from] partly the partnership we have with Infront and DAZN, and partly we are doing it ourselves by hiring and employing our own ENG crews.”

Working as a joint venture that was established in 2020, DAZN and Infront are the EHF’s media marketing partners. Comments Schoneich: “It was very much part of when we started the partnership in 2020 that we three together would really leverage this content production. [It doesn’t] stop with the video production, but on our side, we complement this with editorial coverage. We try in this 365-day 24/7 approach really to not to leave any gaps.”

Symbiotic relationships

Schoneich concludes that the EHF’s relationship with its broadcasters are symbiotic. “We are in the same boat, with the same aim; to grow the sport, and to show what an exciting sport handball is. In order to do this, we do our best to work together so that both entities reach their aim.”

The federation’s work with the Swiss team at the Women’s EHF Euro 2022 is a prime example of how its broadcasting aims are helping to meet its growth goals. On 8 November prior to the day’s matches being played in Slovenia, it released a programme on the rise of the Swiss women’s team, which comes from a country where handball is still very much a niche sport. This is the first championship that the Swiss team has played at, but, says Schoneich, in two years the country is set to host the Women’s EHF Euro 2024.

“So it’s a very exciting time, and the opportunity for the Swiss team to be here – even though they lost their preliminary matches and went home – but there is a lot of potential in this team and a lot of excitement with this team,” says Schoneich.

“So first of all, this is obviously something that we want to show, because it’s a great newcomer story and at the same time, and literally as I speak here, we are uploading this [programme] to our content platform for the broadcasters to have access to, and in particular for Swiss television to have access to; not every broadcaster has the opportunity to do [their EHF coverage] like TV 2, where handball is a massive sport in their country and they have crews at all our venues. Swiss television has basically bought the rights so here we help the broadcaster to get additional content for their coverage for free, which it can either play at half time or play before the match.

“In the end we have the same goal, because we believe we have [a programme] that creates the message that we want to convey about handball, and about this tournament, and at the same time can gain us new viewers in Switzerland.”

Tune into EHF TV and follow the championship at to see more from the Women’s EHF Euro 2022

Creating sports content for mobile, particularly for TikTok, is one of the subjects that will be featured at SVG Europe’s FutureSPORT event in London on 15 November 2022. Find out more:

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