Do superstars attract larger audiences in the Handball-Bundesliga?

For decades, researchers have examined the potential effect that superstar players have on fans’ decision on whether or not to attend a match at the arena. As part of my master’s thesis at the German Sport University Cologne, I decided to conduct the first of these types of statistical analyses in a handball context – with interesting results.

For my analysis, I considered historical data from a total of 1,224 games played in the 2016/17, 2017/18, 2018/19 and 2022/23 seasons. Due to restrictions on attendance, including data from 2020 and 2021 would have invalidated the results. I defined superstars as players with at least one nomination or individual award (MVP/best defence player/best young player) at a major international tournament (IHF World Championships, EHF European Championships, Summer Olympics). In the course of the four seasons considered in the data set, 23 foreign and 9 German players fulfilled that definition.

The distribution of these players among the different HBL clubs is largely the way fans who are familiar with the league would have expected: THW Kiel, Füchse Berlin, SG Flensburg-Handewitt, and Rhein-Neckar Löwen are at the top of the ranking. Somewhat surprisingly, SC Magdeburg is lagging far behind. Despite all the club’s high-performing players, Oscar Bergendahl was the only player to fulfil the superstar definition while playing for the club during the four seasons in question.

Figure 1: Average Number of Superstars per Game and Club in the Sampling Period

Relative to the average attendance in the HBL during the four season considered in the data (4,808 spectators), each superstar playing for the home team attracted an additional 149 spectators to a game he participated in. This effect was far more pronounced for German players: Each individual German superstar increased attendance by 212 spectators as opposed to 77 per foreign superstar. These numbers illustrate a certain level of so-called “spectator patriotism” among the HBL audience.

What’s more: While the models did not provide significant evidence of attendance effects caused by foreign superstars playing for the away team, German away team superstars did have an effect and attracted 125 additional fans. This is what economists refer to as a “positive externality”: By selling a higher number of tickets, home teams benefited financially from German superstars whose salaries were being paid by their opponents.

These results are summarised in the following figure which shows the attendance increase caused by the different types of players relative to the average attendance in the four HBL seasons that were considered. The bars representing “Superstars Away” and “Foreign Superstars Away” are coloured in a lighter tone to indicate that these effects were not statistically significant.

Figure 2: Attendance Increases Caused By Superstar Players

Of course, the statistical models also had to include a range of other factors in order for the results to be meaningful. If Füchse Berlin, for example, played one of their home games at Max-Schmeling-Halle, fans might be attracted by the chance to see superstars like Mathias Gidsel or Hans Lindberg on the pitch. But there are also other aspects that could have played a role. These were accounted for through more than 50 so-called “control variables” included in the model. Among other things, these variables revealed the following:

  • Professional football games played nearby resulted in smaller HBL crowds. This is commonly referred to as a “substitution effect”.
  • Late weekend games and matches played on public holidays attracted additional fans.
  • Away teams with a long and successful history drew in more spectators.
  • A more attractive playing style of the home team, that is to say a higher number of goals scored in previous games, attracted more fans.
  • Matches against local rivals also held a special appeal to spectators.
  • Even though attendance restrictions were lifted, some spectators seem to have been reluctant to return to the arenas in 2022/23. Attendances in that season were lower than what the models would otherwise have predicted.

Despite my efforts, a number of questions remain unanswered. My study could for example not contribute to the ongoing debate as to whether the audience appeal of superstars is mainly a result of their outstanding performances or if their likeability and popularity is more decisive. What do you think? And do you have feedback or further questions regarding my analysis? If yes, feel free to reach out to me!

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Jasper Mohr

Jasper Mohr is a recent M.Sc. Sport Management graduate with a passion for data and sports. You can contact him via e-mail ( or on LinkedIn.

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