Across the Pond: The Deutsche Eishockey Liga’s Battle Against Money

A series of updates on Europe’s top leagues.

Imagine yourself in the following scenario:

You live in Detroit and have been a Red Wings fan your entire life.  As an established Original Six team, you’re well versed in all of their history and legends.  You’ve seen some of their success first hand.  If you’re an older fan, you’ve seen legends like Gordie Howe glide across the ice at Joe Louis Arena.

However, success has not been as easy to come by in recent years.  Old talent has begun to age out.  Despite having some talented newcomers, the team doesn’t have cohesion. Perhaps you traded potential pieces like Calle Jarnkrok to another team. Who knows.

However, Leopold LLC, the owner of the Red Wings, also owns the Chicago Blackhawks and decides that it’s only financially viable for the company to own the Blackhawks. The NHL then gives Leopold LLC less than a month to find a new owner for the Red Wings, a deadline that Leopold LLC is unable to meet.  Upon failure to sell the team, Leopold LLC simply ceases all Red Wings operations and disbands the team.  All of the storied history of the Red Wings vanishes into nothing, as if their legends and stories were completely irrelevant to the hockey world.

That would break your heart, right?

German hockey teams, despite their large following, have encountered more than their fair share of economic mishaps over the history of professional hockey in Germany. However, the disbandment of the Hamburg Freezers last May is the most tragic story to come from a German rink.

The Good of German Hockey

Unlike many foreign leagues, the Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL) is independent from the national hockey association.  In many countries, their equivalent of USA Hockey or Hockey Canada runs the national leagues. However, rather than having the Deutsche Eishockey Bund, the German national association, run the DEL, it is instead a completely independent league.

Furthermore, the DEL is the second most attended hockey league in Europe after the Swiss NLA.  Hockey, rather than handball, is the second most viewed sport in Germany.  When Mannheim and Köln (Cologne) hosted the 2010 IIHF World Championship, their opening game of USA v Germany was played in soccer titan Schalke 04’s Veltnis-Arena, where more than 77,000 hockey fans squeezed their way in.

The DEL is well known for the party atmosphere within each stadium. A tradition derived from German soccer, most stadiums sport some sort of standing room “fan section” behind one end of the ice in the lower bowl.  Imagine if Nashville’s infamous section 303 “cell block” was placed directly behind Corey Crawford for two periods every night, and then expand the cell block to encompass all lower bowl sections on that end of the ice behind the goal line.  The atmosphere is incredible and, as a result, almost has a college hockey feel to it.

Win or Go Broke Trying

Nevertheless, money has always been a plague rather than a blessing to German teams.  Prior to the formation of the DEL, the Deutsche Eishockey Bund had their own league that had a relegation system in place similar to that of soccer in many European countries.  In order for clubs to stay in the lucrative top league, worse teams would take out significant loans to purchase top players.  When clubs inevitably became unable to pay off their debts when their gambles failed, they would either drop all the way down to a fourth or firth Regionalliga (“regional league”) or disband entirely. Although the DEL has provided teams stabler ground than the Deutsche Eishockey Bund’s league, there are still issues of worse teams disbanding from time to time.

In the short history of the DEL, the four most supported clubs, in no particular order, have been the Adler Mannheim (Mannheim Eagles), Eisbären Berlin (Berlin Polar Bears), Kölner Haie (Cologne Sharks), and the Hamburg Freezers.  Until three years ago, it seemed that Berlin and Cologne were in a two-horsed race to try and win the title, but Berlin always ended up on top.

During this era of dominance by the Kölner Haie and Eisbären Berlin, the Hamburg Freezers were always a consistent playoff team, even making the playoff semifinals in the 2013-14 season.  Nevertheless, the struggle for Hamburg to remain at that level of competition was putting a drain on the resources of owner Anschutz Entertainment Group.

Anyone recognize the owner?

Anschutz Entertainment Group has created a web of sports teams and venues under their ownership.  In soccer alone they have invested in parts of six separate American soccer clubs, including the Houston Dynamo, D.C. United, San Jose Earthquakes, New York/New Jersey MetroStars (now the New York Red Bulls), and Chicago Fire. They currently maintain principal ownership of the LA Galaxy.  In addition to other international soccer clubs that Anschutz Entertainment Group own, they own and operate numerous stadiums worldwide, including the Turk Telekom Arena, home to Turkish soccer giant Galatasaray S.K.

In the hockey world, they own the Los Angeles Kings. In fact, Anschutz Entertainment Group even instituted a lion mascot for the Hamburg Freezers called “Stanley,” a supposed cousin of the Kings’ mascot “Bailey.”

However, the most baffling part of their franchise investments has to be in the DEL, where Anschutz Entertainment Group were, until this May, the principal owners of both the Hamburg Freezers and none other than DEL powerhouse Eisbären Berlin.

Placing the conflict of interests and the questionable nature of owning two teams in the same league aside, Anschutz Entertainment Group decided that it would no longer be economically feasible for them to own both the Hamburg Freezers due to their other interests, presumably the need to better fund Eisbären Berlin since this last season marked three straight years without a title.

Upon their declaration to remove themselves from ownership or cease operations in early May, the DEL, not wanting to run the club themselves, only gave Anschutz Entertainment Group until May 24th to sell the team. They could not find a buyer for the organization, and the Hamburg Freezers were immediately disbanded.  All that is left is the broken hearts of fans who had the theoretical rug pulled out from underneath them by an entertainment group with loyalty that only ran as deep as another team in the same league.

Soccer’s Curse, Hockey’s Blessing

For as long as anyone could remember, the most hated team in German soccer was FC Bayern München (Bayern Munich).  Winning the Bundesliga year after year, the red giants of Munich always seem to attract the eyes of German stars on other teams, making them somewhat akin to the New York Yankees in their acquisition of top-tier talent.  However, this past season, for the first time in many, many years, a new team was designated as Germany’s official most hated team: RB Leipzig.

RB Leipzig is one soccer team of many that have been acquired in recent years by energy drink supplier Red Bull.  In the US there’s The New York Red Bulls, in Austria RB Salzburg, and in Germany RB Leipzig.  In the cases of RB Leipzig and RB Salzburg, Red Bull, upon purchasing the teams, did away with all of the teams’ traditions.

Logos were changed to the classic Red Bulls, as if having a giant advertisement on the front of the jerseys was not enough for their marketing team. Furthermore, the names of the teams were changed. Because they were unable to explicitly use “Red Bull” or any abbreviation of it in their name, they called themselves “Rasenballsport Leipzig” (literally meaning “grass-ball sport”), conveniently abbreviating to RB Leipzig. Then, using the company’s deep pockets of cash, RB Leipzig and RB Salzburg had more money than they knew what to do with and quickly rose to the top in their respective countries.  Two weeks ago, RB Leipzig even sat in first place of the German Bundesliga ahead of Bayern München.

Red Bull recently turned its eyes to the DEL, looking for a club to invest in.  In 2012, they settled on EHC München, a relatively young club due to the collapse of former teams in Munich. In 2013, the standard Red Bull logo and sponsorship changes were initiated.  In the 2015-16 season, EHC München won their first title.  Currently sitting eight points clear of second place Nürnberg Ice Tigers with a game in hand, they do not look to be stopping any time soon.

However, unlike in the case of German soccer, the backlash against Red Bull for the acquisition of EHC München is not nearly as strong. Perhaps it’s because they purchased a relatively new team with no history anyways, or that they kept the club’s name relatively intact, only changing it to “EHC Red Bull München”. Yes, fans of the traditional powers Adler Mannheim, Eisbären Berlin, and Kölner Haie certainly may not be pleased, but that can be boiled down to the fact that they are no longer the ones competing for all the titles.

All other factors aside, the biggest reason why there has not been nearly as much backlash about Red Bull’s takeover of EHC München is undeniable fact that the DEL needs teams with money.  It is a huge deal that Red Bull’s money and sponsorship are flooding into the DEL.  All sources of DEL revenue, be it ads, merchandise, or TV contracts, are affected and boosted because of Red Bull’s presence. Red Bull’s investment is a shot in the arm to a league desperate for money.

Nevertheless, the cautionary tale of the Hamburg Freezers and Anschutz Entertainment Group lingers. Can Red Bull be trusted to maintain their interests in EHC Red Bull München while owning so many other teams, and can Red Bull create long term stable ownership? If they cannot, it will only mean the removal of another DEL club from a rink into history.