Germany’s ski jumpers fought tooth and nail on the Sunday before Christmas to get World Cup points, yet only 3 million people tuned in to watch their valiant efforts in Engelberg, Switzerland.
Those figures paled in comparison to the 5.7 million fans who on the same day watched the soccer highlights. When it came to TV viewing figures, football won the day 2-1.
But in the period after Christmas, when Germany’s Bundesliga goes into its annual winter hibernation and the stars of Bayern Munich run their training drills under the desert sun in Qatar, Germany’s ski-jumping team, the Eagles, have the country’s sports fans all to themselves. During the Four Hills Tournament the ski jumpers steal the limelight from the footballers and this year could be Germany’s biggest chance in a long time. The show begins Tuesday evening at 7 p.m., with the opening event in Oberstdorf and continues until January 6.
But just because soccer is on hold doesn’t guarantee that German sports fans will automatically turn to ski jumping. The most important thing in attracting a TV audience is star power.
“If you don’t have big characters, you’ll reach nobody,” says the former ski racer Christian Neureuther, from long experience.
In the past few years, Severin Freund has given the sport some of that star power. In the 2014/15 season he became the first German to win the World Cup since Martin Schmitt in 1999/2000. The 27-year-old world champion has become a familiar face and could be Germany’s biggest chance at the Four Hills in more than 10 years.
Germany hasn’t taken home gold from the Four Hills since Sven Hannawald dominated in 2001/2002.
The Austrians have topped the tournament for the last seven consecutive years, keeping gold to themselves and filling most of the other steps on the podium too.
This year that could change, according to Black Forest native Martin Schmitt, who took the World Cup four times but was always luckless in the Four Hills tournament.
Mr. Schmitt says he expects to see a duel between Severin Freund and the Slovenian jumper Peter Prevc dominate the 64th Four Hills.
“They are the two jumpers that this season, as well as last season, have left the greatest impression on me,” he said. “In my eyes, they are the two who have the greatest potential.”
So, the big characters are there and the battle is shaping up. The Slovenian finished second in the last two World Cup seasons and this year tops the world rankings. He also pulled out third and fourth places at the last two Four Hills. On the other hand, Severin Freund is second in the world championship rankings, but his form for the Four Hills has been patchy. In the last two Four Hills tournaments he ranked eighth and sixteenth.
Michael Witta looks after the Four Hills account at the Swiss marketing firm Infront Sports and Media. To him, a German victory would be a good thing, as Germany is Europe’s biggest winter sports market.
“The numbers are best when a German jumper is in the running for the title right up ’til the last moment,” he says.
Back at the start of the tournament, Mr. Witta had something of a victory of his own, in roping in carmaker Audi as the flagship sponsor.
“That’s a sign that ski jumping is becoming more important in Germany,” he says.
The Volkswagen subsidiary has a strong presence in ski jumping, as it does in the Alpine World Cup. Audi’s main competitor, BMW, concentrates on the biathlon, bobsled and tobogganing.
For the last few years, Infront has made a point of exclusivity. Instead of the nine sponsors previously associated with the Four Hills Tournament, these have been whittled down to five. The theory is that this gives each brand greater recognition. The same philosophy underpins the two-kilometer-long LED strips which have been installed at all four jumps. The purpose is to make sponsor messages visible to TV audiences, even in the thickest snowstorms.
Alongside Audi, sponsors include Veltins brewery, the insurance giant Generali, the hardware megastore chain Bauhaus, as well as sporting goods hypermarket chain Intersport. In autumn Intersport renewed its contract to cover this season’s tournament.
Intersport chief executive Franz Julen says the Four Hills Tournament is a highlight in Nordic sports and that means it attracts his customer base.
“Especially at this attractive time of year, as the change to a new year occurs, it’s an optimal opportunity for us to communicate with our target group in many age groups,” he says.
“The numbers are best when a German jumper is in the running for the title right up 'til the last moment.”
Veltins is also enthusiastic about the tournament. “With the Nordic disciplines and the Four Hills as the highlight, our focus is on popular events,” says marketing director Herbert Sollich. “The response and the range from the last winter season have convinced us to continue the overarching concept this season.”
The sponsors know exactly what they’re getting for their money – brand exposure in the countries that the ski jumpers come from. Alongside Germany, Switzerland and Austria, the major markets are Norway, Finland, Sweden, Poland, the Czech Republic, Russia and Japan. There is some interest from Japanese sponsors, like Honda. In the rest of the world there’s barely a flicker of interest. Intercontinental but not global, is how Infront describes the marketing reach of ski jumping.
Whoever has a sponsorship presence in the four tournament locations: Oberstdorf, Innsbruck, Garmisch Pertenkirchen and Bischofshofen, makes maximum use of the opportunity to invite business associates or high-profile customers along. The fact that winter sports events take place in such a unique setting give this so-called hospitality even greater importance and many visitors will take the longer travel times in their stride.
Even if everything is much more modest than in the Champions League in soccer, the Four Hills tournament still pulls 97,500 spectators to the hills, making it one of the biggest sporting events in Europe.
One thing is for certain: between now and the last jump in Bischofshofen on January 6, ski jumping will be the top sporting event in the northern hemisphere sporting world, and the first choice for many television watchers.
Last winter, more than 140 million people around the world watched the event on TV and an impressive 34 million fans switched on during the tournament in Germany alone, one fifth more than the year before. This year that upwards trend is likely to continue, especially if the German Eagles are in the thick of it right to the end.
Joachim Hofer reports on the sports and leisure industries and IT for Handelsblatt from Munich. To contact him: email@example.com.