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.