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CHL CEO Martin Baumann: "We'd like to have a true European Championship"

CHL CEO Martin Baumann
© Roman Kučera

With the first games less than three months away, Champions Hockey League CEO Martin Baumann discussed what brought the international banker to the top position of Europe's premier international club competition, and what he sees it developing into.

by Derek O'Brien

How did you first get involved with the CHL?

My primary background is in banking, primarily private banking, around the globe. But it was always a dream of mine to return to sports. I used to play sports, I still do, and I've followed sports my whole life, especially hockey.

Then I met a friend in the sports business who told me that the Champions Hockey League was looking for a person to head the new project and I applied. During the interview process I understood that they preferred to have an external person, with no direct links to any of the various stakeholder groups behind the CHL.

Why did they think it would be better to have someone external?

All people involved in this would admit that European hockey was fragmented. You had the clubs, the leagues and the IIHF.

When I first started I knew nobody, not a single person from a league or a club. I was neutral, which you wouldn't have if you had someone from one of the leagues, or from the clubs or IIHF. At least as far as the perception is concerned, there would always be the idea that you would put the interests of these people or shareholders first, and with someone external, this isn't the case.

Also, this is my background, bringing together different companies from different countries and cultures to work toward a goal. They asked me, "What is the difference between managing in the banking industry, managing major projects and managing here?" and I told them, "It's more or less the same."

What additional challenges are there when dealing with companies, or in this case leagues and teams, from different countries?

In addition to dealing with different business interests, you're dealing with different ways of governance, different cultures and different languages. When they asked me if I thought this would be a problem, I think I made them happy when I explained my duties in for example Dubai, dealing with Arabic, Chinese, American and European interests. Those situations were very challenging to deal with. In the CHL, we are at least all Europeans.

Right now the CHL is dealing with leagues and clubs from Western and Central Europe. What about moving into Eastern Europe in the future? To Russia, Belarus and Latvia, for example.

In my very first presentation to the Board, I said that it would be great to cover all of Europe. In the future we have to get Russia and the KHL involved and I'd like to get the NHL on board in some capacity too. But, according to me, the first and foremost goal is to have Russian clubs as part of the Champions Hockey League. There are also strong clubs in Riga, Latvia and Minsk, Belarus. We want them to be part of the CHL as well.

How would you get the NHL involved? Logistically, their schedule doesn't allow much extra time for travelling back and forth across the ocean.

That's true, but as we'd like to have a true European champion which involves the Russians and the others, the next step is to have a club champion of the globe. We had the highly successful Victoria Cup in 2008 and 2009, and once we crown a champion in Europe, I'd like to see them compete against the Stanley Cup champion. As the hockey world looks right now, the timing for a Victoria Cup would be late September, early October. But there is also a very interesting time slot in February, around the NHL’s All Star Break.

There's room for more than one big championship without taking away from the importance of the other. For example, in football, the FIFA World Cup was established long ago and more recently the UEFA Champions League, but they don't compete with each other. And the Champions League does not take away the prestige from the Spanish, English or German football leagues. We want to work toward something like that.

Of course, football's Champions League is hugely popular. In the past, hockey has tried something similar but it hasn't lasted. Why do you think it will this time?

In the past, clubs were always invited by someone. Their influence on the format and economics was limited. This time, you have the six founding leagues, the 26 founding clubs and the IIHF, with the clubs owning 63 percent of the shares.

With those three parties together, and with the clubs having a strong say, we have created better preconditions for success. Now that they have a financial interest and also responsibility in the competition, I believe the clubs will increase their involvement level, both on the ice and, consequently, benefit financially.

If a club that is already big in its own country gets that type of success internationally, then people all across Europe will know the names SC Bern, Djurgarden or Sparta Prague and they will be very profitable. Then you can sell that idea to smaller clubs as well. You already saw that in 2009 when ZSC Lions Zurich won the original CHL. Very few outside Switzerland knew anything about ZSC. But after winning 5-0 against Magnitogorsk in the final, they knew.

You mentioned the 26 founding clubs. Next season the CHL will have 44 teams. How did you arrive at this number and how did the other clubs qualify?

The 26 founding clubs are very important, because they have the financial stake in it. They have invested funds and effort into the CHL. But then, it's also very important to have the best teams involved -- the league champions, the regular season winners and runners up -- if we are to be an elite competition. Then, beyond that, it's important to bring the CHL beyond just these six countries. So we're in countries like France, Norway, Denmark, Great Britain and Italy -- countries where hockey is popular but not quite at a level with the big hockey powers. This is why we have selected the motto “Where Europe comes to play”, which reflects our vision.

Just as an example, last week I met with the general manager of the Nottingham Panthers, and he expressed a huge commitment, both on the part of the club and the fans. Last year they averaged more than 5000 spectators per game in the British league, which is better than many of clubs get in the top leagues in Europe. Also commercially, it opens new markets for us.

Finances aside, how do you think these teams will compete on the ice against some of the top clubs in Europe?

Well, we know from football that top clubs like Bayern Munich or Manchester United can be beaten occasionally by lower teams, and I think the same is true for hockey. Clubs from lesser-known leagues can have an advantage because they sometimes approach the game with a different mindset. If some of these top teams treat these games less than seriously, they are in for a surprise.

We also might see that we have teams and leagues that are stronger than we think. When we had the Champions League the first time, the Zurich victory shocked a lot of hockey fans. Before, we considered the top leagues in Europe to be the Russian, Swedish, Finnish and Czech leagues. Ever since then, the Swiss league and the German league have been considered among the top, with Austria not far behind.

An important way to promote the CHL is via television. What is your idea for that?

I would love to have it as widely available as possible and in as many countries as possible for free, or at a very affordable cost. We could, of course, maybe make more money right away by charging a high price to see these games, but that would be short-term thinking. Our goal must be to establish a strong base of followers, and if we do that properly, the financial part of it will follow.

But putting the games on television is one thing. We also want the broadcasts to be as engaging as possible to the fans. This means being innovative with our telecasts by bringing the action closer to the fans, making viewers feel like part of the action, and getting to know the players.

When you talk about getting to know the players, is that the idea behind the different helmet for the top scorer of each team?

That would be just one part toward that goal. Some leagues already do this, but others are more reluctant. When the idea was first discussed, some of our members expressed concern that putting a differently designed jersey and helmet on one player per team will make him a target for the opponents. But we haven't seen that in leagues where it has been tried.

Which other positive effects do you think that the CHL can have for European hockey?

One of the challenges facing European club hockey on an international basis is that a lot of the players aren't really well known outside their own countries. We see too many talented ones heading overseas when they are 19 or 20 years old. We want to make staying in Europe more appealing than going over to North America to play on a farm team. By having them stay two or three more years, we can get more players recognisable to a European audience. Having the CHL is a step in that direction.

You said earlier that you've followed hockey for a long time. Do you have a favourite team?

(Laughing) Of course, as an executive now, I can’t say that I have a favourite team. I have 44 teams that I follow now. But since I live in Zug in Switzerland, I take my son to see EV Zug, which is the local team and the only top league team from central Switzerland.

And during my trips around Europe in early spring, I met several club managers and took the opportunity to watch games. And I was very impressed by how well organized Djurgården Stockholm was and what an incredible fan support the club has. It almost blew me away. Having them back in the top Swedish league and consequently in the CHL will be a huge asset for our league.