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Swiss ice hockey is booming. But the costs for this are high

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Swiss ice hockey is booming.  But the costs for this are high

The National League qualification attracted more spectators than ever before. But the price for this is high. Too high?

Nowhere is the enthusiasm for ice hockey higher than in Freiburg.

Adrien Perritaz / Keystone

52 rounds and 364 games are a considerable effort to eliminate 4 of 14 teams from the race for the Swiss championship title. There is therefore no lack of criticism of the ice hockey championship format: the qualification phase in Swiss ice hockey is too long, too bloated, and too irrelevant. It began on September 15th last year and ended on Monday evening.

But a look at the viewer statistics contradicts popular opinion: 2.6 million viewers attended the games in the last six months, which is a record. On average, each game was watched by 7,130 spectators. SC Bern again recorded the highest average with 15,490. But nowhere is the enthusiasm currently greater than in Freiburg, where every game was sold out with 9,047 spectators. The league’s average stadium occupancy was 88.04 percent.

Two explosive duels for the last two play-off places

That’s quite a lot of numbers to underline the importance of the qualification. However, it is also a fact that the ice hockey championship is only really starting now. Theoretically, 10 of the 14 teams still have a chance of winning the title. The championship race begins in the play-ins with two explosive duels between HC Ambri-Piotta and Lugano as well as Geneva/Servette and EHC Biel. The second of these series was the play-off final ten months ago, in which Geneva won the first title in the club’s history. This time they only made it into the decisive championship phase in the last round at the expense of the SCL Tigers.

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The format of this first knockout phase has been slightly modified for this season. The weaker team starts with home advantage. If a match ends in a draw after 60 minutes, it will be scored that way. There are no more penalty shootouts. If both teams win once in 60 minutes, the second match is extended until one team scores a goal. The loser of the series between the better ranked Lugano (7th) and Ambri (8th) gets a second chance against the winner of the duel Biel (9th) against Geneva/Servette (10th).

Goosebumps are guaranteed at the Ticino derby between Ambri and Lugano.

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The National League is extremely popular and is now rightly considered one of the best leagues outside of the NHL. The KHL’s ban has brought a lot of first-class players from Finland and Sweden to Switzerland. Together with the increase in the number of foreigners admitted from four to six two years ago, this has led to a significant increase in the level of sport, which resulted, among other things, in the Champions Hockey League victory in Geneva/Servette two weeks ago. 268 players are Swiss citizens. The Finns (35) make up the largest group of foreigners, ahead of the Canadians (32) and the Swedes (28).

The interim assessment by league director Denis Vaucher is correspondingly positive. “We had a record number of spectators, the championship remained exciting, especially at the bottom line, right up to the last match day, and we don’t have any major problems at the moment.” However, that doesn’t mean that he and the clubs are without worries. The second-tier Swiss League is struggling with major economic problems. Only Olten and Visp received the green light for promotion. Both are currently in the semi-finals, but if neither of them becomes champions, league qualification will be forfeited.

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But as strange as it may sound, the real problem with the entire league is its popularity. The increase in the number of foreigners has not stopped the salary increase, on the contrary. Average wages in the league continue to rise. Today the majority of players earn between 250,000 and 500,000 francs. The costs for the first teams range between 8 (SCL Tigers, Ajoie) and 14 million francs.

The real Croesus is the ZSC Lions, who have a first-class squad and are therefore practically doomed to success in the upcoming play-offs. After the return of coach Marc Crawford, the Lions played an excellent qualification and won the qualification ahead of Fribourg-Gottéron and Lausanne. But if they don’t become champions again, it’s unlikely to have any personnel consequences for the club.

The hope that the increase in the number of foreigners would increase the player market and thus stop the arms race has not been fulfilled. Vaucher says: “For this to happen, the restriction on foreigners would probably have to be lifted completely.” But that is unlikely to happen. The proposed financial fair play, which should lead to a certain level of financial compensation in line with the financial equalization between the cantons, will also remain a difficult undertaking in Swiss ice hockey. The two political heavyweights from Zurich and Bern are resisting this tooth and nail.

Despite its sporting success, the league’s financial basis remains unhealthy and fragile. At the moment, each club receives around 1.8 million per season from central marketing. Depending on sales, this corresponds to between seven and ten percent of the entire household.

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The league has a turnover of around 350 million francs

The 14 National League clubs now have a combined turnover of around 350 million francs per season. But the discrepancy between the clubs remains huge. The SCL Tigers, at the lower end of the scale, operate with a budget of 16.5 million francs for the entire organization, but still have several players in the squad who earn less than 100,000 francs. Sports director Pascal Müller says: “For us, Swiss wages have actually tended to fall in recent years. Foreigners have become more expensive. They earn massively more than they did four years ago.”

The question of whether increasing the number of foreigners could increase the pressure on the wages of Swiss players and, above all, what influence they have on the level of the national team and the league are topics that continue to be controversially discussed. The fact is: The National League is currently more successful as a product than ever before. But the price for this is high. Too much money from outside the industry is currently flowing into the league. In Zurich, Zug, Lausanne, Lugano and Geneva, generous patrons are still financing a spectacle that is becoming increasingly expensive. But who cares in the moment of euphoria?

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