If you want to learn anything about the phenomenon that was VfL Gummersbach, you should talk first to Tino Costa.
The 66-year old native Sicilian, who runs a pizzeria in the center of Gummersbach, a small town near Cologne, is something akin to an archivist for the German handball team. Hanging on the restaurant’s walls are team photos and its owner is a treasure trove of stories about the club’s past glories.
The team began meeting at Mr. Costa’s place decades ago after winning domestic championships and European Cups in the sport, which is like a version of indoor soccer only played with the hands rather than the feet.
Heiner Brand witnessed the glory days at close quarters. As a little boy in 1966 he watched Gummersbach win its first German championship, and he went on to play for what became the best handball club in the world alongside greats such as Hansi Schmidt, Joachim Deckarm, and Erhard Wunderlich. By 1991, he had won 12 German championships with Gummersbach as a player or coach, the last in 1991.
Today it is a huge victory to still even be in the first league. Frank Ferchau, VfL Gummersbach co-sponsor
The now 62-year old was also twice a handball world champion – once as a player in 1978 and again as coach of the national team in 2007. Mr. Brand was the face of VfL Gummersbach, and the town has now named the plaza outside its new sports arena in his honor.
That decision seems to have brought the team some much needed luck. Having toyed with relegation in the past two seasons, this season has seen a resurgence. The team ended the first half of the season seventh out of 19 in the top league. The performance is especially impressive as the squad has seen some drastic cost-cutting and now includes many young players.
One of them is goalkeeper Carsten Lichtlein, who also plays for the national team and was one of the outstanding players at the Handball World Championships in Qatar in January. He has electrified Gummersbach audiences.
“The mood at some of the games is almost the same as at our big battles for the European Cup,” said Mr. Brand.
Energized audiences are also good for business, notes Frank Flatten, VfL Gummersbach’s managing director. “Going to the VfL is in again,” he said.
He has reason to be pleased. In September 2012, he was faced with a total restructuring of the club. There was little money, construction of the new Schwalbe Arena had just begun and potential new players and sponsors were running scared at the club’s dire predicament. “This here was a leaking ship,” says Mr. Flatten, “but the advisory board had already begun remediation work in 2011. That sold me.”
The remediation work was necessary. Smothered by the burden of its successful past, for two decades the club had failed to recognize or address its fall from grace. A lack of a viable business concept and mounting debt meant that it came perilously close to going under four times between 1996 and 2011.
Frank Ferchau is another of the people responsible for changing all that. Owner of an engineering firm, he is one of the club’s three main sponsors and grew up watching handball. Unlike many in Gummersbach, he has long since moved on from the club’s glory days. “Today it is a huge victory to still even be in the first league,” he said.
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Strict cost management, especially when it comes to players’ wages, has played a key role in the club’s turnaround and return to profit. The six-foot-six Mr. Lichtlein, who is currently VfL’s only national player, is by far the best paid team member. According to estimates, he gets around €18,000 ($20,500) per month.
The rest of the players have to make do with a monthly salary of less than €10,000 ($11,400), the club says. Just a few years ago, the number of players with five-digit monthly wages was a lot higher.
The new Schwalbe Arena was the signal of a new beginning. Frank Bohle, VfL Gummersbach co-sponsor
Along with Mr. Ferchau and his co-sponsors, the 18-month old Schwalbe Arena is helping to “take the traditional club forward,” Mr. Flatten says. Built at a cost of €12 million, split between the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the sponsors and the club, its 4,200 seats now often sell out at big games. The team’s previous home in a musty gymnasium could not even hold 2,000.
“The new Schwalbe Arena was the signal of a new beginning,” says Frank Bohle, who owns another of the team’s sponsors. “Without the arena, there would be no VfL today.”
With a total budget of more than €4 million ($4.5 million), the steadied VfL ship is now firmly on course, even if it is still a long way behind the leading clubs in Kiel, Mannheim, Flensburg and Hamburg.
The advisory board and shareholders hope to lower old liabilities that still jeopardize licensing from more than €4 million to less than €2 million by the end of the present season. And in the future, “We will only spend as much as we make,” says Mr. Flatten.
Also, the marketing potential of the arena is not yet fully exhausted. Mr. Flatten hopes he might be able to attract a major nationally recognized sponsor, and believes that a budget of €5 million would be enough to develop a team that could once again play internationally.
If all goes well, Mr. Costa may soon have to archive a new glorious chapter in VfL Gummersbach’s history.
The author is a freelance sports journalist and former editor of Handball Magazine. To contact the author: [email protected]