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American billionaire bankrolls Geneva-Servette promotion

Geneva-Servette fans celebrate promotion

(Keystone)

Top-flight ice hockey is to return to Geneva for the first time in 27 years - thanks largely to an American sugar daddy.

Geneva-Servette may be a tiny outpost in the Anschutz entertainment empire, but it looks likely to upset the established order at the top of Swiss ice hockey.

After winning 4-0 against Chur on Thursday evening, the National League B champions became the first side ever in the history of Swiss ice hockey to go through the entire post-season without losing a single match.

The emphatic win, which gave them an unassailable 4-0 lead in the best-of-seven series, means the Eagles will be soaring into the National League A next season.

Promotion inevitable

Promotion to the top division has had a certain inevitability about it ever since the Anschutz group decided to plough its money into the Geneva club some 18 months ago.

The SFr7 million budget may be a drop in the ocean to the Anschutz entertainment empire, but the cash has helped the club attract Canadian coach Chris McSorley and a host of top players, not least this season's top scorer, Philippe Bozon, the French forward recruited from Lugano.

McSorley, who has built an aggressive unit of players in his own image, has already fulfilled the first part of his mission by leading his charges to the NLA.

"It's difficult to predict anything in sport, but we would be aiming to be one of the leading teams in the country within two years," says Anthony Ulrich, Geneva-Servette's administrative manager.

Anschutz empire

The Anschutz group is owned by the American billionaire, Philip Anschutz, reckoned by Forbes magazine to be the sixth richest man in the world.

The reclusive, marathon-running 62-year-old amassed his fortune through oil exploration in the 1960s, gas in the 1970s and railways in the 80s. He has since invested in telecommunications, entertainment and sport.

Anschutz owns the Los Angeles Kings ice hockey team, is the biggest shareholder in the LA Lakers basketball club and has a stake in five Major League Soccer teams.

The group also owns five other ice hockey clubs in Europe: the London Knights, Berlin Eisbären, Munich Barons, Sparta Prague and the Swedish side, Hammarby. It has bought the Millennium Dome in London, and is planning to build another large arena in Berlin.

"Anschutz was probably seduced by the possibility of developing an entertainment branch in Geneva, too," Ulrich told swissinfo. "Mr Anschutz seldom buys things that are already very strong. He prefers to build things up and develop them to his liking."

In controlling so many leading clubs, Anschutz would also be well placed should a much-mooted European league see the light of day.

Rude health

The Swiss club, then, is just one small link in a very big chain, but Geneva-Servette has the most season ticket holders of all the European members of the Anschutz family. Intriguingly, Anschutz's website lists the club as the Geneva Eagles.

Its rude health, though, is in sharp contrast to the parlous financial state currently being experienced by many of its rivals.

"There is a tremendous amount of amateurism in Swiss sport," says Ulrich, pointing out that at Geneva-Servette the emphasis is placed on running the company in a professional way, with defined goals and within budgets.

A number of observers have suggested that the Anschutz approach might revolutionise the way sports clubs are run in Switzerland.

"Even if the money is there, we're not going to cut corners and spend it irresponsibly," says the club's director general, Stefan Kleine-Erfkamp. "Buying the title in the space of three years is not the Anschutz way."

Everything points to a long-term involvement by Anschutz in the Geneva club. The American company has even offered to pay for the renovation of the Vernets stadium where the team plays its home matches.

by Roy Probert


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