How Jägermeister changed the world of corporate shirt sponsorships

How Jägermeister changed the world of corporate shirt sponsorships

Combining a shot of Jägermeister with a can of Red Bull at a bar one is never too far away from someone downing a Jägerbomb. As a student about to graduate, I have witnessed my fair share of fellow revellers enjoying, and on occasion curtailing, their nights out through the medium of these beverages.

Relating the component parts of this drink to football, it would appear the influence of one far outweighs the other. Perennial champions in Austria, the upper echelons of the Bundesliga and Major League are unable to escape the grips of Red Bull. Even South America has been given wings with the recent promotion of Red Bull Bragantino to the Brasileirão. By contrast, the influence of the minority contents of the cup appears minimal. However, much like in the drink, Jägermeister is actually the more influential part.

It began in a West German kitchen in the summer of 1972. The situation was not someone mixing spirits but rather a marketing agent experiencing a brainwave. The CEO of Jägermeister Günter Mast was hosting a party for several business associates. Gradually the guests had gone inside to watch West Germany’s Euro 1972 quarter-final with England, leaving Mast alone on the sun terrace. It was at this moment that he realised the advertising potential within football.

There was, however, a rather large problem: sponsorship on football shirts in West Germany was forbidden. By this stage, several smaller leagues such as Austria, Denmark and Switzerland permitted sponsorship, but it was still a highly taboo subject in most of Europe.

Thankfully for Mast, just 12km north of Jägermeister’s hometown of Wolfenbüttel lies the city of Braunschweig. The main football club, Eintracht Braunschweig, were playing in the Bundesliga, the perfect marketing platform, and as luck would have it were in dire financial straits. Braunschweig had unexpectedly lifted the Bundesliga title in 1967 under legendary coach Helmuth Johannsen, however just four years later were plunged into chaos amidst the 1971 Bundesliga scandal.

Reportedly several million Deutsche Marks in debt and disparaging about his club’s lack of capital to compete with bigger clubs, president Ernst Fricke complained to his friend Mast about the situation. The duo proposed their Jägermeister marketing strategy to the DFB in August 1972, but it was unsurprisingly dismissed. Ingeniously, Mast then proposed the idea of circumventing these restrictions by changing Eintracht’s badge.

Under his proposal, Mast would pay the club DM500,000 across five seasons to replace their traditional lion with the deer logo of Jägermeister. In order to get the marketing message across, the badge would be increased to a diameter of 18cm. This, however, was easier said than done. 

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As expected, the DFB opposed this, telling referees to refuse to kick-off matches should Braunschweig turn up in a kit bearing the Jägermeister logo. In early January 1973, Mast brought in lawyers to redefine Eintracht’s club statutes and specify the deer as the club symbol instead of the lion. The DFB still vetoed this, before eventually backing down after two months of legal battles. It was ruled the change would be allowed, although the badge could not be larger than 14cm in diameter and had to include the club’s initials on either side.

One reason for the DFB’s u-turn was because Jägermeister was produced so locally to Braunschweig. The club first donned their adapted kit on 24 March 1973 in a 1-1 draw with Schalke. Prior to kick-off, referee Franz Wengenmayer was forced to measure Eintracht’s crest to check it complied with the DFB’s ruling.

Further change came at the end of the season when the DFB relented to allow sponsor names on shirts. Several Bundesliga clubs, including as Eintracht Frankfurt, Fortuna Düsseldorf and HSV, were all too quick to sign lucrative deals for their kit. Eintracht also added the Jägermeister logo underneath their still rather large badge. This decision would play a key role in sponsors becoming commonplace in England, starting with Kettering Town in 1976, although it would take UEFA another nine years to come around.

For Mast, however, his Braunschweig project was only just beginning. Pleased with the increased sales of Jägermeister recorded post-badge change, Mast realised the potential of Braunschweig as a marketing tool. In 1977, the club signed World Cup winner Paul Breitner from Real Madrid in a mammoth DM1.6m deal. Despite the move backfiring, with Breitner’s personality at odds with the rest of the squad, it only served to further awareness of the club.

A few years later, in 1983, Mast embarked on arguably the most ambitious part of his vision. With the club now three million marks in debt and on the verge of bankruptcy, he ran for president. On 10 October he announced his flagship policy: if elected he would erase all the club’s debt. In exchange, he wished to change the club’s name from Eintracht Braunschweig to Jägermeister Braunschweig.

On 28 November 1983 Mast was successfully elected, with a subsequent vote on 14 December seeing the overwhelming majority of members vote in favour of the rename. It is worth noting how the deal-breaker was the very real danger of the club disappearing. As Mast suggested, it was either the name change or bankruptcy.

The move brought Mast back to loggerheads with the DFB. Having already given up certain principles, the German FA imposed an injunction against Braunschweig. President Hermann Neuberger argued, “If one club were able to change their name for advertising purposes, it would probably break a lot of barriers. Many other clubs would follow their example and soon we would have Ford Cologne and Baking Powder Bielefeld.” 

Several appeals from Mast took the case to the Federal Court of Justice, the highest civil court in the land. On 17 November 1986 a final verdict was reached, sensationally declaring the DFB’s protests illegal and clearing Braunschweig to swap their Eintracht prefix for Jägermeister.

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This, however, was not the end of the story, with the Lower Saxony FA (NFV) threatening to ban Braunschweig’s youth teams should the change go ahead. This was on the grounds of minors advertising alcohol, and saw the press for the name change abandoned.

By this stage, Mast had walked away from the club. In December 1985, he failed to gain re-election as president, and in the winter of 1987 departed over differences with the club management. Indeed, Mast had little interest in football as a spectacle, once commenting “It was a means to an end. I can tell you when the ball is in the goal, but I can’t explain an offside”. During his time as president, it is reported that Mast attended two games at Eintracht-Stadion.

But this downplays his significance. The case of Jägermeister in Braunschweig had far-reaching consequences. As mentioned, the introduction of shirt sponsorships were largely influenced by this. Furthermore, it is potentially the first instance of a company using a football club solely for commercial gain.

Another interesting offshoot of this story of a former Bundesliga champion is how it helped create another one. In 1986, Karl-Heinz Briam, the labour relations officer for Volkswagen, attempted to become president, only to be blocked by Mast. “As long as I have something to say here, no trade unionist will be president at Eintracht,” he commented. In response VW redirected their attention to works team VfL Wolfsburg, investing significantly to allow the club to reach the Bundesliga for the first time in 1997.

Returning to Braunschweig, the Jägermeister logo remained on the badge until the lion was reverted to in 1987. The deer, however, has become something of an icon, with a range of retro merchandise bearing the crest still popularly selling to this day. Meanwhile, the club have struggled in the decades since, relegated to the third tier in 1987 and playing in just one Bundesliga season since.

Nevertheless, the club hold a huge position in the birth of modern football. Former Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeneß, speaking after Mast’s death in 2011, commented, “He discovered football as an advertising medium.” Despite the negatvity in Germany towards company clubs such as RB Leipzig and Hoffenheim, they are here to stay. They will not be joined by Jägermeister however, with the 35 percent alcohol volume making it too strong to legally advertise.

The company echo this sentiment on their website, claiming they believe “alcohol and sport do not mix”. This was a view shared by the DFB almost five decades earlier, although the persistence of one man changed that. So spare a thought for Günter Mast and Eintracht Braunschweig next time you find yourself consuming Jägermeister. I say that with an added shot of sarcasm.

By James Kelly @jkell403

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