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The Worst Sponsorship Deal In The History of Pro Sports?13:57
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In 1987, ECD Iserlohn was offered a sponsorship deal by Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. But...why? (Roosterfan via Wikimedia Commons)MoreCloseclosemore
In 1987, ECD Iserlohn was offered a sponsorship deal by Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. But...why? (Roosterfan via Wikimedia Commons)

Heinz Weifenbach was a successful real estate developer who loved ice hockey. In 1981, he bought ECD Iserlohn, a team in Germany’s elite Bundesliga. The team was not very good, and it was millions of dollars in debt.

Ice hockey wasn’t exactly Germany’s favorite sport.

Over the next few years, Weifenbach sank money into the team. And by 1986, ECD Iserlohn was a playoff contender. That endeared him to Iserlohn’s small but loyal group of hockey fans. And to his players.

Heinz Weifenbach as he appeared in ECD Iserlohn's 1985–1986 team yearbook. (Courtesy Earl Spry)
Heinz Weifenbach as he appeared in ECD Iserlohn's 1985–1986 team yearbook. (Courtesy Earl Spry)

"Heinz Weifenbach," Earl Spry remembers. "He was a character."

Spry is one of the many former ECD Iserlohn players from Canada.   

"Big, heavy-set guy, " Spry says. "He always had his big, long leather coat on. He almost looked like a guy out of the Gestapo or Hogan’s Heroes or something. And his long, wavy hair and a walrus mustache. You know, that was Heinz."

Weifenbach’s dream was for his team to win the league championship. And he let his players know about it.

During a game early in the 1987–1988 season, Iserlohn was losing 6–0 to a team it should have been beating. Defenseman Dan Olsen says Heinz walked into the locker room during the first intermission.   

"He was giving us the gears about how we were playing. And then he said, 'If you guys continue to play this way, I’m gonna shoot you guys,' as he pulled his gun out."

Most of the players knew Heinz was joking. But the team’s top scorer, Danny Held, was not amused. 

"[He] told him if he ever pulled that thing out again, he was going to shove his stick up his butt and he wouldn’t be able to breathe," Olsen says. "I think he was a little scared of Danny Held."

Financial Issues

But Heinz was probably more afraid of his creditors, according to Iserlohn forward Bruce Hardy.

"He always carried a gun with him, wherever he went."

Like many of Germany’s elite pro hockey teams of the mid-1980s, ECD Iserlohn was always looking for more sponsors. Even though its uniforms were covered with logos.

"We had a beer company, Iserlohner Pilsner," Olsen says. "One of our major sponsors owned a crystal company, Ritzenhoff Cristal. BMW was one of our sponsors as well. I think that was on our helmets."

Earl Spry's 1986 photo for the ECD Iserlohn team yearbook with Ritzenhoff Cristal logo prominently displayed. (Courtesy Earl Spry)
Earl Spry's 1986 photo for the ECD Iserlohn team yearbook with Ritzenhoff Cristal logo prominently displayed. (Courtesy Earl Spry)

But all those sponsorships didn’t generate enough income to pay the bills. The team also owed about $3.5 million in back taxes. By the fall of 1987, Heinz Weifenbach was desperate to keep his team solvent. Journalist Gabriel Luis Manga says that that led Weifenbach to hire some expert help.

"Heinz’s personal tax man, they called him 'Merlin the Magician,' " Manga says.

Players were getting paid, for the most part. But Germany’s Central Tax Office was not. Officials knew that ECD Iserlohn was playing games with its ledgers. They just weren’t exactly sure how. So they went after the players. 

"They’re young Canadian guys in their 20s, they’re just trying to continue a dream," Manga says. "They’re having success. They’re getting paid to do what they love. And then, all of a sudden, the tax authorities are at their doors going through their apartments."  

Bruce Hardy was good at sneaking out a back window when the feds came calling. But one day, they caught up with him.

"They took my football, my baseball glove, my leather jacket, a TV. And, right at that time, in ’87, the Loonie came out, and my brother had brought me one over."

The “Loonie” is a Canadian one-dollar coin bearing the image of a loon. It’s made mostly of nickel with a shiny bronze plating. In 1987, it was worth about 67 U.S. cents.

"And they thought it was a piece of gold," Hardy says. "They took it, too."

German tax officials were also looking for documents that might show them how Weifenbach was hiding income from them. The team responded by warning players to "misplace" their pay stubs and bank statements. The German government tightened the screws even more.

"There was times when we’d come out of the rink and our cars would be taken away," Hardy says. "They’d have a big trailer out there, loading our cars up on ‘em and taking ‘em away."

"The finance people locked all the doors to the dressing room and told us we weren’t allowed to practice," Olsen says. "And we weren’t gonna be allowed to play again until some of this money was paid back."  

"Hans Meyer goes, ‘I’ve got it. We’re gonna call up Muammar Gaddafi.’ "

Gabriel Luis Manga

But the team needed to play to avoid bankruptcy. And Weifenbach couldn’t stonewall the feds forever. He looked far and wide for creative financing. Maybe a really big sponsorship deal. He reached out to Hans Meyer, the mayor of the nearby town of Hemer.

"Hans was notorious for his business dealings behind the Eastern Bloc, in China," Manga says. "And so he was the kinda guy who could get help through some interesting business partners."

Burgermeister Meyer had in mind one very interesting partner.

"Hans Meyer goes, ‘I’ve got it. We’re gonna call up Muammar Gaddafi,’" Manga says.

Muammar Gaddafi's regime remained in place in Libya from 1969 until his death in 2011. During that stretch, he liked to dabble in "literature" and pro sports sponsorships. (Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)
Muammar Gaddafi's regime remained in place in Libya from 1969 until his death in 2011. During that stretch, he liked to dabble in "literature" and pro sports sponsorships. (Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)

Muammar Gaddafi. Known sponsor of international terrorism. The man who ordered the 1986 bombing of a Berlin discotheque that killed three and wounded more than 200. Oppressor of millions of Libyans. Dictator of the country that supplied most of Germany’s oil. 

"And so, Heinz, he says, ‘Great, make the call. Let’s go talk to Gaddafi,’ " Manga says.

Weifenbach Goes To Libya

Heinz jetted to Tripoli in late November of 1987.

"And there’s this whole spectacle of getting off the plane on the tarmac in Libya," Manga says. "And there’s dancers and Bedouin tents. Classic Gaddafi party. Heinz is wining and dining with Gaddafi. Gaddafi says, ‘You know, we don’t have ice here, but I've seen hockey, and it seems like people like hockey in Germany.’ And Gaddafi likes anything that pleases the public. He’s a man of the people."

Not really. Gaddafi was reviled in Libya, Germany and elsewhere. But that didn’t deter Heinz Weifenbach. 

"Heinz goes to Gaddafi’s compound that’s been bombed," Manga says.

The U.S. had bombed Tripoli in 1986, in retaliation for the Berlin disco bombing. Two of the dead there had been U.S. soldiers. 

"And Gaddafi gives him a contract for almost a million dollars to save the team," Manga says.

The New Jerseys

Heinz returned to Germany and met with the players. According to Manga, Heinz told his players:

"Hey, guys. Guess what? Good news. The tax authorities aren’t gonna be raiding your apartments anymore. You might even get your leather coats and your Loonies and your baseball gloves back. And we’re gonna be playing. And we’re gonna get a shot to win the championship."

Heinz presented the team with their new jerseys. They were Iserlohn’s familiar blue-and-white design, minus the Ritzenhoff Cristal logo on the front.

"And it just had this great big green book on the front of it," Hardy says. "It said, 'Das Grüne Buch' in German. Which meant 'The Green Book'. And 'M. Gaddafi' on it."

Gaddafi’s Green Book had first been published 12 years earlier in 1975.

"He said all we had to do was wear Muammar’s advertisement of his Green Book for five or six games, then we would get the money," Olsen says. "So we kinda looked around the room at each other, a little bit aghast that Muammar Gaddafi was going to be our major sponsor."

"And we’re kinda going, ‘Wow, this is some crazy stuff going on here,’ " Hardy says. 

Hardy, Olsen and Spry say they had no idea what was in Gaddafi’s Green Book, and they really didn't care. At least not at first. They were hockey players. And hockey players just want to play hockey. But why would Muammar Gaddafi want to advertise on the uniforms of German hockey players?

Gaddafi's Worldwide Aspirations

"Gaddafi had ambitions beyond just being the leader of Libya," says Daniel Kalder, an expert on the literature of dictators.

"He had global ambitions very early on. And he declared the arrival of the Third Universal Theory that was going to replace communism and capitalism. He says capitalism doesn’t work, democracy is a fraud, socialism likewise. So this is the solution to the global problem of how to organize and govern a society."

But how did Gaddafi think that would work?

"Yeah, so, you know, he was kinda sparse on the details," Kalder says. "I don’t think he’d thought about it that heavily. And it’s a tricky book to read, because it’s quite rambling. And it doesn’t maintain a very clear argument."

Among the Green Book’s gems are Gaddafi’s creative analogy between nationalism and gaseous stars and his lengthy list of the biological differences between men and women. And he shares his contempt for sports fans:

"The thousands who crowd stadiums to view, applaud and laugh are those foolish people who have failed to carry out the activity themselves." 

Gaddafi enforced the study of the Green Book at various centers around Libya.

"You can imagine sitting in a classroom in Libya or in a university, and this is presented to you, Kalder says. "And woe betide the person who laughed at these kind of bizarre statements."

And here’s where a German pro ice hockey team comes in.

"He was still trying to find ways to reach the world," Kalder says. "Because he had the home audience sewn up. He didn’t have to worry about them. But, clearly, that wasn’t enough."

Debut Of The Green Book Jerseys

ECD Iserlohn forward Bruce Hardy in his Green Book jersey on Dec. 4, 1987. It was the only time the jersey would be worn in a game. (Courtesy Bruce Hardy)
ECD Iserlohn forward Bruce Hardy in his Green Book jersey on Dec. 4, 1987. It was the only time the jersey would be worn in a game. (Courtesy Bruce Hardy)

On Dec. 4, 1987, ECD Iserlohn took the ice in their home arena against Rosenheim SB. Bruce Hardy and his teammates wore their brand new Green Book jerseys. Fans had found out about the new sponsorship beforehand.

"People are going wild, dressed up as Gaddafi in sort of Bedouin garb," Manga says.

"And it was just electric in there," Hardy says. "And I’m going, ‘Wow, this is changing things here real quick.’ "

Six thousand spectators had somehow been crammed into an arena with a capacity of only 4,900. Iserlohn won the game. It looked like Weifenbach might finally get his first championship. And now everybody was paying attention, including international news media. It seemed to the players that all the publicity was good publicity.

But Heinz was fighting with the German Ice Hockey Federation, which wanted to nix the Green Book sponsorship. And then, for its next game, ECD Iserlohn traveled to Frankfurt, where thousands of U.S. troops were stationed. When the team bus pulled up to the arena, Dan Olsen looked out the window.

"We were met with a hostile mob of people," Olsen says. "And they all had their signs, and they thought that we were devils for playing for this guy and advertising his book."

Before the game, the commander of an anti-terrorism unit told Earl Spry:

" ‘You know, we’ve had bomb threats, and we’ve gone through the whole rink and we found nothing. We’ve got dogs and everything. Pretty sure it’s safe, but we can’t guarantee anything.’ "

One of the two "Green Book" jerseys known to exist. This one, an away jersey that was never worn, is on exhibit at the German Ice Hockey Hall of Fame in Augsburg, Germany. (Courtesy Roosterfan via Wikimedia Commons)
One of the two "Green Book" jerseys known to exist. This one, an away jersey that was never worn, is on exhibit at the German Ice Hockey Hall of Fame in Augsburg, Germany. (Courtesy Roosterfan via Wikimedia Commons)

In the locker room, the players told Heinz that they had serious doubts about wearing the Green Book logo. 

"And Heinz said, 'Listen, guys. If you don’t wear the jerseys, the money is not gonna come through, and the season’s gonna be cancelled,' " Manga says.

"We just took a vote," Spry says. "And I think it was fairly unanimous. We just said, 'No, we’re not gonna wear ‘em.' That was it."

The team told Heinze about their decision.

"He just kinda looked at us, and he went, ‘OK,’ "Hardy says. "Then he walked out of the room."

"Well, he was disappointed," Olsen says. "Because he wanted to keep that team together. He wanted to keep his butt out of jail, too, right?"

The Aftermath

On Dec. 6, 1987, ECD Iserlohn played in its old jerseys. Gaddafi withheld payment, and the team declared bankruptcy a few days later. The team was dissolved. Heinz was crushed. So were hockey fans in Iserlohn. But Earl Spry wasn’t.

"To be honest with you, I was relieved that it ended," Spry says. "I was sad for the fans, but I wanted to go someplace and just concentrate on my hockey. And get that behind me, put it in my past."

"[The Green Book is] a tricky book to read, because it’s quite rambling. And it doesn’t maintain a very clear argument. "

Daniel Kalder

Spry played 11 more seasons in Germany. He’s now a PGA pro there. Bruce Hardy played 13 more seasons and is now a golf pro in Edmonton. Dan Olsen is head coach of the men’s hockey team at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology.

"The Infernal Library" by Daniel Kalder explores the literature of dictators, including Muammar Gaddafi's "Green Book". (Courtesy Henry Holt and Co.)
"The Infernal Library" by Daniel Kalder explores the literature of dictators, including Muammar Gaddafi's "Green Book". (Courtesy Henry Holt and Co.)

Heinz Weifenbach managed to dodge German tax officials long enough to resurface as chairman of Sauerland ECD, a team in Germany’s third-tier ice hockey league. Sauerland won a title in 1989. Weifenbach’s championship dream had finally been realized. He resigned two years later. Two years after that, he began serving a 27-month prison sentence for tax evasion. He died in early 2015.

Libyans were unburdened of Gaddafi’s regime in 2011. Daniel Kalder says that was more or less the end of the Green Book.

"There was nobody saying, ‘Oh, let’s hang onto the Green Book. It contains truth,’ " Kalder says. "This is common with a lot of regimes. These books are there, and then they’re just — people don’t even want to revile them. They just want to forget them."

Only two Green Book jerseys are known to have survived. One is in the German Ice Hockey Hall of Fame in Augsburg. The other lives in one of Bruce Hardy’s closets. He doesn’t take it out very often.

Read Daniel Kalder's book, “The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy,” to learn more.

This segment aired on July 7, 2018.

Gary Waleik Producer, Only A Game
Gary Waleik is a producer for Only A Game.

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