SBJ/September 17 - 23, 2001/Opinion

Marketers should cash these Czechs

When hockey great Jaromir Jagr showed up in Washington, D.C., wearing a Capitals jersey earlier this summer after having been wooed away from the Pittsburgh Penguins, the D.C. fans went wild. The usually staid Washingtonians hadn't seen such a public display of affection since Clinton hugged Lewinsky on the rope line. According to news reports, Capitals season-ticket sales were up by 3,000 over last year since the four-time NHL scoring champ and six-time All-Star player came to Washington by way of Pittsburgh and Kladno, his hometown in the Czech Republic.

Caps owner Ted Leonsis' investment in an athlete of Czech origins or ancestry is by no means an unusual event in the NHL. According to a list eagerly put out by the Embassy of the Czech Republic, there are currently 73 (!) Czechs now on the rosters of NHL teams. The embassy is also quick to point out that the Czech national hockey team won the 1998 Olympic gold medal, and that Czechs have also won four ice hockey championships in the last five years.

But Canadian and U.S. hockey recruiters have not needed an embassy list to know that the Czech Republic produces great hockey players. They've been booking hotels in Prague even before the Velvet Revolution opened the country to the rest of the world after the Cold War ended.

The wonder is why all the other sports haven't made as much of a beeline to Czechoslovakia. In addition to hockey, this small country of only about 10 million residents is dominant in tennis and has a disproportionate share of stars in other sports. The most well-known Czech tennis star is Martina Navratilova, followed by Ivan Lendl, who was a dominant force in men's tennis throughout the '80s. When you add Martina Hingis, whose mother is Czech and whose father is Slovak, you start wondering what it is about this little country that produces world-class athletes.

Milton Cerney, the president of the Friends of the Czech Republic, a U.S.-based group, offers a few thoughts on the subject.

Himself of Czech ancestry, Cerney speaks authoritatively of the "sokol," a sort of gymnastic society that is prevalent in communities throughout the country. These sokols tend to be social focal points with significant local influence, which also means that Czech towns and cities leave many open spaces for playing fields, including hockey rinks, tennis courts and soccer fields.

The prevalence of sokols also produces a population even crazier about sports than the United States, according to Cerney, who grew up in a Czech enclave in Cicero, Ill. Cerney notes the many Czech communities throughout the Midwestern United States (Texas, Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota and especially Chicago) that, despite cultural assimilation, have nevertheless kept the spirit of the sokol, and, more important to the business of sports, continue to produce sports-crazy fans.

Finding and nurturing marketable athletes, regardless of origin or heritage, is not an easy thing. The business of selling requires more than just trophies and broken records, as any marketer's experience with endorsements by a bad boy athlete proves.

At the risk of over-generalization, perhaps the sports marketers can be more efficient in their hunts for marketable stars by paying more attention to the Czechs. Not only are there plenty of them, there is a built-in constituency of Czech communities across the country that identifies with them. Apparently, Subaru saw the connection when it signed up Martina Navratilova for its current television and print ad campaign. With his fluency in English, his good looks, his athleticism and his close connection with his homeland (he wears number 68, representing the 1968 thaw in the Cold War in Czechoslovakia known as the Prague Spring), Jaromir Jagr could be a powerful spokesman for many marketers — even if he isn't a basketball star.

History shows that Czech heritage goes a long way in sports. Just a few names make the point. The very first Czech-born NHL hockey player, Stan Mikita, went to the Hall of Fame. One of the NFL's founding fathers, George Halas of the Chicago Bears, had Czech parents. Baseball's Stan "the Man" Musial had a mother who was Czech. Football great George Blanda was born of Czech parents in Pennsylvania. Former wrestler Jesse Ventura, also of Czech descent, has proven his ability to promote outside of his sport.

The impressive track record of the Czechs in big-time sports strongly suggests that the hunt for marketable athletes can be made more efficient simply by booking flights to Prague, or even Cicero. As the Czechs say, "Statnou cestu!" Have a good trip!

Bruce D. Collins is a writer and attorney from Greensboro, Md. He can be reached at brucedcollins@aol.com.

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