Dieter Esch: The Handball Missionary from Germany

Below is a translation (courtesy Bjoern Brembs) of an article that appeared in the German publication Handelsblatt:

The Handball Missionary from Germany

By Hans Weymar, May 13, 2008

COLOGNE. If the often so critical German publication "Manager Magazin" describes someone as "one of the most illustrious and probably one of the most successful corporate personalities of the last decade", then one would think that the public would remember his name. In the case of Horst-Dieter Esch, this did not happen.

The lines hyping Esch's success were written in 1982. Esch's r ise as the son of an engineering fitter-machinist to CEO of the construction-machine corporation IBH in Mainz earned him the image of a prodigy. IBH was buying and buying and the "Economist" called this expansion "Esch-pansion".

One year later everything was over. IBH became bankrupt in one of the most spectacular cases of post-war Germany. At the end all that was left was about a billion Deutschmarks of debt, and the private Bank Schröder, Münchmeyer & Hengst which had lent about 900 million to IBH almost went down with it. In 1984 a regional court in Koblenz found Esch guilty of fraud and sentenced him to six and a half years. In 1988 he was released and shortly thereafter he emigrated to the USA. There, he bought the modeling agency Wilhelmina and did well. Super Models such as Linda Evangelista were among his clients. Germany? Far away.

In the coming months Esch's name may be heard in his home country once again. The man who now calls Park City, Utah his home is looking to drum up support for the Teutonic game of handball from corporate sponsors to conquer the world's most important sports market. "I have decided to make handball popular in the US" said Esch to the Handelsblatt.

The first leg, says the 65 year-old with some pride, has already accomplished: "For the last two weeks I've been the president of the US handball federation". Esch, who claims to have played field-handball as a goalie for club TV Weingarten, suggests in the phone-interview that the handball-scene has been waiting for someone like him: "the handball community here is breathing a sigh of relief".

Well, maybe not the entire community. His past did provoke some rather hefty debates on the few fan-forums. The US Olympic Committee is quoted on the online news-service, Teamhandballnews, that they vetted Esch in two separate background checks: "In this process, Mr. Esch was completely open and transparent and more than cooperative concerning all the necessary information."

A year and a half ago a friend told him of the desolate state US-handball was in: "As a good German, I of course immediately asked: where are the structures? Where is the federation?" There was very little of that. The USOC was merely managing the third rate national teams. Esch now wants to build everything from the ground up, starting with a meeting of all concerned parties from June 13-15 in St. Louis.

Esch is not the first one trying to build enthusiasm in the US for handball. The efforts by the world-federation IHF have all miserably failed. The problem: "Team Handball" as the sport is called in the USA, is as exotic there as the German/Dutch sport of bosseln ( ) is here. The German still believes he has a chance: "In the summer, the big Basketball arenas are empty". One would need to convince owners and investors to let people play handball there during this time. "There already is quite some interest in this idea".

Esch's partner Dennis Berkholtz, a member of the 1972 USA-Team at the Olympics in Munich, is estimating that eight million dollars would be needed to get a professional league going for two years, featuring European players. "The German players should play for New York and the Polish for Chicago", says Berkholtz. Esch adds that eight million dollars will not be enough, it's only a start.

The question is, who would invest so much money? Handball sponsors from Europe, both Esch and Berkholtz affirm. Especially sponsors from the handball heartland Germany: "Once we have managed to get the appropriate structures running here, I will focus my attention towards Germany and Europe", says Esch. Adidas, Nike and Puma are supposed to be the first targets.

If these corporations will commit to such a risky investment is doubtful, given Mr. Esch's past. Esch, however, affirms he doesn't want to make any money from handball: "Handball is not a business for me, Handball is my hobby".

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