UBS Backs Alpine Wrestling Affirming Swiss Banking Roots

Four years after Credit Suisse Group AG signed a deal with sporting icon Roger Federer, UBS AG is renewing its backing for 230-pound Swiss farmers and butchers who wrestle in Alpine pastures to win prize cows.

UBS will sponsor Switzerland’s largest mountain wrestling event on Aug. 30 as a renaissance in the centuries-old sport of schwingen complements the biggest Swiss bank’s focus on its home market. The festival organizer expects about 290,000 visitors in three days, almost 50 percent more than the last time Zurich-based UBS helped fund the games in 2007.

“Schwingen, just like yodeling, is an ancient Swiss tradition,” Tom Ackermann, head of marketing for Switzerland at UBS, said in a phone interview. “Schwingen gets to the heart of the very Swiss characteristic of being very traditional and progressive at the same time.”

In schwingen bouts, wrestlers clasp each other’s jute pants and try to throw their opponent onto his back. The winner must keep hold of the pants with at least one hand while both of his opponent’s shoulders touch the ground in a sawdust ring.

The authenticity of a sport first depicted on 13th-century choir stalls in Lausanne cathedral reassures a Swiss public concerned about the country’s future after about 5,000 banking jobs disappeared in the past six years, said Kurt Imhof, a sociology professor at the University of Zurich. UBS is drawn to the event as the company shrinks its global investment bank and shrugs off attacks on Swiss banking secrecy that are roiling the industry in the local market.

Champion Wrestler

At the end of next month, wrestlers from around Switzerland will gather in the cheese-making region of Emmental in a bid to dethrone 23-year-old champion Kilian Wenger, a 6-foot 2-inch (1.9 meters), 235-pound (104-kilogram) butcher and cabinet maker who draws cheering crowds and autograph hunters.

“Many Swiss value that such traditions and values are being maintained and even more so in today’s hectic times,” said Wenger, who chose schwingen at the age of nine because his family couldn’t afford to buy skis.

Wenger has sponsorship contracts with Deere & Co., the largest maker of agricultural equipment, and General Motors Co.’s brand Opel, after winning the national competition in 2010. Wenger, who also works as a trucker, declined to disclose his earnings, while saying he “could live from the sport.”

Federer, a 17-time tennis Grand Slam champion, makes $71 million annually from prize money and 10 advertisement deals with companies including Rolex, Mercedes-Benz and Moet & Chandon, according to Forbes magazine.

Membership Boost

The membership of Solothurn schwinger club more than doubled to about 130 last year, said Chairman Ueli Emch, 35, a local dairy farmer and former wrestler. Tourists and locals are boosting the size of crowds for sponsors such as UBS and Swiss supermarket chain Migros, he said.

“It is delicious to watch these sponsors coming to such a humble game, particularly a UBS, which deals with so much money,” said Emch, who was attending a wrestling festival on the Weissenstein, a mountain north of Solothurn.

UBS replaces Raiffeisen, the Swiss cooperative bank that sponsored the 2010 event. Other backers this year are Toyota Motor Corp. and Swiss beer maker Feldschloesschen.

“It is more entertainment than tradition, although I do feel the locals take it very serious,” said Yang Liu, 33, an acoustics engineer from China working in Switzerland, who visited the Weissenstein festival. “Maybe that is the qualification to become Swiss?”

The Alps

The sport’s heritage drew Thomas Leiser, an arts and crafts teacher from Zurich who joined 5,000 other spectators at a contest at the Rigi, known as the Queen of Mountains because of its panoramic views across the Swiss Alps.

“It is genuine Swiss culture, not just a Walt Disney event for tourists,” he said.

The increasing popularity of the sport was recognized by the anti-immigrant Swiss People’s Party, which donned the edelweiss shirts worn by rural wrestlers for a political campaign in 2011. That prompted organizers of the national games to write to the party, requesting it stop using schwingen for political advantage.

Schwingen gained further prominence with the introduction in April 2012 of a magazine about the sport and sale of calendars featuring bare-chested combatants posing in the mountains. Wenger said he gets weekly love letters from fans.

For UBS, which also sponsors Formula One, the wrestling festival is one of several Swiss cultural and sporting events, including Art Basel, the Montreux Jazz Festival and Ballet Zurich, that the bank supports. UBS derived 43 percent of its 25.4 billion francs of revenue in 2012 from Switzerland, where more than 33 percent of the Zurich-based bank’s 61,782 staff are employed.

“We don’t sponsor sporting individuals, we sponsor top cultural and athletic events in Switzerland,” said Ackermann of UBS. “Switzerland is our home and we also support the country’s traditions.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.