Every football club wants to be a global brand, but selling shirts around the world can alienate fans at home. We spoke to Bundesliga CEO Christian Seifert about his plan to do both.
It’s hard to dispute the quality present in the Bundesliga. With two clubs stocked with players from the world champion German national team (Bayern and Dortmund), quality contenders vying for the Champions League (Wolfsburg, Leverkusen, Monchengladbach), and the most goals per game in the top European leagues, you’d have troubling finding a Bundesliga match that’s not both technically skilled, tactically astute, and downright fun to watch.
Yet this March when the Bundesliga’s two titans, Bayern and Dortmund, took the field, the U.S. television audience clocked in around 192,000 viewers on the Fox subsidiary FX. It was a huge boost for a league that normally draws an American audience in the tens of thousands, but it was about half the size of the American audience that tuned in to watch the North London derby earlier in the morning.
It’s this challenge — making arguably the world’s best league also its most popular — that is animating Bundesliga CEO Christian Seifert. “We have to get fans all around the world, but also in the U.S., more used to the Bundesliga,” he tells Eight by Eight. Seifert contends that football fans around the world already follow specific Bundesliga clubs and players, citing Bayern’s huge global footprint, and Leverkusen’s budding popularity in Mexico (One name: Chicharito), but fans outside Germany struggle to grasp all the league’s narratives and subplots.
“People already have a lot of access to Bundesliga clubs,” says Seifert, “What we want to achieve is that they follow the Bundesliga as a whole competition.”
To redress this problem in the United States, the Bundesliga entered a five-year contract with Fox, the longest TV rights contract the league has ever signed outside of Germany. Seifert sees the TV deal as an avenue to get fans hooked on the league itself. “We want to have a longer relationship because we saw that it needs more time to build up the brand,” Seifert explains. “They have to discover it…but it takes time. You cannot speed it up.”
But time isn’t on the Bundesliga’s side in the arms race to transform football clubs into global brands. Last year, after the Premier League announced its record TV rights deal set to exceed £5 billion, Seifert raised a rhetorical question about his league’s future with the German tabloid Bild, “Are we prepared to head towards unpopular options in order to make sure that we can still attract the world’s best players to the Bundesliga?”
“The truth is I said this because I wanted to be the first one who said something,” says Seifert, explaining that he wanted to set the Bundesliga’s agenda before someone else in Germany did. These “unpopular options” could potentially include expanding the number of teams in the Bundesliga from 18 to 20, altering kickoff times to make the league more appealing to foreign audiences, or raising the league’s traditionally low-ticket prices. “You have to think what can you do to compete with a league which is maybe looking out for some of your good players,” he says.
Though Seifert provided no indication if any of those potential changes will be implemented in coming seasons, he maintained that the league is exploring ways to remain competitive globally while staying rooted in the Bundesliga’s working class history and traditions. This dichotomy was exposed last February when traveling Dortmund supporters tossed tennis balls onto the pitch in Stuttgart to protest high ticket prices (€19.50 for standing tickets; €38.50 for the cheapest seats). To fans around the world, the act of defiance seemed odd given the modest nature of the prices compared to those in other leagues, but for fans of the club, it symbolized the creeping influence of globalization on their local game. “Football must be affordable,” proudly proclaimed the fans’ protest banner, while beneath it was the unlikely spectacle of Dortmund’s first team scooping up the tennis balls by hand so the match could proceed.
But fans also expect Dortmund to win, both in Germany and in Europe. As Bayern’s Thomas Muller explained recently, he’s had big money offers from clubs in England but chose to stay in Munich because the football is superior. “England might have the money,” explained the modest assassin, “But we’ll see if they will return to the top of Europe.” There’s no guarantee that all of his countrymen will be so scrupulous.
How Seifert is able to steer the Bundesliga between these two competing imperatives — to be a global brand and to maintain its authenticity — will determine his, and the league’s, success.“This is the biggest challenge,” concludes Seifert, “To be both.”