Last week, World Soccer Talk spent several days in Germany and attended the Bayer Leverkusen-Schalke 04 match on November 29. As the tour proves, the Bundesliga has embarked on an aggressive effort to increase its global reach including a prioritization of the American market. German soccer has long had its proponents in the American soccer community. In fact, the Bundesliga is the one top European league that has consistently boasted American player influence over the past two decades, tying the league closely to some long-term fans of the game.
Germany also creates a fan atmosphere at its stadiums that few other leagues around the world enjoy. The production on TV of Bundesliga games is outstanding allowing those watching in the United States to feel the energy of many matches, especially derbies like Schalke 04 vs Borussia Dortmund.
However, German soccer still lags well behind recognition of other European brands in the United States, as evidenced by the poor TV ratings the league has experienced this season on FOX Sports.
Here are some of the issues holding back the Bundesliga in the US market:
1. Language barrier
American soccer fans have become junkies of online content about the sport. The growth of the game in the United States and interest in foreign soccer has led to a proliferation in websites and podcasts about our favorite teams and leagues, all in our native English language.
The unfortunate reality for Bundesliga is that content explaining the league, breaking down matchups and building side stories about German club play is difficult to come by in the English language when compared to the Premier League and the top two La Liga sides. Podcasts and other audio content that drive some of the English game’s popularity in the United States are not readily available for the Bundesliga. What has resulted is a fanbase in the United States that sometimes skews perceptions of the Premier League with regards to its quality when compared to other top European competitions.
The Premier League has been able to create a vast global following thanks in large measure to the English language’s saturation in developing markets of Asia, Africa and North America.
2. Established Premier League penetration of American market
The Premier League used the proven marketing prowess of English football’s grandest competition and the built-in language advantage to corner the US market. The league now consistently has higher ratings than MLS in the United States.
British culture has long bled into American mainstream consciousness via music, movies and television. Soccer simply seems in many ways a logical addition to this synergy between the two great English-speaking nations. In a twenty year period, the Premier League has gone from being only available on pay TV in pubs to a focus on match highlights on regional sports channels, to national cable TV finally leading to network television and a long-term rights deal with NBC Sports.
Against this backdrop, the Bundesliga seemed largely uninterested in the US market. A partnership deal with MLS that was announced in 2007 led to little in the way of tangible results in the US. While Premier League clubs both large and small traveled to the United States each summer between 2006 and 2013, Bundesliga clubs largely skipped traveling to North America. It was in this period between the 2006 World Cup in Germany and the 2014 World Cup (won by the German team) that interest in the beautiful game developed quickly in the United States. During this period while the Premier League benefited from capable US TV partnerships which aggressively grew the audience of the English game, the Bundesliga was stuck on GolTV, a channel that even for hardcore soccer fans was often forgotten. GolTV lacked the reach beyond established hardcore soccer fans to really push the needle for the Bundesliga.
Michael Schade, Chief Executive Officer of Leverkusen, spoke candidly with World Soccer Talk last week, admitting the Premier League had a tremendous financial advantage over the Bundesliga in addition to a decade head start in focusing on the US market. Schade, who has worked for three decades with the Bayer AG (the company best known for Bayer Aspirin), understands the power of global marketing, and for the second straight January will travel to Florida in order to grow the club’s US fanbase. But other Bundesliga clubs have been slow to follow Leverkusen’s lead, leaving the league without the type of efforts from clubs large and small that typified the Premier League press on the US market from 2006 to 2013.
While the US market is still maturing, a disproportionate number of new fans to the sport in the last decade have embraced the Premier League in comparison to other European top divisions. The big question is as new American fans embrace the sport, whether or not these fans follow the established pattern of the last set of new fans or not is worth pondering.
3. FOX Sports
The new 5-year Bundesliga partnership with FOX Sports does give the German league an opportunity to get the type of American exposure rival leagues in France, Italy and Spain lack. But again the Premier League’s NBC Sports deal has given that league a more professional look with far more shoulder and ancillary programs than FOX Sports has ever committed to the sport of soccer, irrespective of league.
FOX’s commitment to promoting the Bundesliga has not been sufficient to this point in time. While defenders of the network will point to the low ratings Bundesliga games have earned thus far on FOX Sports 1 and FOX Sports 2, it could also be argued the network did little to build the brand of the league or interest in the teams with the type of ancillary programs required to introduce a largely new product to a saturated sports market.
The Bundesliga faces tremendous challenges going forward if they are to increase market share in the United States. However, the attitude of a club like Bayer Leverkusen provides hope for the league as it attempts to claw its way to real relevance with American-based soccer fans. While TV production of the Bundesliga remains a selling-point, FOX’s inability or unwillingness (whichever it is) to build the league’s brand via shoulder and ancillary programs remains a serious concern.
The natural advantages the Premier League enjoys in the American market were exploited by the English league’s early commitment to building its brand and profile in the United States. The Bundesliga does not enjoy those natural advantages and is late to the party. However, having a major television partner in the United States gives the league a real opportunity that the well-established Spanish La Liga and Italian Serie A do not have. The Bundesliga also has a long-standing history of featuring several important US Men’s National Team (USMNT) standouts, and has widely been seen as the European country most receptive to American players over the course of the last two decades. The FOX Sports deal, paired with the USMNT component, gives the Bundesliga hope of growing its American footprint.
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