If ever there was a broadcast to sum up how the Bundesliga TV ratings are doing in the United States, this past Saturday was it. Starting at the same kickoff time of 12:30pm ET, FOX had Bayer Leverkusen (starring Chicharito) against Bayern Munich (Germany’s number one team). On NBC, another terrestrial network, the game was Southampton versus West Ham United.
But as we revealed Monday, the ratings for the Bundesliga game were a disappointment. On the English-language broadcast featured on FOX, the Bundesliga had a 0.33 overnight rating compared to an 0.56 score for the Premier League game on NBC. We won’t know the complete numbers until Thursday, but the short of it is that the Bundesliga failed to live up to expectations.
Rather than facing the music and discussing the reasons for the poor numbers, the news was met with a flurry of excuses from journalists, fans and insiders. Here are just a few examples:
“This is the first time the Bundesliga has been on US TV”
People forget that the Bundesliga has been on FOX Sports before. From 2004 to 2006, Fox Soccer Channel featured Bundesliga matches including games on Saturday mornings featuring commentary by Max Bretos and Allen Hopkins. Fox Soccer Channel’s coverage of the Bundesliga competed with the Premier League on the same network. FOX continued its coverage of the Premier League until the end of the 2012/13 season before it lost the rights to NBC.
While the Premier League continued to grow from strength to strength, the Bundesliga made the wrong bet by selling its TV rights to GolTV in 2007. GolTV retained the Bundesliga rights until the end of the 2014/15 season before they were handed back over to FOX Sports, but by that time the damage had been done. The Bundesliga found itself way behind the Premier League, and was playing catch-up.
But by claiming, as many have done, that the Bundesliga has never been on US TV before shows a complete lack of understanding of the history of the league in the US.
“It’s unfair to compare the Bundesliga TV ratings to the Premier League”
By the Bundesliga signing a worldwide deal with FOX Sports, it’s on the same stage as the Premier League, so it’s quite right to compare the two.
While NBC has a head start over FOX when broadcasting the Premier League versus the Bundesliga, comparing the TV audience sizes that NBC generated in the first year of its agreement with the Premier League would be fairer. In that 2013/14 season, here are numbers for select games that were televised on NBC’s over-the-air network:
Cardiff vs. Swansea, February 8 (2014), 1.24 million
Arsenal vs Liverpool, November 2 (2013), 991,000
Everton vs Chelsea, September 14 (2013), 917,000
Crystal Palace vs Sunderland, August 31 (2013), 865,000
Swansea vs Man United, August 17 (2013), 792,000
Aston Villa vs Liverpool, NBC, August 24 (2013), 789,000
In the first month of its coverage, you can see that NBC made a big splash on its over-the-air network with viewing numbers from 789,000 to 865,000 before climbing into the 900,000’s and over one million.
So far this season, FOX’s two live Bundesliga games have been watched by 468,000 (Stuttgart-Hamburg) and an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 for the Leverkusen-Bayern game (exact numbers won’t be revealed until Thursday). FOX Deportes’ Spanish-language coverage of Leverkusen-Bayern garnered 318,000 viewers. Only when you combine the English-language and Spanish-language numbers for Leverkusen-Bayern Munich does FOX come close to matching the smallest NBC OTA English-language number for its 2013/14 season.
In that first NBC season, the Premier League games averaged 438,000 viewers across all of the games shown on NBCSN, the NBC over-the-air network and other NBC-affiliated networks. For the 2015/16 Bundesliga to date, the average viewing audience is well below 100,000.
“You mean the Bundesliga isn’t going to overtake the EPL in its first year on TV in the US?”
No one expects the Bundesliga to overtake the Premier League in the TV ratings war in the near future, but in isolation, Leverkusen-Bayern should trump Southampton-West Ham. The fact that it didn’t should be causing consternation in the offices of FOX Sports, the Bundesliga and the New York office of Bayern Munich USA.
To many, the fact that a Premier League game featuring two traditional English clubs far exceeded the viewing figures for the two most marketable teams in Germany is astonishing. Even as someone who has religiously followed the top-flight English league for 40 years, I’ll be the first to admit that the Bundesliga is a far more attractive proposition than the Premier League. The match atmosphere in Germany is far superior. The soccer on the pitch is usually better, and the production quality from the Bundesliga is on par with the Premier League. All of the key ingredients are in place to make the Bundesliga a success.
So why didn’t the Bundesliga beat the Premier League last Saturday on a day when the German league had the more attractive proposition?
The number one reason is that FOX Sports is not promoting the Bundesliga.
In the lead-up to last weekend’s Leverkusen-Munich game, not one of FOX Sports’ talent or executives were available for interviews. There was no advertising. There were no promotional videos shared on social media (like NBC is doing for this weekend’s Leicester-Arsenal game). There was no buzz.
I lost count of the number of times I saw hardcore soccer fans on social media saying they had no idea that FOX was even televising the Leverkusen-Bayern game. It’s almost as if FOX thought that by doing nothing, people would know the game was on their network.
We shouldn’t be surprised. FOX botched the launch of the Bundesliga season on US TV by waiting until the last minute to announce its coverage plans, and missed opportunities to promote the Bundesliga during the Women’s World Cup and Gold Cup.
We know that the Premier League and NBC are marketing machines. They have incredibly high standards for quality, but they also know how to market their product. You can bet that if NBC had the rights to the Bundesliga, the TV ratings would be far greater than what they are now under FOX. Unfortunately for the Bundesliga, there’s no turning back. The current agreement with FOX Sports expires in 2020.
Looking ahead, FOX and the Bundesliga have to make the best out of their relationship. With 6 more games to be shown on FOX’s over-the-air network in the next few months, there’s an opportunity to increase the viewership and hope that some of them migrate to watching Bundesliga games week-in week-out on FOX’s other channels. Unfortunately for the Bundesliga and FOX, there won’t be any Leverkusen games against Bayern Munich or Dortmund scheduled in the time slots that FOX has handpicked for over-the-air coverage. FOX will have to make do with what remains.
There’s a lot of work ahead. Hopefully FOX will come out of its shell and start promoting the league the way it ought to be done.
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