Given the highly developed economy in Germany, it’s unsurprising that the Bundesliga — led by the DFL (Deutsche Fußball Liga) — has a clear understanding of their goals and how to increase the popularity of their teams and league in the United States. Their ambition and organized approach should be admired. Out of all of the foreign leagues, they are the most committed and have displayed the most ingenuity in trying to grow their league stateside. They have poured more energy into trying to make their league a thing in the United States than the Premier League, LaLiga, Serie A and Ligue 1 combined.
Despite their clear vision and all of their effort, the Bundesliga’s efforts have been fruitless and will continue to be so. That’s because the league has a split personality. Let me explain.
Focusing on their strengths, the best attributes of the Bundesliga include:
✅ The best match atmospheres in world football,
✅ Lowest ticket prices among the world’s major leagues,
✅ Most goals scored among top European divisions,
✅ A focus on youth development with many exciting stars to watch,
✅ The 50+1 rule that ensures that corporations can’t be the majority owners of a club, and
✅ Standing up for the rights of supporters.
Even though the Bundesliga has all of the above going for it, why can’t it be a success in the United States now or in the future?
The reality is that the attributes that make Germany’s Bundesliga a shining example of how a top-flight division should be run end up holding the league back and thus preventing it from being more successful overseas. While the Bundesliga should be congratulated for their respect and treatment of their club supporters, that doesn’t help their league grow their television product. After all, one of the major reasons why the Premier League and LaLiga are more popular globally than the Bundesliga is because the English and Spanish leagues have, during the past decade, made significant changes to the kickoff times.
On a typical weekend in the Premier League, there are seven different kickoff times used from a Friday to a Monday. In LaLiga, that number may be as many as nine or ten kickoff times with matches kicking off almost continuously from Friday through Monday. The Bundesliga has five different kickoff times, or six when the German league has a rare Monday game. But due to protests by German fans, the DFL has decided to abolish all Monday games from the 2021/22 season onwards. Such is the power of the supporters in Germany. And the league listens to them.
Most crucially, 100% of Bundesliga games played every weekend overlap with the Premier League. There isn’t one German Bundesliga match where it can “own” the time and not compete with England’s top-flight league. Even if the Bundesliga product is better than the Premier League, it will always lose against the Prem.
Kickoff times aside, the Premier League has such a stranglehold on the English-speaking world that its continued success appears almost impossible to surpass. For example, Lutz Pfannenstiel, managing director of sports at Fortuna Düsseldorf, told World Soccer Talk on Sunday, “In the United States, the Bundesliga will never be able to touch [the popularity of the Premier League] as long as I’ll be alive.”
Pfannenstiel is 46 years old.
Competition is one thing, but language barriers are something else. While it can sometimes be overused as an excuse for a league that’s unable to penetrate a foreign market, the German language does make it harder for the Bundesliga to succeed overseas. The games themselves are fine, but as witnessed at this past weekend’s Eintracht Frankfurt-Bayern Munich and Fortuna Dusseldorf-Köln matches, if the viewer (or spectator, in this case) can’t understand what the fans are singing in German, it doesn’t create a connection. If you can’t understand the language, the match atmosphere doesn’t pull you into the game. It does the opposite, forming an invisible barrier.
FC Kõln supporters "on fire" for second half against Fortune Dusseldorf pic.twitter.com/W5lQVsbsYr
— World Soccer Talk (@worldsoccertalk) November 3, 2019
The split personality of the Bundesliga comes down to admirable intentions to grow the league overseas, but the reality that the league’s hands are tied behind their backs because they’re unable to roll out aggressive changes.
The influence of the fan culture in Germany is a factor that makes the league so charming yet inflexible at the very same time.
While the league pushes out a “Football as it’s meant to be” marketing slogan, there’s no doubt that the Premier League and LaLiga are doing the opposite, and it’s working better for them.
Perhaps, at the end of the day, the edited and more accurate Bundesliga slogan should read, “German football as it’s meant to be,” which is exactly what the Bundesliga is — affordable, entertaining, full-blooded and featuring an experience that encapsulates all that is best about Germany to be enjoyed mostly by Germans but unable to break through in a major way in most other countries around the world.
HOW CAN THE BUNDESLIGA COMPETE?
Analysis by Christopher Harris, Soccer media analyst
Don’t get me wrong, if I lived in Europe, I would make a concerted effort to go see as many Bundesliga games in-person as I possibly could. but I, like you, don’t live in Deutschland, so the television experience is what’s most vital and that’s where the Bundesliga falls down.
It says a lot about the Bundesliga that their marketing slogan “Football as it’s meant to be” focuses on an idealized way of what the game should be based on a history with the sport. Many of the supporters clubs have a romanticism and fascination with the English football from the 1970s where the terraces were filled with colorful songs, fans bouncing up and down terraces, massive flags being waved and flares lighting up the night sky. That is exactly how the Bundesliga match experience is in 2019, too. So for admirers of that type of match atmosphere, like me, it’s an exciting time to be alive in Germany.
But that doesn’t carry across well on television.
As an aside, the modern-day Bundesliga matchday experience that evokes memories of the 1970s and 1970s also has a downside. Attending the Eintracht Frankfurt-Bayern game on Saturday, none of the food vendors inside or outside of the stadium accepted credit cards. It was cash only, so if you didn’t have enough Euros for a bite to eat or a drink, you were out of luck.
While the concession stands at the Fortuna Dusseldorf stadium on Sunday accepted plastic (huzzah), my friend found that one of the kiosks served coffee, but it was cold. Not ice coffee, but cold “hot coffee.” Worse yet, he said that the entire concessions experience was pitiful, and it reminded him of a completely different era where slow, laborious and inefficient service were the norm.
Back to the experience of watching the Bundesliga on television, the German league is caught in an almost no-win situation. Both the Premier League and LaLiga have carved out almost the entire weekend of possible kickoff times, so there aren’t many time windows for the Bundesliga to “own.”
And beginning with the 2020/21 season that kicks off in August, Bundesliga matches will be practically extinct from U.S. television as only four matches a season will be on ESPN TV channels while the remaining 336 games will be available exclusively via the streaming service ESPN+.
The biggest winner in all of this is the Premier League, which has found a way to move a significant competitor almost entirely off television.
And maybe that’s where the Bundesliga will shine, on a streaming platform that has enormous potential and where they won’t have to worry about being “relegated” to FS2 for big matches like this weekend’s Der Klassiker. By embracing a streaming platform such as ESPN+, the Bundesliga is taking a risky gamble on streaming being the next big frontier for the sport of soccer in the United States.
And who knows, maybe that will be where they can surpass the Premier League in our lifetime.