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Leadership; Interview with Christian Seifert of the DFL

DFL (German Football League) CEO Christian Seifert tells Kevin Roberts how a combination of world-class performance, sold-out stadia and financial stability has helped make the Bundesliga a European football powerhouse.

The 51st season of the Bundesliga, Germany’s top-tier football league, kicked off when a packed stadium watched defending and European champions Bayern Munich host five-time title-holders Borussia Mönchengladbach. While Germany has always been a football-mad nation, there was a particular spring in the collective step this year as Bayern set about defending its titles.

Since defeating Bundesliga rivals Borussia Dortmund at Wembley to lift the UEFA Champions League trophy in May, the country’s strongest club has added the world’s smartest young coach, Pep Guardiola, as a clear signal that it is determined to hang on to its throne and build upon the success achieved by his predecessor, Jupp Heynckes.

Before the Champions League final clash, only three other leagues – England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga and Italy’s Serie A – had supplied both Champions League finalists. Each of those leagues has enjoyed a spell of comparative domination in the world’s most prestigious and lucrative football continent, and now it looks as if it is Germany’s time to shine. The only question here is why anybody should have been particularly surprised. German club football is, by any measure, among the strongest in Europe and though Bayern’s triumph was the first by a Bundesliga member for more than a decade, the UEFA co-efficients, which are based on head-to-head games between teams from the major markets, pointed to a change in fortune. 

A natural progression

“In many respects, we saw it coming, and it was certainly a wonderful next step in the development of the Bundesliga,” says Christian Seifert. “We have been improving in the UEFA co-efficients, and although it was a great experience for us, it was also less of a surprise for us than it was for others. “It certainly created a feel-good factor around the Bundesliga, as research shows that for most people, the Champions League is the most important football competition, even more important than the World Cup.”

As chief executive of the DFL, Seifert heads the organisation responsible for running and marketing German club football worldwide. And while naturally that means maximising revenues and growing the profile and footprint of the Bundesliga, he is eager to point out that it is not all about business.

“Unlike in some countries, professional sport in Germany is not first and foremost a business,” he says. “For us, it is about achieving worldclass performance and combining that with financial stability and sustainability. I think the last Champions League season sent out a signal that the Bundesliga could deliver that.”

For Seifert, who comes from what he describes as a “footballing family” and who himself played at fourth-tier club level, Brand Bundesliga is built on three key characteristics: performance, match atmosphere and sustainability. Certainly, it is a league that produces a unique kind of passion among its fans. Despite its relative youth – the Bundesliga was founded in 1963 – the rivalries between many of the top clubs, particularly those from the same region, go back many years and the clubs themselves have rich histories and traditions.

The atmosphere of which Seifert is so proud is the result of a combination of passion and numbers, perhaps best pictured in the massive ‘yellow wall’ of humanity that stands on the enormous terrace behind the goal at Borussia Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion, now known after a naming rights sponsorship as the Signal Iduna Park. Average attendance in the 2012/13 season was around 42,500, well above any other European league.

“You will hardly find anybody who would disagree with the idea that the Bundesliga is the most fan-friendly and fan-centred football league in the world,” says Seifert. “That has a lot to do with the fact that the clubs understand their fans. As a result, everybody wants to go to games. Men, women, people of all ages and all parts of society – and clubs limit the number of season tickets they give out to give more people an opportunity to experience games live.”

Common purpose of club and country

Perhaps the relationship between Germany’s clubs and the national team is also part of the reason for its current success. While in other countries, professional leagues and national associations appear to be in a state of near constant friction, there appears to be a sense of common purpose in Germany that has contributed to the current strength of both set-ups.

“You only have to look back to 2000 to see how it works,” says Seifert. “This was a time when German clubs were doing particularly well in the Champions League and UEFA Cup but when the national team was under-performing. It was then that it was made an obligation for Bundesliga clubs to join up to the youth academy system. The members of the league decided that, even in the middle of all the club successes, something needed to be done and something had to change.”

The youth academy system replicated the French national academy model at Clairefontaine and has produced many of the players currently starring both for Bundesliga clubs and the national team. It is, perhaps, an example for others and Seifert himself is never slow to learn lessons, not only from the world of football outside Germany, but also from other sports.

“My understanding has always been that you have to constantly learn from the way that things are done elsewhere,” he says. “Football in Germany and elsewhere learned a lot about player education and talent development from the way that France re-invented itself and came back to win the World Cup in 1998 after the end of the era of [UEFA president and former French footballer Michel] Platini. “In the same way, we learned about coach education and development from the Netherlands and Italy, and of course in business terms it is no secret that the English Premier League has done a great marketing job. We can also learn lessons in media production from the NFL.

“The point is, you learn, but you can’t simply copy. You have to go through the world with your eyes open but be able to apply the lessons you learn to your own culture and environment.” Of course, many other football leagues will be looking to the Bundesliga for lessons on how to create the sort of financial stability that has become its hallmark. The league ranks second in the football world behind the English Premier League in terms of revenues which, according to Deloitte, in 2011/12 were $2.36 billion, slightly ahead of La Liga and Serie A.

While it is worth noting that at seven per cent, year-on-year revenue growth was nearly twice that of the Premier League, the really interesting point here is profitability. While the Premier League recorded profits of $154 million for the year, the Bundesliga performed far better, turning in a $242 million surplus. Some of this clearly had to do with the difference in the ratio of player wages to revenue which was 51 per cent in Germany compared to 70 per cent in the Premier League. So while accepting that no two nations or operating environments are ever the same, to what does Seifert attribute that success?

“I think it is a combination of factors including mentality and regulation,” he explains. “Germans don’t like to make a loss and the clubs themselves vote for regulation based on statutes they wrote themselves to control finances. I raise my hat to the clubs for creating a self-regulating system and embracing rules that are designed for the benefit of the system as a whole.”

Financial checks and balances

Not that German football has been entirely free of financial crises. Back in the early 2000s, Borussia Dortmund was close to bankruptcy but found a way through, helped in part at least by a loan from deadly rivals Bayern. For now, regulations against incurring debt and controlling who owns the clubs appears to be working just fine, and German football is in robust financial health even though its domestic TV revenues are smaller than those elsewhere. This, says Seifert, is not to do with any lack of appetite for Bundesliga football but the broadcasting history and culture of the country.

“I am happy where we stand with pay-TV right now but this country’s relationship with the medium is different to others,” he says. “Germany has always had a strong state-funded TV service which meant that when pay-TV came along, most households already had access to 30 or more channels. That meant they were more reluctant to take pay-TV compared to other countries where there were only four or five free channels.

“Then the Kirch Group, the leading pay-TV operator, filed for bankruptcy [in 2002]. That was another setback, but today I am satisfied with our media revenues. If someone suddenly came along and offered us substantially more I would be alarmed because I would have serious doubts about the ability to monetise the investment. Pay-TV has a big future, but it will take some time.” 

It would be wrong to think Seifert and his team’s vision ends at the German borders, and an international approach is evident in the Bundesliga’s TV ambitions, where the recent Champions League final match-up may have helped shape a fresh awareness of the German game.

“I am certainly not disappointed with where we are today in terms of overseas media sales,” says Seifert. “When I arrived in 2005, the revenue was around €12 million a year at a time when the Premier League already had more than €100 million. We start from the basis that media development always follows economic development, so we are looking for economically healthy markets where there is an active TV and advertising sector. We are already seeing increasing demand in countries like China, where the Bundesliga is particularly popular through coverage on CCTV, while we have a significant following in parts of Africa, the United States and Japan because players from those countries are represented in Bundesliga teams.”

As CEO, Seifert’s role involves looking after the interest of his member clubs on a broader scale, and he is clearly concerned that there is a growing gap between the interests of clubs and the demands of football’s international governing bodies. In particular, and well-documented, are his concerns about the almost inevitable fallout from FIFA’s decision to hold the 2022 World Cup in Qatar at the height of summer.

“I am not sure the relationship between FIFA, UEFA and the clubs is in good shape at all,” he says. “I don’t think the leagues are properly represented. They talk about the ‘football family’ and about respect, yet it is clear to me that if the FIFA Executive Committee sits down behind closed doors [next month] and decides the World Cup should be held in November or December, that is not showing respect. 

“It would be irritating if they made a decision without a long-running and complex discussion; there has to be a serious, non-political, fact-based discussion. Playing and training in summer is bad for the players, it would be too hot for all of those who have to work there. You can’t play in summer. The Bundesliga has 18 clubs, and no league cup, so it is possible we could shape the 2021 and 2022 seasons to allow a change because a move would disrupt two seasons not just one. That would allow German national players with German clubs to play in a winter World Cup. But not all leagues would be able to do that.”

Curriculum vitae: Christian Seifert

CEO, DFL (German Football League) Christian Seifert has been CEO of the DFL, the body responsible for professional domestic football in Germany, since July 2005. As CEO he is responsible for the strategic orientation and overall leadership of the DFL, and during his tenure, has helped the body reach record revenues in
every area of the business. 

Seifert studied communications, marketing and sociology at Essen University before joining MGM (Media Gruppe München) in 1995, where he reached the position of chief of product management. From 1998 to 2000, Seifert was director of marketing for MTV Networks, now Viacom Media Networks, in central Europe. He left to join KarstadtQuelle New Media, where he oversaw the acquisition of sports broadcaster DSF and online sports service provider Sport1, in addition to winning an extensive merchandising rights package for the 2006 FIFA World Cup.

Seifert is also vice-president of the DFB (German Football Association), a member of the League Association Board and since November 2009 has been acting chairman of the Bundesliga Foundation Board of Trustees.

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