Case study | The Bundesliga’s digital and social media strategy

German football’s Bundesliga is developing a digital and social media strategy in which the rationale behind content creation is very much about engagement and creating a rich fan experience, rather than just pulling in the maximum possible number of eyeballs.

Talking exclusively to SportBusiness International, Andreas Heyden, chief executive of DFL Digital Sports, the league’s digital arm, explains:

• The league’s analytics focus heavily on engagement, not just reach – quality of experience as well as quantity of followers.
• The business model is almost completely indirect, based on enhancing the value of future media rights and sponsorship deals.
• Having ownership of the whole media value chain leaves the Bundesliga well-placed to adapt to changing media market.

Andreas Heyden: DFL Digital Sports is a daughter company of the Deutsche Fussball Liga, the German football league. We have three general areas in which we cluster our activities:

1. Delivery: We have a clear idea of what channels we want to distribute content to. This means generating content either from our TV signal or producing it ourselves. About 80 per cent of the videos are adapted from the broadcast feed and about 20 per cent are bespoke content created by the DFL.

We create text, video, data, tables – we then use it within a predefined rights matrix on the various channels: web, apps, social, YouTube, a B2B product. B2B includes sponsors but also third-party publishers with whom the Bundesliga has a relationship.

2. Analysis: We analyse the data trigger points. How is it used in each country? What kind of content is relevant? What is the customer expectation? What are our KPIs? How can we generate data for the next tender processes?

3. Preparation: Where do we have to up our game to be prepared for future business models? If we were thinking about OTT services – and there is no plan to do one – but, theoretically, if in the future an opportunity opened up to do something by ourselves, what do we have to prepare now to be able to deliver this opportunity?

That is the circuit: deliver, analyse, prepare.

Image: Bayern Munich's stars are given the Hollywood treatment on Facebook. 

Engagement over reach

We have an article performance goal and a video performance goal. That’s the first thing I look at every day. Not reach. Maybe I have 1 million customers who have read an article, but 99 per cent of them haven’t read more than the first 10 per cent of it, or have left after one second, and only 1 per cent has watched the video attached to it.

This content is good for our vanity KPIs, because it has big reach, but it is not satisfying our customers. One million watched it but they were not satisfied: they didn’t read it all, they didn’t click on the video, they closed the browser and went to Facebook or whatever.

We try to have a balanced approach to the KPIs. For the performance goal, we have five factors, each of which has a weighting:


For every piece of content, you get a number between one and 100. We have never had an article that reached 100. There is always room for improvement.

In terms of Facebook followers, the league is sixth among football leagues, behind England’s Premier League, Spain’s LaLiga, Italy’s Serie A, France’s Ligue 1, and North America’s MLS. However, it has by far the highest levels of engagement per thousand users.

The Premier League has a reach 30 times higher, and LaLiga five times higher. That’s on pure numbers; how many fans they have. But using the latest tools we have from Facebook at the engagement, we are higher in engagement per user. We are not number one in the reach game, we have just 1.6 million or 1.7 million fans. But the people that we have are really engaged. 


Top: Video highlighting young Bundesliga players.

Bottom: Instagram post hails Borussia Dortmund's young American star Christian Pulisic.

International audience

When we target users, our focus is on international growth: growing the fan base outside Germany. This is to some extent determined by the platform characteristics. On Twitter, for example, there is no scope to target tweets to specific markets in specific languages. The league has created three different official Bundesliga Twitter channels, in German, English and Spanish. For YouTube, content is geo-blocked so that it cannot be accessed from Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

On Facebook, the league produces content which is targeted by region and language. Spanish language posts would be picked up by people with an IP address in North and South America. The same post would also be made available in English to Facebook followers in North America. Content is even be created to target fans of a player from an overseas market. This targeting involves paying fees to Facebook.

Image: Traditional German entertainment at a Bundesliga match, captured on Facebook.

Data into editorial

The hardest people to manage are editors. They will always find reasons why something is editorially important. Most of the time it’s for valid reasons. What we generate goes back into our editorial planning. If something does not get good engagement, even if it has big reach, we won’t do that any more. But we need professional editing and creativity. It’s about taking an idea and putting it in a format that works for Google, Facebook and our customers. If it works well, we will do it again. If not, we will stop. It’s a very hands-on approach.

You have to combine editorial talent with the openness to learn from what the usage data is telling us. You need great journalists to have great ideas. Like with Borussia Dortmund after a recent victory – it was the anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death and the posting said: ‘It smells like team spirit’. No data will tell you to do something with a Nirvana reference. This is where you need the people. But afterwards you have to analyse whether it was a great idea or a bad idea.

It smells like TEAM spirit! #BVB @BVB pic.twitter.com/Li7IE4rdjJ

— Bundesliga English (@Bundesliga_EN) March 6, 2017

Image: The Bundesliga social team linked to the anniversary of Kurt Cobain's death in this recent post.

DFL Digital Sports has about 20 people working on content out of a total staff of 60. It also works with 150 freelancers. We believe that we don’t need to do everything by ourselves in Cologne. We have a great guy for the US, another for the English-speaking web pages, a great Spanish guy. We work with local agencies, local freelancers. So, for example, we have a guy who will be dialling in editorial content from Guatemala.

There are people internally who are learning from the data and they steer the internal and external editorial staff.

A picture is worth a thousand words


Top: Facebook post hailing Schalke player Leon Goretzka.

Middle: Instagram post ahead of 'Der Klassiker' between Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich.

Bottom: A dedication to Borussia Dortmund's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on Twitter.

Unshared audience 

The strategic objective on any platform is to gain the largest amount of unshared audience. When I add a new channel to my distribution mix, whether on owned platforms (web/apps) or operated platforms, or B2B partnerships, I need a reason to do it. The first question is: Do I gain reach?

On social media, we are currently working with Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. We have to fish where the fish are. We try to be present on these platforms in as specific a way as possible. We want as large an audience as we can get and we want to be highly engaging.

The new kid on the block is Snapchat. We don’t use Snapchat currently as the data you receive from them doesn’t justify it yet. Yes, they have 300 million customers, and yes, they have had an IPO. But on a global plane, it is not on the same level as the big four.

For our own channels, web and apps, we focus all our efforts on the international market. There is a massive difference between Bundesliga.de and Bundesliga.com. People demand an app, people demand mobile. There is currently big demand for a fantasy app. We will launch a fantasy manager app next season. The app will initially be offered free to build the widest possible audience.

With content aggregators or B2B partners, again the question is: Do we gain additional reach and engagement?

‘Unshared audience’ is where there is no overlap, like unique users. If the same user is on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube every month he gets counted three times, not once. We look to gain maximum reach but nobody can tell us right now whether, if we have 100m users, one user is on 10 platforms, or 100 users are on one platform but not the other. Everybody has that problem. But if I have to justify investment, it’s a question I really need an answer to next year.

Image: Marking a goal by Borussia Dortmund's Pierre-Emerick Emiliano François Aubameyang on Instagram

Data: owned v operated platforms

You have to weigh getting 100 per cent of the data you want on your own platform, but with a limited growth potential (there is a limited number of people who will come to your web page or app; the only way around that is to spend a lot of marketing money), versus a platform where you get nice reach, organically. The question is always: Do we accept that we know less but gain more reach? Or do we know more, but grow more slowly?

For getting data, YouTube and Facebook are OK. I’m never satisfied, but they are OK. Twitter currently charges you a premium to get better data. The data you get from Instagram is OK. It’s not as good as Facebook yet, but that’s probably a matter of time. The data you get from Snapchat is improvable.

Image: Bayern Munich's midfield kings on Facebook

Club rights and the content matrix 

When it comes to deciding what digital content we can distribute and what the clubs can distribute, we see the clubs and the league as a single entity, having the same goal, reaching combined revenue through the highest monetisation of all rights. In these discussions, there is always give and take between leagues and clubs.

For example, with the sponsorship of the sleeve patch on the jerseys, we decided that perhaps the clubs could monetise it better. It’s similar with content, and the IMR – individual marketing rights. We carve out rights from the media licences, from Sky and other partners, for the clubs to distribute themselves and this will increase from 2017-18.

The clubs are our investors in international markets, so the more attractive the clubs get, the more attractive the league gets. And it can provide new revenues for the clubs. There are regulations – they cannot bundle it, cannot use it to create a TV channel, and so on.

It will benefit broadcasters indirectly because the league will become more attractive in their markets. It benefits the league, because the clubs are the investors. It benefits the clubs because they have a new source of revenue and a new source of reach. 

We work with our clubs, we understand they are our shareholders and don’t see them as competition. Of course, we have discussions and negotiations, but it is always a joint approach.


Hallo @woodyinho 👋 Schön, dass Du zurück bist.
So ein @bvb-Sieg zum Comeback wär gar nicht schlecht, oder?😉
👉https://t.co/c8kbh4tvF7 pic.twitter.com/8JWkRGrGCQ

— BUNDESLIGA (@bundesliga_de) November 22, 2016



Top: Twitter post marking the return from injury of Borussia Dortmund's Marco Reus.

Middle and bottom: Dedications to Borussia Dortmund's Pierre-Emerick Emiliano François Aubameyang on Facebook and Instagram.

Indirect business model

In Germany, we use pre-roll advertising on our official YouTube site in the country. But selling banners and buttons is not part of our core strategy. On the big picture, the business model is an indirect one. Our bet for the future is that due to our social media content we become more relevant, more successful and more engaged with users. This means that in the next round of TV rights sales the rights become more attractive to bidders.

We also provide digital content to partners such as [sportswear company] Adidas and [watch manufacturer] Tag Heuer. They have a presence on our platforms, nationally and internationally. We do tailored content for Tag Heuer, which is part of their activation budget. We give the brand player access. We give them reach on proprietary and social channels. Anything we communicate around the fixture schedules, the countdowns, this is all presented by Tag Heuer. With Adidas, we have a ball signed by the referee which is sent out to fans around the world.

Image: Celebrating the birthday of Bayern Munich's Manuel Neuer on Facebook

It is a highly cost-efficient operation. [Editor’s note: the league’s investment in digital operations is understood to be a double-digit-million-euros- per-year figure] However, comparing direct costs with indirect revenue model does not throw up a simple revenue out v revenue in equation. To evaluate the cost-efficiency of its strategy, we look at a number of factors. We look at how much money the clubs spend on digital and social content as well as conducting intensive benchmarking with other football leagues. We try to be as limited as possible in our fixed costs. But in our business model, it is not possible to say, ‘our costs here are €1m but we will earn €100m over the next 10 years’.

A football league, especially a successful one, is in a different position to ‘normal’ businesses, in that it can define its business model. If you create a quadrant with indirect v direct sales and exclusive v non-exclusive as the axes, you can decide where you place your business model. If you want highest return, lowest risk, you can go upper left on the quadrant – do everything exclusively with one partner and get all the cash up front. If you want to have strategic upside, you can decide as a league to do many other things, for example an OTT product, knowing that you would be shaving off the revenues you would get from exclusive sales.

Image: Facebook content focusing on FC Köln's Anthony Modeste

Owning the value chain

The real question in future-proofing your business as a football league – leaving aside questions of great players, great teams and so on – is: are we ready for the digital transformation? This is the real differentiator between leagues.

If you take a look at the Bundesliga’s value chain, we own our data, our TV signal, our archive, and we have a digital arm which can produce and operate channels. Whatever the challenges coming up in the future, the basis for it is owning this value chain and keeping costs under control, not going crazy and trying to cover all options.


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