- Bayern’s US fanbase has grown from 13m to 28m since office opened
- Club has entered into a youth development programme with MLS side FC Dallas
- Investment in office now covered by the revenues it generates
When Bayern Munich opened an office in the United States in July 2014, the objectives handed to the staff in New York City were clear: grow the fanbase, build the brand and look for mutually-beneficial partnerships.
Before opening the NYC office, Bayern had 13 million fans in the US; they now have 27 million. In 2014 Bayern had just eight fan clubs spread across America; now they have 136 in 39 states.
The NYC office – led by Rudolf Vidal, a former Bayern youth team goalkeeper – has grown from three to seven full-time employees. Their roles include business development, media and marketing, digital and social, fan services, PR/communications and merchandising.
Bayern have secured 15 partnerships (covering both sponsors and “institutional relationships”) in the States – most recently a youth development programme with Major League Soccer franchise FC Dallas – and bolstered the relationship between the Bundesliga and Fox Sports, its US broadcast partner.
Bayern’s achievements in the US have resulted in Vidal, the club’s president of the Americas, fielding numerous phone calls from other European soccer clubs who want to know more about the Germans’ strategy to crack the American market.
Vidal, who was recently awarded a contract extension up until 2020, spoke at length to SportBusiness International to explain just how Bayern have done it.
Focusing on the fans
After bringing in Jörg Wacker as head of internationalization and strategy in 2013, Bayern made a conscious decision to push into the US and China, having hired research company Nielsen to analyse the club’s global presence.
It was decided that these two markets had the biggest potential to grow . While the US was not the biggest foreign market for Bayern, the ever-growing interest in soccer in recent years and the sports industry-minded market was the driver to invest in the country.
Bayern’s immediate policy after setting up their office in Manhattan was to increase the fanbase, confident that commercial opportunities would then follow.
“Whenever you have a fanbase, you create a demand – a demand for merchandising products, for companies that want to be aligned with the sport,” says Vidal. “This is a long-term approach and this is the right strategy for us and we’ve been pretty successful so far.”
In order to increase the fanbase, Bayern set up the necessary media infrastructure to directly communicate with US supporters: a US website, Twitter and Facebook pages and an online merchandise store.
As important as Bayern’s digital presence is in the States, being physically in the country is vital, too: not only as a signal of intent but it means that Bayern staff are better able to engage with their American fans and learn more about them.
The office has a staff member to solely focus on fan services. This means US-based Bayern supporters can contact the club via email, telephone and social media in local or close to local time, eliminating the six-plus hour time difference to Munich.
The employee is also a point of contact when fans want to purchase tickets in Munich, have general queries and want to host events that may need club support – for example raffle prizes. The staff member also helps organise fan events and connects the club’s content strategy to the different segments of fans: hardcore, casuals, new .
“We came here to come to our fans and that is what people really appreciate,” Vidal adds. “We literally go to the fan clubs - we just came back from Atlanta and Washington DC where there are 300-400 people and they really appreciated it.
“We have someone working on fan services and he is literally available seven days a week. Whenever a president of a fan club wants to do something for their club, we are there to help them.
“All members of fan clubs are registered so we are able to communicate with them on a constant basis and they get something from us on a weekly basis and sometimes more often. ”
This includes newsletters direct to email inboxes that contain the latest news and local activities around fixtures.
“We want to learn from fans what they like, what products they like, what they think we should do when the team is coming, what other initiatives can we do,” Vidal adds.
“This is part of the reason why we created a fan roadshow so we can go to our fans. We bring our mascot, we bring trophies and we bring our media partners to cover the event and we use the content to spread the word to other fans.
“And there is even a friendly battle between fan groups as to who has done more [local fan activities] and it is great to see this engagement.”
Utilising the power of social media
When it came to creating Bayern’s US Twitter and Facebook accounts, it was essential that the digital staff roles be filled by American employees to better engage with their US fans in real time.
The Twitter account is especially popular. It has 133,000 followers and regularly creates global media headlines with its witty content.
“You have to have someone who understands the tone of voice and how the people here consume social media and are engaged. In Germany we have a different way to communicate than here, but in Germany we have an older demographic than the US.”
The team’s German social channels are fairly traditional: news-oriented, based around updates from the team. But the tone is entirely different in the US, where they are driven more by popular culture and user-generated content.
The US Twitter strategy serves two purposes: to give fans all the relevant updates and news around the team with a ‘US voice’; and to make FC Bayern a part of the US sports and media landscape and conversation.
“We also use Twitter as a way to communicate with people to literally find a bar and engage with other people to put them together and help them with any benefits they need to get going,” adds Vidal. “We can help as we know exactly where the fan clubs are.”
— FC Bayern US (@FCBayernUS) March 5, 2018
Growing the US office slowly but surely
Running an office from midtown Manhattan is an expensive enterprise. So Bayern began slowly with a small core staff before expanding and moving to their current location on Madison Avenue in August 2016.
“There were literally three of us in 2014 but now we have 10 people in the NYC office [seven full-time employees plus interns]. This is a decent development for the situation,” says Vidal.
Having seen the NYC office cover its own costs and more – principally through healthy US merchandising sales – Vidal and his team hired a digital content manager to focus on the Latin American market.
Through research, including a Fan Survey conducted last August, Bayern established they had a large, young fan base in Latin America that has a big appetite for the club and its content.
“After we set up in New York we could see so many connections to Latin America and we saw a necessity to start in that market,” says Vidal. “We started the same way we did here, by building a digital presence.
“We have people in the most markets who can help us [in Latin America] – discovering fans, interacting, engaging, then looking for potential opportunities with our existing partners to do more and bringing our assets to those markets as well.”
Securing sponsors and partners
The deals with EA Sports and OXiGEN deals were led by the US office, which took a varying share of the workload of the other deals from the club’s Munich HQ.
The offer to sponsors is clear. “They ideally help us here and we can help them in Germany and China [where Bayern have a big presence via their media reach and partner family],” says Vidal.
In order to better reach fans, the club also signed media deals with Fox Sports, Univision, goal.com and Yahoo. Bayern provide these media outlets with exclusive content and invite them to cover club events in the States. “We work on a constant media exchange to get our content from Munich and distribute it in the market,” says Vidal.
Bayern also have “institutional partnerships”, most notably with Columbia University in New York City. In return for helping develop the college’s Sports Management Master of Science programme, the students have classes where they “develop things for us – like specific marketing activations, such as social media optimization”. Columbia students also intern at the Bayern US office.
Bayern’s main commercial shareholders – Audi, Adidas and Allianz – have also benefited from the club’s presence in the States.
In 2014, for example, Bayern played the ‘Audi Football Summit’ in New York. This was led by Audi’s German HQ, which involved Audi of America to organize local events and bring customers and guests to the event.
It was Audi of America’s first contact with soccer as an engagement platform and with Soccer United Marketing, Major League Soccer’s marketing arm.
Audi of America realized the potential of soccer in their target groups and the growing platform of the MLS and became partner of the MLS in 2015. Audi has since become a partner of five MLS teams and holds the naming rights to DC United’s new stadium .
Establishing youth soccer partnerships
Bayern has a deep relationship with Global Premier Soccer, which runs Bayern’s entire grassroots programme starting from the age of eight in the US.
The aim of these academies is two-fold: 1) extending Bayern’s footprint across the States; 2) helping grow soccer in the US by offering access to the club’s curriculum, helping both players and coaches alike.
If local children become Bayern supporters from a young age that is considered a bonus.
“We are now working with 90,000 kids in 22 states, 101 clubs, with 6,000 coaches,” says Vidal. ”The academies help us to tell the kids about the Bayern brand – we bring coaches over from Munich.
“People want to know more about how Germans develop their talent – there is a constant exchange between GPS and our coaches where we tell the kids our curriculum and our philosophy.”
Following on from the GPS deal, Bayern recently announced a partnership with MLS side FC Dallas, which is centred on elite player development for now. Vidal admits a partnership with an MLS club was intended from the beginning of the NYC operation.
“We got in touch with the Hunt family [the FC Dallas owners] from the very beginning and we finally agreed on the partnership last year and we worked a year on it – how we would work together – before it was announced,” says Vidal.
“[There] are so many opportunities to build on this. Anything else that comes from it would be additional. The more you know each other the more you can create and generate – for example Bayern could grow as a fanbase in the Dallas area and that in itself could lead to other opportunities.”
Locking in when Bayern tour the States
Since 2014, the year Bayern set up the NYC office, the club have alternated between touring the US and China while playing friendlies in the International Champions Cup.
In 2016 on their ‘Audi Summer Tour’, Bayern played in Chicago, Charlotte and East Rutherford, New Jersey, against AC Milan, Inter Milan and Real Madrid respectively. The club are due to return for two-game tour this summer.
Having a presence in the States is invaluable to the club’s staff in Munich to ensure the most is made of these trips. Initiatives organised by the Bayern US office include Xabi Alonso and Arturo Vidal taking on 40 local children in a soccer match at Sinatra Park in New Jersey, PR appearances with various American athletes and ringing the bell of the New York Stock Exchange.
“When Bayern come over we use the momentum to do everything we do – marketing, media, PR and playing in front of the biggest crowd we can get,” says Vidal.
“Each partner comes up with ideas which they discuss with HQ but we coordinate a lot with them. They ask, ‘You know the market, what can we do better?’ and also ‘please fill up the media and PR slots and use all the other partnerships’ and we come up with a dedicated plan for the US and go back to them with everything.
“As soon as everything is finalized in terms of the tour city and the marketing windows for our partners, we then work on everything we have to. We are a very active organization as it is a great opportunity to play in front of fans who may not be able to make it to Munich.”
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