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Bundesliga’s Asian Growth Driven by Local Strategy

In association with Bundesliga International

Bundesliga legend Lothar Matthäus visits the BVB Football school in Mumbai last year (Reinaldo Coddou H./Bundesliga/DFL via Getty Images)

All too often marketing slogans or straplines are simply clusters of words, empty of any real meaning. So hats-off to whoever authored the Bundesliga’s catchphrase ‘Football As It’s Meant To Be’ – a simple yet precise articulation of the values of Germany’s elite football league, which serves as a statement of authenticity designed to set it apart from its rivals in the battle for hearts, minds, eyeballs and, ultimately, spending power of sports fans around the world.

Their mantra is evidenced across all areas of their strategy, using the league’s greatest assets to engage followers across the world as it competes to become the number one football league internationally. And with recent figures published showing an increase of cumulative revenues for the Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2 for the 14th year in a row, with a record total revenue of €4.42bn ($5.01bn) for the 2017-18 season, it appears that it’s delivering results.

The importance of football in German society and culture is reflected in both the attendance at the Bundesliga’s world-class stadiums – consistently the highest average globally – and the passion of the crowds, which does so much to define both the live experience and the television product.

Add to that some of the world’s greatest football stars on the field, including hot prospects and established players from over 50 countries, low ticket prices, the intensity of the local and regional derbies sprinkled across the season, plus the fact the Bundesliga has had Europe’s highest goals per game average in 25 of the last 26 seasons, then you have the essence of the Bundesliga.

Those are just some of the ingredients which Bundesliga International use to market the league. Established in 2017 as a subsidiary of the Deutsche Fußball Liga (DFL), their primary focus is on international business, servicing over 80 national and international contractual partners.

Growth

The organisation’s approach goes well beyond selling media rights. By building the brand of the league, Bundesliga International is driving the value of their product.

To do this, over the past 12 months, Bundesliga International has been building a team of experts to provide a holistic approach to its service provision. One of the first departments established within the company was a Business Intelligence Unit. Its role is crucial in terms of the information relayed to those who develop territorial strategies.

One of the most obvious outcomes is the establishment of a network of offices across the world, most recently their Americas office, which opened in New York in 2018.
Asia is another area identified as having an incredible hunger for German football, both commercially and through fan engagement. This has been fuelled by a special affinity with fans thanks, in part, to over 70 Asians who have played in the Bundesliga over the years, more than any other European league.

Evidence of the Bundesliga’s growth in Asia is highlighted by the fact that the number of fans following the league’s own Facebook, Instagram and YouTube channels has increased 250 per cent over the past year.

Over 3.5 million fans from Asia (excluding China) follow the league on Facebook alone – which is 45 per cent of the league’s total Facebook fans. This includes over a million fans from India, the second highest representation from any country. In addition, over 2.6 million people follow the Bundesliga on China’s Sina Weibo.

Such factors prompted Bundesliga International to increase its presence across the region. Having opened its Singapore office in 2012, Bundesliga International signed a strategic partnership with IMG Reliance in India last November. Then, earlier this year, it was confirmed that its China office would open in Beijing this coming March.

Whilst Bundesliga International’s headquarters in Frankfurt remains responsible for creating its global strategy, the value of local knowledge and execution provided by their local offices is paramount to the league’s success.

Former Germany goalkeeper Oliver Kahn at a charity fund raiser in Tokyo last December
(Atsushi Tomura/Bundesliga/DFL via Getty Images)

Unique Setup

The structure of the entire DFL Group allows the league to deliver content in a customised manner. As the world’s only professional football league to own the entire production of its output from beginning to end, it is in essence its very own media house.

Throughout the year, Sportcast provides the live signal from every single Bundesliga match to 211 territories, whilst DFL Digital Sports combines match day activities with cutting edge digital content and products for the fans around the globe.

By controlling every single production from A to Z, the Bundesliga delivers a unique product to its partners, quickly and flexibly. It is a package that, in conjunction with Bundesliga International’s global focus, gives the league the capacity to fully control its message and events from start to finish.

Going Local

This is a strategy that is paying dividends in Asia, particularly China, as Bundesliga International chief executive Robert Klein explains ahead of their office opening: “Whilst being on the ground in China is a key milestone, by owning our full value chain we are able to offer our Chinese fans what they want, on the platforms they want and in the formats they want.”

China is a complex nation which many of the world’s top sports leagues are trying to break into. The Bundesliga however has several advantages over its competitors.

“China’s a huge economy and a big sports market. Our decision to open an office there also reflects the relationship between German and Chinese football at the political level,” explains Klein. That follows a knowledge sharing agreement in 2016 by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, China’s President Xi Jinping and footballing authorities from both nations.

Klein continues: “The Bundesliga is in a good position in China – we had been available on free-to-air, TV nationwide on CCTV for 23 years. We’re delighted to have entered into a partnership with PPTV – in this digital era. Chinese fans now have access to every game from the Bundesliga, providing them with outstanding live and supplementary content each week.”

An indication of how the market is being approached in China is reflected in the appointment of Patrick Stueber, currently senior audivisual rights manager at Bundesliga International, as head of their Beijing office.

The league’s digital success is an asset that the Bundesliga intends to build on having dominated this landscape in China for a number of years thanks to a concerted focus on Chinese platforms.

“‘Football As It’s Meant To Be’ was the most used football hashtag in China last year, shared over 20 million times more than the Premier League’s strapline. We want to build on our solid digital footprint and maintain a strong presence,” says Klein.

The success of its strategy is evidenced further by the Bundesliga’s achievements in the Mailman Red Card Awards, where it was voted China’s most popular foreign league across social media between 2014-2018.

The digital focus has been boosted by the launch of the Bundesliga’s platform on one of China’s fastest growing online networks – Jinri Toutiao. Of this, Klein says: “By being on the ground, we will be able to keep track of digital trends, which will help strengthen Bundesliga’s position as football’s online market leader in China. Our focus on creating localised content has helped forge a strong rapport with Chinese fans.”

The potential for growth in China has already been recognised by some of the Bundesliga’s leading clubs, with Borussia Dortmund, FC Bayern München, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Eintracht Frankfurt, Schalke 04 and VfL Wolfsburg establishing offices there.

India

Many clubs are also capitalising on the development of football in another Asian sleeping giant – India. Like in China, understanding fans is central to partnership activity there.

“There are hotbeds of football in the south of India, in Kerala and Goa, and in the north-east. The scale of the country and the regional differences means that working with a local partner is most effective.

“By teaming up with IMG Reliance, they give us the knowledge and the team on the ground we need to deliver a programme of grassroots activities, CSR and digital content creation to support the televised match content.”

In addition to its innovative and highly effective digital output, the Bundesliga has another valuable asset it regularly calls upon to help build traction across Asia.

The success of the German national team has made global superstars of legendary players including 1990 World Cup winner Lothar Matthäus, who made a highly successful visit to India last December.

As part of a Bundesliga Legends Tour he not only created significant media attention and connected directly with fans through events like viewing parties, but through his presence at a number of Indian Super League matches highlighted the Bundesliga’s support of local football and the development of domestic talent.

“We want to be part of the growth of football globally and to provide the fans with the best ways of experiencing the Bundesliga. The way we do that will differ according to individual markets.

“In India, for example, it is likely that, in a few years’ time, fans will expect a customised service and our digital strategy is developing to allow us to meet that anticipated demand.”

Whilst Germany’s top flight league is fully aware of the challenges faced by an increasingly competitive international market, ‘Football As It’s Meant To Be’ sets out the Bundesliga’s claim to be the real deal.

Through their localised strategies, evidence suggests that the way they are going about their business will ensure they remain one of football’s global leaders for many years to come.

Fact file: the Bundesliga in Asia

  • There are currently nine Asian stars playing in the Bundesliga, more than any other top European league, plus another 12 playing in Bundesliga 2
  • Eleven German-based players  played in the recent AFC Asian Cup – more than any other top European league
  • Across Asia, more than 300 marketing activities and events are planned for 2018/19 by the Bundesliga and its clubs
  • The Bundesliga has recently run digital campaigns in Japan with Yuya Osako and Thailand with Witthaya Laohakul, which have reached over 12 million people
    in the region

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