Organised, timely and efficient: German football shows the way out of lockdown

  • Bundesliga’s return down to cohesive effort from government, league and clubs
  • Commitment to transparency inspired confidence from partners and the public
  • Dortmund v Schalke on May 16 broke international viewership records

The return of the German Bundesliga has prompted sighs of relief across the sports industry, but making it work was far from easy.

A cohesive effort between the league, clubs and players has enabled a medical concept founded on the principles of personal and collective responsibility. The organised, proactive response by the German government has underpinned this plan, making the restart possible.

Across the three matchdays since the league’s return, 52 matches have been played across the first and second tiers of German football. There have been positive tests, protocol breaches and postponements, but nothing has been able to derail the project.

Robert Klein, chief executive of the DFL’s global marketing arm Bundesliga International, told SportBusiness: “There was a clear direction set at the beginning that we intended to finish the season if possible, but categorically stating that the health and safety of communities, players and staff was paramount.

“It was about creating a medical concept which, from the get-go, was not going to affect the testing commitment made by the German government of 500,000 per week. Our testing was only done on top of that, it wasn’t about special treatment but in fact trying to find a solution for workers – who happen to be footballers – to get back to work.”

Testing and social distancing have been central to the Bundesliga’s return, but Klein believes that clear communication between the league, local government, clubs and players was also a key element of the comeback.

“There have been hiccups along the way, but this is something that was anticipated, as per the medical concept, and something that was communicated by the clubs to the local authorities immediately,” he said. “Three FC Köln players tested positive and it was announced, along with the measures put in place.

Augsburg manager Heiko Herrlich illustrated that buy-in perfectly. Two days prior to his team’s match against Wolfsburg, Herrlich absent-mindedly left the team hotel and bought a tube of toothpaste. Realising his error, he owned up and withdrew from coaching the team that weekend.

“I am glad and grateful that my 17 colleagues did not act so thoughtlessly,” Herrlich said. “Otherwise the restart of the league would not have been possible in this form.”

Head coaches Heiko Herrlich and Steffen Baumgart bump elbows prior to the Bundesliga match between FC Augsburg and SC Paderborn 07 at WWK-Arena (Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

Domestic peril

A failure to restart the season would have been catastrophic for German football. Thirteen of the 36 clubs in the top two tiers of German football faced the possibility of insolvency if the DFL had not resumed in a timely manner. Should the season have been cancelled altogether, it is estimated the league and clubs could have lost up to €750m ($834m) across media rights, sponsorship and matchday income.

The Bundesliga was the last of the big five European leagues to stop playing and has been the first to return. But in the interim, the DFL had to manage its relationships with domestic broadcast partners to ensure media-rights payments reached the clubs.

When the league was postponed on March 13, Bayern Munich chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge voiced his concerns over domestic broadcasters withholding the last of four media-rights payments due in the 2019-20 season: “At the end of the day, it’s about finances and the big outstanding TV payments to clubs.”

He continued: “Everyone should understand what ending the season would mean for clubs. Most of the revenue comes from the TV sector. If this sector were to fail, there are fears many small and medium-sized clubs will experience liquidity problems. We hope this [the postponement] will end quickly.”

On April 23, the DFL announced it had reached agreements with its primary broadcast partner Sky Deutschland and public-service broadcasters ARD and ZDF to ensure that at the very least, part payments would be made to clubs in the top two tiers.

Sky, by far the Bundesliga’s biggest financial contributor, committed to release half its final payment a month early in return for an overall reduction of the amount due when the league restarted. It was a compromise that needed to happen and, again, helped secure buy-in from the clubs.

The only domestic broadcast partner not to agree a deal was Discovery, owner of commercial and pay-television broadcaster Eurosport. Discovery sublicensed its rights to streaming platform DAZN prior to the start of the 2019-20 season but is still responsible for paying the league.

After failing to reach an agreement with Discovery, its deal was cancelled and a new one struck directly with DAZN. It is understood the DFL will receive less from each of its broadcast partners than originally agreed but there was unanimous recognition that in both sporting and financial terms, something was better than nothing.

In the end, the DFL, Bundesliga International, and the clubs could not realistically have hoped for a better result.

(Tobias Hase/Pool via Getty Images)

Time to shine

Immediately after German professional football was shut down, Bundesliga International ramped up its activity. Klein and his team maintained near-constant contact with the league’s international partners to ensure they made use of the huge amounts of archive and ancillary content available as part of their deals.

“It shone a light on the DFL as a media group and enabled us to take advantage of all the innovation that’s happened over the past few years; whether that’s one of the richest archives in football, legends activities, or social media for ourselves and our partners,” Klein said.

To make sure it kept up with demand for stay-at-home live content, the Bundesliga Home Challenge – an esports competition that incorporated professional players and referees – was distributed to all of the Bundesliga’s international broadcast partners and generated two million unique viewers per weekend.

While the broadcast partners were looked after, they were also kept informed of the timetable for return so they could prepare to show as many live games as possible. In major markets, most broadcast partners are showing all nine top-tier Bundesliga matches played each matchday – many for the first time.

In the UK, the Saturday afternoon blackout rule enforced by the English and Scottish football associations has been temporarily lifted, enabling the Bundesliga’s UK partner BT Sport to show every live game between 2:45pm and 5:15pm.

In a time when the Bundesliga faces no competition from other top-level leagues, the DFL and Bundesliga International will benefit from reaching more eyeballs than ever.

For most pay-television broadcasters, live Bundesliga matches are being used to get lapsed subscribers back on board, often at reduced prices. However, Klein hopes that some matches can be made available to the wider public in major markets.

“There have been discussions with the partners to see if they would show matches free-to-air,” Klein said. “For the first two matchdays, Sky Deutschland have broadcast a 3:30pm kickoff on their free-to-air channel. Ultimately, the decision is down to the broadcasters of whether they want to do that and can do that, but we will support them if they choose to go this way.”

(Alexandre Simoes/Borussia Dortmund via Getty Images)

Ratings and success

The Bundesliga’s return to international screens on May 16 saw ratings go through the roof around the world.

In the UK, a peak of 625,000 viewers tuned in to watch the league’s four 3:30pm kickoffs (2:30pm UK time), with the weekend’s marquee match between Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04 averaging about 500,000 viewers. The evening game between Borussia Mönchengladbach and Eintracht Frankfurt attracted a peak of 192,000 viewers, doubling the Bundesliga’s peak audience on BT prior to the league’s postponement.

In the US, pay-television broadcaster Fox Sports – which will lose Bundesliga rights to ESPN from 2020-21 – reported that viewership of Dortmund v Schalke was 725-per-cent higher than the last Bundesliga match shown before the league’s postponement.

The same match attracted a peak audience of 203,000 on Fox Sports in the Netherlands, double the norm. In Italy, an average of 155,000 viewers watched that match on Sky Italia, with a further 230,000 watching the live goals show.

“A number of partners were very excited to have the availability of the matches and will effectively be broadcasting all of them,” Klein said. “I can’t say that all games will be shown in all 211 territories, but there have been many conversations with broadcasters who were keen to maximise the return of live Bundesliga to their screens.”

One might think the Bundesliga can’t go far wrong when faced with a public baying for live football. But the subject of piped-in crowd noise – either in the stadiums or added to broadcasts – is a touchy one in Germany, where full stadiums full of passionate fans form a key part of the spectacle.

The DFL and Bundesliga International have decided against applying sound effects to the raw feeds distributed to broadcasters, instead leaving it to each partner to decide the best course of action.

Sky Deutschland, which produces its own matches, is giving its viewers the option to hear crowd noise produced via a live soundboard of pre-recorded songs, chants, crowd reactions and ambient noise relevant to the teams and the fixture being played.

International broadcasters that take the Sky feed are unable to give viewers the same option and receive matches one way or the other. Fox Sports is broadcasting matches with crowd noise in the US, while BT is showing matches with only ambient noise in the UK.

Klein says the DFL is constantly testing new techniques to improve production of games played behind closed doors but is currently focusing on how to bring viewers closer to the action via video and sound.

“In line with the medical concept, the live production outfit that belongs to the DFL [Sportscast] still uses several cameras per matchday and extremely sophisticated sound technology so yes, they’re looking at it and in the first round of matches they were testing to see what created the best atmosphere.”

He continues: “Passes are being made and received, a ball taken on the chest, a shot; all these sounds could potentially be amplified. They have been doing tests and they are working to provide the best football experience during this unique situation.”

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