- Fans in China asked for live online events during lockdown
- Lockdown events evolved into tour combining online and offline elements
- Dortmund has been building its presence and team in China
After its planned summer tour of Asia was disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, German Bundesliga football club Borussia Dortmund crafted a digital alternative. A fan-inspired idea was embraced, developed and eventually became the BVB Virtual Asia Tour.
With other planned destinations of Singapore and Tokyo restricting get-togethers due to their respective anti-virus measures, China became the focus of a tour that sought to blend digital and offline experiences. The tour consisted of a series of online sessions between players and fans, and live streams from training sessions and friendly games, complemented by offline events, and allowed fans in China to follow the club’s pre-season preparations in real time.
Benjamin Wahl, head of China at Borussia Dortmund, tells SportBusiness about the genesis of the virtual tour: “When Covid-19 started affecting the Bundesliga in March, we had planned a party in Nanjing for our fans. Everything was ready, everything was set up, and then we had to cancel it…Then our fan club in Nanjing reached out to us and said, ‘hey guys, why don’t you do it digitally?’”
And that is what Dortmund did. Working with sports digital consultancy Mailman, the club began to create virtual events for their Chinese fans. Wahl said China’s strong digital infrastructure made it easier to quickly pivot to virtual events.
BVB started with a couple of live online, one-off ‘fan parties’. These involved fans in China watching live training sessions streamed from Germany, live Q&As with players, fan dinners, and competitions. The success of these led the club to plan the bigger Virtual Tour.
“I think it was 3.7 million people joined our first Chinese fan party night and it was basically an idea out of nothing, five days before,” says Wahl. “Then we realised this has some huge potential. We did it a second time and I think five million people joined, so we had a great success, and that’s actually when the idea [for the fully-fledged Virtual Tour] was born.”
Wahl says Dortmund’s digital efforts will never take the place of what he calls the “real Borussia Dortmund” – the live match experience and tangible fan events that are central to the club’s brand.
“This is our USP in Germany, we don’t want to be artificial. So we try to do the same in China as well – we always want to be close to the fans and that’s why we established Dortmund fan parties across China.
“We don’t want to say that now we do everything digitally – this is not really our aim but, due to Covid-19, we said, ‘hey, at least let’s give fans in China some interaction’.”
The time difference was one issue that had to be resolved and the club calibrated its schedule in Germany to avoid going live when most fans in China were still at work.
“When the players have training in the morning at ten o’clock, it’s four o’clock in the afternoon in China. People are still working and that doesn’t fit to a live session so we shifted the training to a little later.”
As a result of rolling out the Virtual Tour, Dortmund has acquired a raft of knowledge and found some new formats to engage with their Chinese fans, including a new podcast and a virtual stadium tour.
True to the club’s live experience philosophy, offline events were blended into the tour.
“We rebranded a red double-decker Shanghai tour bus in black and yellow, and we got our bumblebee mascot to shoot some content with our partners. And then we had some fan activities – for example, we picked up a fan using the bus and brought him to the BVB office [in the city].”
Kit sponsor Puma dedicated its flagship store in Shanghai to the club for a day. The German Embassy was also involved, taking part in an event in a Shanghai underground station to launch an official BVB Shanghai transportation card.
Wahl says Borussia Dortmund faces a stiff commercial challenge in Asian markets competing against clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, and the top English Premier League sides.
He explains that the club has built its China strategy on three fundamentals. The first is engaging fans “from the ground up”. To this end, the club has a dedicated staff member employed on fan engagement in China, organising fan clubs and managing activity on Chinese social media platforms.
The second part of the strategy focuses on revenue-generating commercial partnerships. The club has several local sponsors for the Chinese market – Würenbacher, the official beer supplier in China; the partnership with the Shanghai Public Transportation Card Company; a youth football development partnership with the Beijing Sport University; plus deals with Chinese watch brand Sea-Gull and nutrition bar partner Marvel Health.
The club also has an exclusive partnership with Chinese Super League side Shandong Luneng. Elsewhere in Asia, the club has partnerships with Thai club Buriram United, Indian Super League club Hyderabad FC and Japanese third-tier side Iwate Grulla Morioka.
The third arm of the club’s approach to China is alignment with government and sports authorities. “This might be unique in China – we don’t have this interaction in India or in the United States,” says Wahl. “We bring in BVB coaches, give lessons and also bring Chinese coaches to Dortmund, and this is a huge marketing tool as well.”
Having a physical presence and staff in China has been the key to the club’s market penetration to date, Wahl believes.
“The whole country is running towards football, but you have to be on the ground. I heard as many as 83 foreign clubs are active in China trying to do business, but only a few have a physical presence.”
As well as growing its fanbase in China, the club has been increasing its commercial team in the market. In 2017, it opened its office in Shanghai with two people. It now employs nine full-time staff.
Wahl’s ultimate aim is to bring the current Borussia Dortmund team to China. The Bundesliga side last played in the country in 2016.
“Our goal is still to bring the team over here. We have been to the US for the last two years, but that’s still our biggest dream – to bring them to China. That’s important for us.”