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Returning Bundesliga quietly delivers record international audiences

A TV crew member wears protective mask at RB Leipzig v Freiburg match on May 16, 2020 (Photo by Jan Woitas/Pool via Getty Images)

The German Bundesliga attracted strong audiences in key global markets upon its return on Saturday, May 16, despite matches being played behind closed doors.

Five Bundesliga matches kicked off at 3:30pm (CET) on Saturday afternoon, attracting 3.68 million viewers for the different coverage offered by pay-television broadcaster Sky Deutschland.

The domestic viewership boost was replicated in various international markets, including the UK, where pay-television broadcaster BT Sport showed all matches live. This was made possible after the English and Scottish Football Association’s temporary suspension of the ‘3pm blackout’, which prevents broadcasters from showing any live football between 2:45pm and 5:15pm on a Saturday afternoon.

Based on overnight ratings, early estimates of peak viewership in the UK for the timeslot’s marquee fixture, Borussia Dortmund v Schalke 04, were put at around 500,000. BT also broadcast the four other Saturday Bundesliga fixtures across its channels, which will significantly increase that number.

In the US, overnight ratings for Dortmund v Schalke on pay-television broadcaster Fox Sports were reported as being 725-per-cent up on the last Bundesliga match shown on the channel. Final viewership figures will be released on Tuesday, but experts estimated that US viewership peaked at around 450,000 for that match alone, despite the match being shown on pay-television at 9:30am on the east coast and 6:30am on the west coast.

The Dortmund-Schalke derby attracted an audience of 203,000 viewers on Fox Sports 1 in the Netherlands, more than double the usual figure for Bundesliga matches shown on the encrypted Fox Sports 4 channel.

The same match was watched by an average of 155,800 subscribers on Sky Italia, while the Italian pay-television broadcaster’s live Bundesliga goals programme was watched by an average of 230,450 subscribers. A six-figure pay-television audience was also registered in Spain for the Dortmund-Schalke clash, with 162,000 subscribers watching Movistar Plus’ coverage, according to FormulaTV.com.

The Bundesliga is currently the only European top-tier football league in progress, enabling broadcasters to show as many matches as possible. BT showed all nine games across the weekend and will also show tonight’s fixture between Werder Bremen and Bayer Leverkusen.

Robert Klein, chief executive of Bundesliga International, told SportBusiness: “A number of partners were very excited to have the availability of the matches and will effectively be broadcasting all of them. 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.”

As the Bundesliga is currently the only European top-tier live football available to fans around the world, viewers outside Germany have been clamouring for the league’s international broadcasters to show at least some matches free-to-air. Klein says the league will support broadcasters that choose to do so.

Klein noted: “There have been discussions with the partners to see if they would maybe show games free-to-air.

“For the first two matchdays, Sky Deutschland have said they will produce and broadcast a 3:30pm game on their free-to-air Sky Sports News channel. Ultimately, the decision is down to the broadcasters over whether they want to do that and can do that. We will support them if they choose to go this way.”

The behind-closed-doors fixtures, or Geisterspiele, were not to all viewers’ tastes. Experts have told SportBusiness there may be a telling difference between peak viewership and average viewership of the matches, as many that tuned in out of curiosity may not have enjoyed the matches without fans.

Klein says that the DFL is working hard to improve the audiovisual quality of live Bundesliga broadcasts and used this matchweek as a testing ground for various technical solutions.

He said: “In line with the medical concept, the live production outfit that belongs to the DFL 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.”

Sportcast, the DFL’s in-house broadcast production arm, has handled the host broadcast of Bundesliga matches since the company’s inception in 2006.

Sky Deutschland offered viewers the option to watch matches accompanied with pre-recorded fan noise. Klein said the DFL will not rule out applying such production techniques in-house, but will be mindful of the league’s reputation for authenticity.

Sky registered a record total of 3.68 million viewers for its coverage of the 3:30pm (CET) matches on Saturday, May 16. This represented a market share of 27.4 per cent. An average of 1.62 million viewers were aged between 14 and 49 years old, a target market for the broadcaster.

Of the total audience for the 3:30pm broadcast, Sky recorded 2.45 million viewers for the ‘Konferenz’ programme, which is the broadcasting of live highlights from various simultaneous matches in a single broadcast. The Konferenz coverage was shown on Sky Deutschland’s free-to-view Sky Sports News channel (and via a live stream on the Sky Sport website) and the matches were also broadcast on an individual basis on Sky’s pay-television channels.

Sky announced last week that its Konferenz coverage of Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga matches would be available on a free-to-view basis for two matchweeks when the leagues resume.

(Additional reporting by Martin Ross)