‘We have to be on the ground’: How the Bundesliga plans to score in the Americas

5 November 2018 | Commercial & Sponsorship
‘We have to be on the ground’: How the Bundesliga plans to score in the Americas
After the German Football League (DFL) opened a new office in New York last month, Bundesliga International CEO Robert Klein outlines how German soccer's top flight is looking to make a name for itself in the American market.

Last month, the German Football League (DFL) opened a new office in New York as part of its ongoing efforts to raise the profile and stature of the Bundesliga and its 18 member clubs internationally.

Managed by the DFL subsidiary Bundesliga International, the new regional hub will oversee the league’s media and marketing operations in North, Central and South America. It is the DFL’s second overseas branch, joining a Singapore outpost that opened in 2012, and its opening comes at a time when other European soccer leagues - most notably Spain’s LaLiga - are ramping up their own activities on the opposite side of the Atlantic.

Here, Bundesliga International Chief Executive Robert Klein outlines the strategy behind the move and explains how Germany’s top flight plans to crack the potentially lucrative yet undeniably challenging American market.

How is the New York office going?

It’s going very well. First of all, the event was a great success. We had a big representation from the clubs, which is important for us because a big part of what we want to do is get the clubs to come internationally with us. There were about 23 representatives from 11 clubs, then we also had over 100 people from the B2B community - from agencies, from the finance world, from the media, of course, and our partners.

What’s the scale of the US operation currently and how will that expand in future?

The New York office is an Americas office, so it is going to cover both North America and Latam. The initial set-up is going to be a team of five. We have Arne Rees, who’s ex-ESPN. He will work primarily on strategy on the media side with myself - revenue on the media side still being a key driver.

To be successful we will need to actively work on the brand growth, working with our partners, the clubs, looking at new events, localised digital content, etc. Focused specifically on this we have hired Melanie Fitzgerald from MLS who has great experience in brand building and managing and interacting with multiple stakeholders.

What’s the Bundesliga’s long-term strategy to crack the American market?

Football is global, and we are a global brand. We believe that to grow the Bundesliga brand successfully, we have to be on the ground. We are starting with the Americas to implement the strategy locally in terms of being close to our fans, being close to our partners.

On the partner side, it really means not just the live match, which is important because we have to have a strong core product, but also in terms of delivering relevant content to our fans. In today's fragmented landscape and the way people are consuming [media content], especially the young kids who seemingly constantly have their heads in their iPhones. We need to be very specific at how we create content for our target groups and how we deliver it.  

What a Bundesliga fan wants in the US, for example, is going to be different to what a Bundesliga fan wants in Mexico or in Chile or Brazil. We believe having this presence on the ground, being closer to our fanbase, interacting with them on a daily basis is going to allow us to have a stronger emotional connection with our fanbase.

Presumably you carried out plenty of market research prior to setting up shop in the States. What’s the appetite for the Bundesliga brand of soccer like within the Americas?

We’ve set up a business intelligence unit in Frankfurt to research all our key regions. We have got a lot of answers based on research over the last two or three years on a brand level and also on a fan level. But we need to go deeper.

If you take just the US, for example, it is a huge country and even in terms of the US, we will not be delivering the same kind of content to a fan in San Francisco as we would in Philadelphia. There are specific pockets of communities – Hispanic fans with specific interests and needs, fanbases based on fan clubs - and we really believe that over time, using our business intelligence correctly, we can target our fans with bespoke offerings, serving them with content and services relating to the clubs, players and stories they are interested in.

Our partnership with Fox has shown good growth across their platforms and very strong showings when we have been able to air on Fox network – which we would like to do more often. We are in constant exchange and dialogue with our partner and with the US office we will be able to intensify this exchange across programming potential, what we do on their digital platforms and general story telling opportunities, of which we have many.

Who do you see as your competitors in the US market - is it the other European leagues, Major League Soccer, perhaps the established, big-beast major leagues? How do you, as the Bundesliga, carve out your position among all those entities?

That’s one of the reasons we’re going local: to work on this. But in terms of the competition, everything that is in football, we believe - and I believe - is good for us because the overall growth and interest in the sport will be there.

The interest in football as favourite sport to watch has been quadrupled since 2000, larger than for any other sport. Among the younger generation (18-34), football even ranks second with 11 per cent naming it as their favourite sport to watch. And then women’s football, of course, is huge in the US.

We believe anyone who is coming in, whether it’s the other leagues or the MLS working actively on the ground here, which since the last World Cup in ’94 has really come on leaps and bounds. It has grown the interest in football and the advent of the World Cup in 2026 is going to be positive for football in the region. The competition goes wide - it’s a huge entertainment industry, the American sports are dominant, and then outside of that there is the digital world - the Facebooks, the Twitters and the consumption of social content across the board.

US sports are still dominant. American football at both NFL and college level are huge, as is basketball, and will remain that way. But what we can do is grow our base significantly by developing a smart executable strategy, and also benefit from the growth and passion for football in the region.

Is staging competitive matches in the States - as Spain’s LaLiga hopes to do, somewhat controversially - something the Bundesliga could look to do one day?

Since LaLiga announced that, we’ve been asked that question several times. We will not be doing that, categorically. From our standpoint, taking one competitive game outside [Germany] is just - from a sporting side, from a club side, from a fan’s side - not the way that we would operate.

Having said that, we think it’s very important to be close to the fans locally. There are many, many ways of doing that, such as bringing the clubs, creating new events, fan activations, legends tours, and also bringing the players, the superstars, through content and digital media. We believe that is the best way to deliver football as it’s meant to be to our fans.

Clubs like Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund have very established international brands and sophisticated growth strategies already, but others lower down the Bundesliga pecking order perhaps don’t. As a league looking to develop your own brand and those of each of your member clubs, how do you go about reaching consensus and aligning the interests of all 18 teams?

By having a constant exchange with all of them. Since Bundesliga International was set up in July 2017, we’ve established a working group which meets once a quarter to talk specifically about internationalisation. Each club of course has its own strategy, but as you said, there is an appetite to go international, to understand how to do that, and to create a framework.

We believe we have a role there as a catalyst; the US office does exactly that. The office has space for eight or nine people. The Bundesliga will take up five, and then we’ve got spaces there literally for the clubs to come - whether it’s for a week or for two or three months - to get involved in business in the Americas. And we have built a strong network there through the business that we’ve done over the last years and also through the team that we’ve got there presently.

We see our role as an enabler to take clubs on this journey and we’re actually seeing it. This summer we had five clubs travelling, which is more than we’ve had in any other summer in the US, and we hope to grow that year-on-year through constant exchange and setting out a strategy that fits with their objectives.

To what extent will your approach in the Americas align with the way you’ve approached other regions such as Asia, where cultural nuances and ways of doing business are quite different?

We’re at the beginning but what we’ll do there is create for key regions or key markets a business plan. That is how we successfully built our brand and business in Asia since we launched our office in Singapore back in 2012. To do that, we’ve talked with our partners, we’ve had research exchanges with our fans, and then we also talk within the team and the clubs as required. 

The core base product is the live stream but then what are the new events, what are the new digital formats that we need to develop in order to have a greater impact? Within the US right now, we see there’s a great demand and traction with clubs to visit and to interact more closely with the players and our superstars. Public viewing is something that works well in terms of an exchange, and it’s a very dynamic entertainment market so we’re looking for content formats - very specifically on digital - around storytelling to enhance the relationship with fans.

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