The Bundesliga: Soccer’s innovation leader

The Bundesliga: Soccer’s innovation leader
In its latest financial review, the Bundesliga registered record revenues of €3.81 billion (US$4.31 billion) during the 2017/18 season and revealed its 14th consecutive year of growth. Most notably, Bundesliga clubs have also achieved record equity of €1.6 billion (US$1.81 billion) – double the figure recorded in the 2013/14 season. This ranks the league as the second biggest worldwide, and sixth largest sports league globally.

'Football as it’s meant to be’ - a bold mantra that reflects pure, authentic soccer offered by the Bundesliga, Germany’s top-flight league. Yet, despite the Bundesliga’s simple strap line, German soccer has been at the forefront of a complex technological revolution, establishing itself as the sport’s innovation leader as it continues to offer partners the best media product on the market. Tools including artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR) and cutting-edge technologies are being used to enhance the soccer organisation’s media rights.

Engaging fans is central to the Bundesliga’s growth, however that task is both incredibly complex and constantly changing. Take, for example, a recent research study - the German Football League’s (DFL) Future Study Bundesliga Consumption report. It found that younger generations are now less likely to watch an entire football match but instead opt for personalised content – highlights tailored to individual interests. Essentially, they want more content that’s more localised and easily accessible.

Despite such demands, with its unique setup and perseverance in innovation, the Bundesliga is an organisation designed to not only meet this challenge, but remain ahead of the game.

With an envious brand that outshines rivals in many areas, the Bundesliga is an attractive product for fans, broadcasters and commercial partners. Unique clubs see over 43,000 fans on average heading to world-class stadiums across Germany every week. They provide the platform for one of the world’s most exciting soccer leagues, epitomised by the highest average number of goals per match in comparison to the other top European leagues. Add the magic of world-class talent, a sprinkling of foreign stars and the next generation of wunderkinds and you can quickly understand why German soccer is so successful on and off the field.

However, soccer now finds itself in an increasingly competitive marketplace as it challenges for attention not only against other sports but also entertainment brands such as Netflix, Amazon and gaming. That’s why the Bundesliga has focused on enhancing its media product for a global network of over 65 partners who broadcast German soccer to 211 nations worldwide.

The most efficient way to do this has been to take ownership of all content production, effectively turning the Bundesliga into its own media house. German engineering combined with regular innovations means that everything from the TV coverage of matches, data from the games and digital content can be delivered quickly and regularly to partners. This is undertaken by Bundesliga subsidiaries Sportcast, Sportec Solutions and DFL Digital Sports.

“This unique setup allows us to explore innovations that help us deliver for the forever changing demands of fans and partners, providing versatile content in various formats, which means partners can reach many more fans across multiple platforms,” says Bundesliga International Chief Executive Robert Klein.

“By controlling our production’s entire value chain, we are able to turn business intelligence into a real product and we believe, over time, we can create a league that fans will want to pay more attention to and follow more regularly - week in, week out.”

The Bundesliga took TV production in-house in 2006 and has been continually investing in state of the art production technologies ever since. For example, it introduced Spidercams ten years before any of the other top European leagues. It was also first to produce matches in HD in 2006, 360° replays in 2015, virtual reality in 2016 and Video Assistant Referee (VAR) in 2017. They were also one of the first to provide a scouting feed to clubs in 2012, use goal-line technology in 2015, introduce UHD (4k) technology in 2016 as well as being the first top European league to stream live matches on Facebook.

In addition, they have also introduced some innovative technology, including virtual advertising on LED panels in 2016, corner flag cameras, Automated Audio Mixing - which directs microphones to pick up the sounds from the players on the ball - and are one of few leagues to provide all broadcasters with live English commentary.

Adding to the technological investment, the Bundesliga has also been working on innovative approaches to content collection, production and distribution. In January of this year, the Bundesliga became the first European sports league to call on WSC Sports, an Israeli company which uses AI to produce autonomous highlights packages customised to local markets. The technology uses more than 4,500 data points during any given match to personalise content that drives engagement.

“Rather than churning out uniformed content globally, we localise content in collaboration with agencies in key markets to create branded content tailor-made for a specific country or region,” says Andreas Heyden, Chief Executive of DFL Digital Sports.

“We know that, to become more relevant to our users and to grow our fanbase, we have to be where they are, to understand their needs. One way we are delivering is through the use of the WSC Sports artificial intelligence player tracking tool which can generate clips of specific players for local markets.”

He continues: “One campaign we created using this technology was called ‘Momentos Latinos’, which is focused on local Latin American stars – historic and current – from six Bundesliga teams, providing ready-to-use content for our partners across both their linear and digital platforms in the Latin American region.”

Heyden’s team have also developed their own technical API infrastructure to provide content in a consistent format. For the Bundesliga and its partners’ channels, this will help bring fans much closer to the game by allowing them to have a similar user experience no matter which platform, device or partner they are sourcing it from.

Another Bundesliga subsidiary, Sportec Solutions, is driving innovation by offering fans and partners unprecedented amounts of data. This includes gathering more than 28,800 pieces of data from every matchday, whilst also housing the archive of historical data since the beginning of the Bundesliga in 1963-64.

This is one example of how the league is combining new technology with historical data. Another is through the world’s largest soccer video archive, established in 2007 by Sportcast. This includes over 33,000 matches and 140,000 hours of video content, which can also be accessed by partners.

This video database has assisted with the integration of AR. Whilst this technology is now used regularly in the Bundesliga’s live TV production, archive content has also been utilised by partner Axel Springer for fans reading some of Germany’s top newspapers, allowing them to bring static images to life using their smartphones.

Whilst the use of current technologies is proving successful, the Bundesliga is always looking at ways to enhance their position as soccer’s innovation leader. One way is by investing in the future through initiatives like ‘DFL for Equity’, a first of its kind project for soccer which has seen the league establish a portfolio of investments in promising and innovative companies.

The first organisation to benefit from this was Track 160, which developed an AI-based analytics system to capture the motions of players and the trajectory of the ball. This data can be used in TV analysis, by clubs’ sports departments and also for commercial gaming partners, for example.

Another project that contributes to the Bundesliga’s forward-thinking approach is the trialling of technology in test match situations. This began as far back as 2007 and has now developed into a biennial international event, SportsInnovation, which will next take place in May 2020.

In addition, eFootball is another key component being used to reach fans in new ways. The Bundesliga was the first professional league in the world to have its own eFootball competition - the TAG Heuer Virtual Bundesliga, which launched in 2012. Since then it has reached millions of people through traditional media, social media, linear TV, channels like Twitch and club platforms. Since its inception seven years ago, more than one million games have been played, with the competition now expanding to include a Club Championship and international events.

Whilst there is a range of technologies and innovations being used to support the Bundesliga’s mission, they are all developed from deep market insights gathered by its Business Intelligence Unit and local offices.

This is further enhanced by a number of partnerships the league has established with educational institutions. These include MIT and the Otto Beisheim School of Management (WHU) as well as Harvard’s Business School, which published an HBS Case Study on the Bundesliga’s impact on the USA, highlighting the need for more localised content to create deeper engagement with fans.

With a number of media contract renewals approaching, all of this knowledge is proving crucial for Klein and his team.

“If you take the younger generations and the way that they consume sport, that is fundamentally different from, say, a 35-year-old,” he continues. “It’s important to know what content fans are interested in and how they are consuming it. From our insights, we know that the pay-TV environment is here to stay. They’re definitely feeling pressure from digital players though. But they’re also responding to it as we are seeing in the consolidation of some big media groups, which are putting together their own digital offering alongside their pay-TV service.”

Looking ahead to the immediate future, he adds: “We are in a sales phase now, and we are having positive discussions around Bundesliga rights. The big questions now are how do we decide to package the rights. Quite often, we’re selling a whole package to one broadcaster in one territory, or even one region. That may change in the future.

“In Asia, for example, there are the big players in each country, but there are the smaller ones who may be working in OTT and are also interested in rights. We need to find the best solution to get our content and messaging to local audiences to create deeper engagement with the Bundesliga. So it makes for an interesting discussion.”

Klein’s sentiment is reflected in the DFL’s Future Study Bundesliga Consumption report, which shows that young people (Generation Z) want shorter and more entertaining media formats, but are willing to pay for it. This counter-movement to the ‘freemium’ mentality and the desire for engaging content is just one of the changing consumer habits that the league has to acknowledge.

The Bundesliga’s position as soccer’s innovation leader means, however, that they are flexible to adapt. A strategic move to remain ahead of the game by continually investing in technology and innovation, with a concerted focus on localisation, has helped the Bundesliga build a world-class media product.

In doing so, the league has developed a typically German reputation of being a highly professional and reliable partner. This can only bode well for important discussions with potential media partners over the coming months.

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