‘US fans are going to have access like never before’: Why the Bundesliga is moving to ESPN+

‘US fans are going to have access like never before’: Why the Bundesliga is moving to ESPN+
SportsPro travels to Borussia Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park to hear how the Bundesliga’s new US media deal with ESPN was made, and to find out why the German soccer league is banking on OTT to drive its growth in the country.

There are a little over two hours until kick off when SportsPro arrives at Borussia Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park to the sight of Josh Sargent inspecting the pitch, plugged into his earphones and soaking up his surroundings. An injury to Niclas Füllkrug has seen the 19-year-old parachuted into Werder Bremen’s starting 11 on a more regular basis this season, but it is perhaps appropriate that the United States men’s national team (USMNT) prospect is set to lead the line for the visitors, given that the Bundesliga’s new US media rights partner is in town.

It is Saturday evening, at which point news has not yet broken of the German soccer league’s new partnership confirmed earlier this week with sports broadcasting giant ESPN. It is a relationship, however, that sounds as if it might have been in the works for some time.

“He was selling it when he was with us,” jokes Scott Guglielmino, ESPN’s senior vice president of programming and acquisitions, pointing to Arne Rees, the man sat to his left.

Now heading up Bundesliga International’s Americas office in New York City, Rees was once of ESPN, where a near decade-long stint saw him serve as general manager of international digital business. Rees is quick to play down his role in the deal, but it is clear his familiarity with ESPN and its various platforms held at least some sway in the final decision.

“I’ve been running around the United States for a long time, telling people since I joined ESPN how great the Bundesliga is,” chuckles Rees, whose role as executive vice president of strategy has a major focus on the league’s media contracts across the Americas. “So as an [ESPN] employee, certainly I was trying to get them interested, but I don’t think that was decisive.

“The one thing that is very meaningful is that I worked there for nine years, and I totally understand how powerful it is, what a machine it truly is. It’s hard to understand how powerful it is only from the outside. Everybody knows it’s big, but I’ve kind of lived it, how it actually works, how that incredible platform and all these different outlets can be used to help partners to make it bigger.”

In earnest, Rees reveals that the Bundesliga started talking to potential US media partners at the start of the year – “end of January, early February,” he says – but that “the ESPN conversation was the one that really intensified.” Fox also returned to the negotiating table, but according to Robert Klein, the chief executive of Bundesliga International, the German Football League (DFL) subsidiary, “their interest levels were not anywhere near the same as ESPN’s”.

“In the US generally there was a high level of interest,” adds Klein, also speaking to SportsPro in Dortmund alongside Rees and Guglielmino. “What was important to us was what was going to take the Bundesliga to the next level, and that’s why we intensified the conversations with ESPN across all of their platforms, because they really understand what it is we want to do as a league there, but also the potential that we can unleash.”

Banking on OTT

Starting next season, the new pact will see live Bundesliga games switch from pay-TV network Fox Sports to Disney’s fledgling sports subscription streaming service ESPN+, which will exclusively show more than 300 fixtures per season. The all-encompassing agreement also includes coverage of the DFL Supercup, the German soccer season’s curtain-raising fixture, relegation play-off matches, games from the second-tier 2. Bundesliga, and no shortage of shoulder programming.

In moving the majority of its games to an over-the-top (OTT) platform, the German soccer league is making a big bet on the willingness of its US fanbase to pay for a new subscription service and follow it onto ESPN+. The deal does ensure that some select fixtures will be covered on ESPN’s linear television channels, but having the lion’s share on a streaming service will naturally reduce the accessibility of the league’s coverage in the immediate term.

However, Klein reveals that ‘storytelling’ was the buzzword that cropped up most during negotiations with ESPN, which is renowned as much for its vast arsenal of original sports content as its live broadcasting. And for the Bundesliga, the ability to provide round-the-clock entertainment on a platform not restricted by the rigidity of TV schedules was a big draw.

“We thought long and hard about what partner we could work with that would take us to the next level,” notes Klein. “We will have roughly the same number of games on the big network as we did under the Fox contract, but more importantly we know the audience levels that we want to achieve, and we have thought carefully about how we go about that.

“There is the live game, a top global league product, but then what are you going to do outside of that? We want to be there 24/7; we want to bring news stories, we want to bring relevant stories. 

“We are going to try a number of different things every year. Some will work and some won’t, but we are confident that the US fans are going to have a connection and access to a league like they’ve never had before. We needed someone like ESPN who really gets that.”

Rees adds that the arrangement with ESPN+ also reflects how the Bundesliga has seen US fans interact with the league in the 12 months since it touched down at its regional base in Manhattan.

“If there’s a single standout thing that I’ve learned, [it] is what really works is narratives around the game that are interesting and that are mostly digital,” he says. “I think the key to unlocking major fanbases is digital narrative and digital storytelling in all forms. Highlight rights play a major role in that but other content does too.

“In terms of bang for the buck and what we need to be focused on is a relatively simple goal to create more fans, and that really great digital storytelling is the key. That’s been a really key learning and that’s what we’ll focus on.”

From an accessibility and discovery perspective, the Bundesliga can also take confidence from the market’s reaction to ESPN+ since its launch in April 2018. In February, it was announced that the platform had accumulated two million subscribers. The company has forecast that figure to swell to somewhere between eight million and 12 million by 2024.

What’s more is that ESPN+ will soon be part of Disney’s US$12.99 a month digital bundle, along with Hulu and the soon-to-launch Disney+ streaming service, providing yet another avenue through which new viewers might stumble across the Bundesliga.

“I think the reality of it is, if we hadn’t launched ESPN+, we wouldn’t have been able to even approach this conversation the way we have,” says Guglielmino. “From an accessibility perspective, it launched a year and a half ago, we announced 2.4 million subs in June, it’s grown quickly since then.

“From where it sits it has been integrated into our main app - that app sees traffic of 90 million per month in the US, so we’re putting the content in a high traffic area. We’re also surrounding it with shorter form and editorial and highlights, and the agreement that we’ve struck gives us the ability to really amplify short-form programming – not only in our world exclusively, but also in the Bundesliga’s world and even with partners.”

Home away from home

The financial details of the Bundesliga’s six-year contract with ESPN have not made their way out into the open, but SportsPro understands the value of the deal is worth four times as much as the league’s previous arrangement in the US with Fox. In any case, both parties are keen to point out that the departure of Christian Pulisic - arguably the most recognisable American men’s soccer player at present - from Dortmund to Premier League side Chelsea had little bearing on the value of the agreement.

“Players come and go, everybody knows that in the big leagues,” says Klein. "Currently Pulisic isn’t playing so much, incidentally. We have still now 15 American players in the Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga. From what we’ve seen over the last years is that the young American players and the established American players will always look to the Bundesliga as the league to come to play and to improve, and we’re pretty convinced that that’s going to continue.”

Indeed, as well as the aforementioned Sargent, whose assist at the weekend helped Bremen to an entertaining if unexpected 2-2 draw against Dortmund, there are a number of other young Americans currently on the books of Bundesliga sides, including midfielders Tyler Adams, of RB Leipzig, and Schalke’s Weston McKennie.

They and their compatriots are likely to become an even more central part of ESPN’s coverage in the run-up to the 2026 FIFA World Cup being staged in North America. Guglielmino believes the partnership – which runs for a year longer than the Bundesliga’s previous deal with Fox - provides “a really good runway” to build a narrative around those likely to feature at the tournament for the USMNT.

“When we look at intellectual property, we’re partnering at the league and the club level, and then we are certainly making an assumption based on history and current state that those brands will continue to resonate and grow and invest, and that’s where the players come in,” he adds.

“From a player perspective, we like what we have seen and we like what we see. We think that there’s a really terrific group of players – not just US, but from around the world that are going to allow not only for a terrific level of play, but also storytelling around it.”

Common goals

For ESPN, the deal represents a significant outlay, but one that further supports its goal of making its direct-to-consumer (DTC) sports streaming service a must-have for US soccer fans. The platform has already roped in consumers with its coverage of out-of-market Major League Soccer (MLS) games, Italian soccer’s Serie A and England’s FA Cup knockout competition, but adding exclusive coverage of one of the world’s biggest leagues will only serve to further drive subscriptions.

“The numbers are generally up,” says Guglielmino, commenting on the viewership of soccer on ESPN+. “We saw an increase with the Serie A deal, so there’s a bit of a halo effect; we become invested, and then we create more product and we bring in more fans, and that is absolutely the plan for Bundesliga.

“From an engagement perspective, we’re not only looking at how many people show up to a certain match, but it’s how engaged they are, how long they spend, do they come back for some of the highlights or the editorial around it, can we story tell in a way that provides a very immersive experience.”

The nature of the deal also hints at what demographic the Bundesliga believes it can reach through ESPN+. Soccer is still in its infancy in the US, where older fans are now less likely to waver from their commitment to the big four sports of baseball, basketball, football and ice hockey.

As a result, it makes sense that the Bundesliga is trying to connect with a generation that has grown up with soccer in the mainstream through a platform that is catering its content to the way they want to watch.

“This 18 to 34 and Gen Z, younger demographic coming up consume media and content completely differently,” Klein declares. “Their way of consuming is exactly the ESPN+ type of platform: it’s on the go, through any kind of mobile or second screen handset that they can get their hands on.”

Guglielmino adds: “We know that generally speaking, a European soccer fan in the US, they’re younger, they’re more diverse, they’re certainly more tech-savvy, and that demographic is used to using technology to be surgical about what they consume, when they consume, how they consume and where they consume. So we feel like that all lines up really well for us with this agreement.”

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