Bayer Leverkusen’s blueprint for taking on the soccer elite
Then again, the British media do enjoy towing the line between mischievousness and outright cynicism, with their ‘nearly men’ moniker given to the German club courtesy of the team’s unenviable record of finals defeats from 1997 to 2002.
Time can do its best to be a healer. But since emerging from the dark shadow of the ‘Treble Horror’, which saw Leverkusen narrowly miss out on the Bundesliga title and lose the DFB-Pokal and UEFA Champions League final (the one with that Zinedine Zidane goal), they have faced an ongoing battle to stay at the forefront of European soccer.
The domestic dominance of Bayern Munich, coupled with the financial heft of other clubs on the continent, means more ways have to be found for Die Werkself to level the playing field.
“We compete in sport, it’s about competition. We compete on players, we compete on sponsors, we compete on fans,” Leverkusen’s Chief Executive Fernando Carro said.
“Our clear objective is to be one of the top 16 teams in Europe, which means being in the top four in Germany, so our aim is to qualify and play in the Champions League every year.
“We know there are some clubs in the world like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, as well as other English clubs, that are really on another level. But then you look at clubs like Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Inter Milan, these are the ones we seek to compete with.”
The Spaniard, who was named Leverkusen chief executive in May 2018, was speaking in his office at the club’s BayArena home just hours ahead of a crucial Champions League clash with Juventus in December. Whilst his background before joining Leverkusen had little do with the game - he was previously chairman of the board at global services company Arvato - Carro is aware that no amount of commercial planning or foresight can outdo winning matches. Soccer is a results business.
“At the end of the day, a football club lives from sporting results,” he concedes. “What happens on the pitch has a huge influence on how we act.”
Ultimately, Ronaldo, Higuain and co proved too strong on the night, with Juve running out 2-0 winners and ending Leverkusen’s Champions League campaign at the group stage. Given Carro had marked out the competition as an integral part of Leverkusen’s business game plan, would attention now immediately switch to securing a return for 2020/21, be that through a top four Bundesliga finish or winning the Europa League?
“We’ve played in 11 Champions League campaigns over the last 20 years, you can cope a year or so without this competition, but not too many, the Champions league level is our clear and year by year objective,” says Carro.
“We’re a club owned by a company but we’re a club with strong tradition. We have more than 100 years of history with the professionalism of having a big corporation behind us. Combined with the drive, the spirit and the willingness to be a big international brand that is sportingly successful makes us unique. We combine both, other clubs are one or the other. We try to combine what is needed for sporting success with what is needed for business success.”
Having been founded by employees of pharmaceutical company Bayer in 1904, Leverkusen was probably one of the earliest sports teams in history to strike a naming rights deal. Bayer still pays an estimated €28 million (US$31.14 million) a year to the team for carrying its name and putting it on the stadium. In Germany’s proud soccer tradition, such early commercialisation is perhaps an unwanted record, but Carro quickly dismisses notions of Leverkusen being akin to RB Leipzig, the unpopular upstarts of the Bundesliga owned by energy drinks giant Red Bull.
“That image doesn’t fit the club at all,” he asserts. “We own a long and broad heritage and we are the only club along with Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund not to go down from the Bundesliga in the last 40 years.
“What we’re missing in fact, are the titles,” he confesses when asked if the lack of recent silverware was hindering the club’s appeal.
“In 1988 we won the UEFA Cup and in 1993 the DFB-Pokal. Of course, in the end, it is about winning trophies if you seek to build and enhance your brand.
“Titles have the biggest possible impact on awareness and sympathy. That objective almost is a natural one, but on the way we would like to build up an image as a club that has major ambitions and wants to compete with the biggest teams.”
Carro’s career in business points to a desire to develop Leverkusen’s overall brand – any trophies won need a narrative to go with them, just look across the continent. In Spain, heavy hitters Barcelona and Real Madrid are not just known for their mountains of silverware but also each having their own identity. Barca redefined the beautiful game with their tiki-taka style, while Los Blancos brought us the Galactico era with outrageous transfers. Those brands are totally different, but equally distinctive, and therefore perhaps it is no surprise that the Spanish giants occupy the top two spots in Deloitte’s latest Football Money League.
Having referred to Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Inter Milan as success stories, Carro could be looking to position Leverkusen as a disruptor to the soccer establishment. The three clubs he cites have all toppled their respective domestic giants – Real, Bayern and Juve – in the recent past and are big teams in their own right, regularly flirting with the top echelons of the sport.
Currently sixth in the Bundesliga table at the time of publishing, two points off a Champions League spot, another season in European soccer’s top club competition will be essential in expanding Leverkusen’s off-field exploits.
“We are already having good success with our commercial strategy over the last two years, but most big clubs are and football is growing, so the challenge is to find new ways to make that growth even more successful,” says Carro.
Leverkusen’s coffers swelled last summer courtesy of a four-year extension to their shirt sponsorship deal with insurance firm Barmenia that is worth a reported €8 million (US$8.89 million) a year and runs until 2024. The club’s kit supply contract with Jako, signed in 2016, is worth an estimated €3.5 million (US$3.89 million) a year through 2022 and their sleeve deal with Kieser Training, penned in 2018, brings in €1.5 million (US$1.66 million) annually. All tidy sums, but well short of the fees commanded by the European elite, who can pocket well north of €30 million (US$33.3 million) every season for shirt sponsorship alone.
Another significant earner for the club remains its transfer income from player sales. Hailed as a hallmark of well-run clubs, the likes of Son Heung-min, Julian Brandt and Bern Leno have all been sold on in recent seasons to the tune of more than US$90 million combined. They were all either brought in on the cheap or developed by the academy. Today, current midfield wonderkid Kai Havertz has been valued above €100 million (US$110 million) in the current market. Such a tempting figure must make the balance between player retention and profitability an ongoing dilemma.
“We have to look for more ways to monetise,” Carro continues. “Our stadium only holds 30,000. For the game against Juventus, we could have sold 80,000 tickets in a city of 160,000 people. Internationally, we are more well-known than a lot of other Bundesliga clubs like Dusseldorf, Köln and others. We definitely want to be top three or four internationally in reach and try to monetise effectively.
“If you look at our social media reach we are number four in the Bundesliga behind Bayern, Dortmund and Schalke. In the digital world, we try to be slightly different with our voice, we are seen as being more independent there and have found creative ways to engage young people.”
“I’m surprised so many people follow it and fill stadiums to watch, it’s crazy,” remarks Carro, before happily mentioning Leverkusen’s esports team is a serious title contender in the Virtual Bundesliga since joining the pro FIFA circuit in 2017.
“It’s important we’re involved with esports as a club and we have a strong team to do that for us,” he adds.
Tellingly, Leverkusen embraced competitive gaming long before perennial domestic champions Bayern made their esports bow. The Bavarians’ snobbery, believing gaming did not fit their profile, finally abated at the end of 2019 when the club confirmed they would compete in Konami’s expanded eFootball.Pro League.
Further afield, the alluring Asian market, particularly China, is also in Leverkusen’s sights – as it is for every other major club. The Bundesliga has been consistently popular in the country, but Carro hopes the German Football League (DFL) find harmony between exposure and finances when negotiating broadcasting deals there, believing streaming and traditional broadcasting have a part to play.
Evidently though, the Champions League remains Leverkusen’s golden ticket. Secure a seat at the top table of European soccer and revel in the riches it can bring. Worryingly for Carro, however, that strategy has been under threat amid plans to restructure the competition, with the proposed new format to feature gated promotion and relegation.
Derided by a host of clubs as a means to create an even larger wealth divide between teams, with the perceived biggest sides assured of their position in the tournament year after year, talks broke down due to a lack of support.
In a twist, one of the advocates for the shake-up was Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli, whose side dumped Leverkusen out of the competition. Understandably, Carro does not hold back when questioned about the revamp.
“I still believe that it cannot be a closed shop, you have to be able to qualify through the domestic leagues. All the German clubs have the same opinion,” he says firmly.
“If you change the format and have more games then we are open to that, but the key discussions to now have been a closed shop, promotion and relegation, and no qualifications through the leagues. German clubs cannot support that.”
Leverkusen’s standing, and influence, within soccer’s top brass will have been boosted after Carro was recently being brought in to Uefa’s Club Competitions Committee (CCC). Not quite better the devil you know territory for the club when it comes to shaping soccer’s future, but certainly a feather in the cap for the 55-year-old and the team as they assess their European prospects.
“The year 2020 is important because a decision on the future of the competition will be made between September and December,” states Carro. “We had a good meeting with Juventus and the European Club Association (ECA) general secretary Michele Centenaro, and I still think we can reach a good agreement for everyone.”
Despite Carro’s optimism, the issue has the potential to drag on, with Agnelli insisting in September last year that the controversial reforms could be resurrected for 2022 to coincide with Uefa’s next commercial rights tender.
Murmurings of discontent do not seem to be limited to the Champions League either. According to Carro, the newly-formed World Football Club Association, headed up by Real president Florentino Perez and designed to improve dialogue between teams and Fifa, has thrown another spanner in the works.
“Things are going to be more complex and I believe UEFA, the ECA, clubs and national leagues have to be united. We need an open and fair culture of discussion and can’t go in different directions. The need in Europe to unify the interests is big because if we don’t then it’s going to create lots of problems across the continent.”
Leverkusen and Carro have had much to ponder over the Bundesliga’s winter break. Sealing their place in next season’s Champions League will naturally be the immediate priority. But with changes to European soccer still looming on the horizon, the club believes it has the foundations in place to kick on over the next decade. Neverkusen may well need a new nickname.
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