Innovation Key To Bundesliga’s Global Success
Bundesliga CEO, Robert Klein, discusses how the league’s international growth is eclipsing rivals in key markets.
The Bundesliga is stronger than ever before. Germany’s top league has carved out its very own identity in the world of football thanks to the modern style of play, international stars and wonderkids, the most goals among all the major European leagues, some of the world’s most spectacular sporting arenas, a very unique fan culture, the most inexpensive ticket prices and the highest average number of spectators in all football leagues.
These qualities are reflected in the league’s marketing slogan – ‘Football as it’s meant to be’ – highlighting the pure, authentic football on show each week in the Bundesliga.
However, this is not just a brand statement, it’s a philosophy that’s experienced in every facet of the game. It builds on the foundation of the league’s success and ever-growing level of popularity – at home and abroad. Having led Bundesliga International since 2017, CEO Robert Klein is confident that the work being done by the organisation is already delivering results.
He said: “Whilst some leagues are making a lot of noise yet failing to deliver for their fans, clubs and players, the Bundesliga is going about its business in a typically German way – structured, strategic and efficient. For us, fans, clubs and players are central to our strategy and through this approach we are experiencing increased growth across all areas of our business.”
Speaking about long-term development, Klein believes that the only league to enjoy success will be the one offering a high calibre competition, a distinctive character of its own and top-level media competence. These are areas that form the core of the Bundesliga’s internationalisation strategy.
Its recent growth has been driven by a desire to establish itself as a leader in innovation and technology, not only to enhance the league’s own development but also to deliver solutions for partners.
For the Bundesliga to continue to hold a leading position in a rapidly changing market, it has embarked on a comprehensive innovation and growth offensive. This focuses firstly on further expanding German professional football’s leading role with regards to technology and media related expertise, and secondly on offering all-encompassing solutions to contractual partners worldwide in the digital age.
“We set up Bundesliga International specifically focused on our international business in July 2017,” explained Klein. “We wanted to focus our approach and go well beyond just selling media rights. We are talking about building a brand; we are talking about bringing our clubs with us internationally and also having the expertise within Bundesliga International to deliver those messages.”
As owners and operators of the league, the structure of the Deutsche Fußball Liga (DFL) and all of its subsidiaries, has enabled the creation of an entire valuechain, owned completely by the league. Bundesliga International was set up as a sales and marketing company, limiting the dependency on agencies.
Speaking about the organisation, Klein said: “We have spent the last 12 months building the team with experts in marketing, digital, public relations, events and also in commercial partnerships so that when we approach a market we can do it from a holistic standpoint and cover all areas.”
Other key entities within the DFL structure are Sportcast, established in 2006, who create the live signal in the stadium, ensuring that every frame is property of the Bundesliga. Then there’s DFL Digital Sports, set up in 2012, who produce and distribute digital content for Bundesliga owned channels and partners, plus Sportec Solutions, created in 2017, who generate and own all the data from the league.
“No other league has all of these services in house. This concept is central to efficiency, a value that is clear throughout the business strategy of the Bundesliga,” Klein adds.
Data Analysis and Storytelling Another important area the league is improving efficiency is through the use of data. In order to better understand stakeholders to ensure their needs can be met, the Bundesliga has set up a business intelligence unit to research key regions. This has allowed the organisation to gain a vast amount of data, over numerous years, based on research regarding the league’s brand and fan behaviour.
As a direct result, one of the outcomes has been the development of bespoke content for specific markets. “We create a strategy centrally but it is worth nothing if we do not understand the market on a local level and also execute locally,” Klein continued.
To do this, the league has opened a number of regional offices – one in Singapore in 2012 followed by the Americas office which opened in New York mid-October 2018.
“The challenge that we have, like all leagues, is to understand cultures and also react to and deliver on the ways media consumption is changing. We firmly believe that we need to go in the direction of fans wanting a customised offering. Using new technologies, such as our localised clip tool that uses artificial intelligence to identify specific action clips for individual players for our broadcaster partners, is one way we are meeting their needs.
“The first thing is to understand what the fans want,” Klein continues.
“The second is being able to deliver that, which we can as a league because of the unique set up that we have through the various Bundesliga subsidiaries. We can control every single production from A to Z, allowing us to deliver a unique product, very quickly and in a flexible manner.”
One of the key factors in the Bundesliga’s appeal is the atmosphere created within the stadiums, something Klein believes they are able to transfer to international audiences.
“That is something we are working on persistently because it is something that is unique to the Bundesliga and anyone who has visited our stadiums will understand the electricity generated. The way we do that is to look at how we’re producing the international feed.
“Football is the core but there is a right time to focus on the fans and their reactions can be captured. More and more we are using social and digital channels to get the extreme shots of fans going crazy or an unbelievable situation where something unusual happens. We’re looking very closely at these products and how we can use technology to tell the story better.”
Innovation, Innovation, Innovation
The Bundesliga’s forward-thinking approach to fan engagement means that the organisation is always looking for innovative ways to engage with stakeholders too, which is why technology has been crucial to the success of its international growth. Not only is it proud owner of the world’s largest digital football archive, a distinctive corporate hallmark of the quality of the base signal, fans are also presented with some of the highest technological production standards worldwide.
Spidercams have been used across Bundesliga matches since 2007, robotic cameras and cameras in corner flags are now used regularly during games, Free D 360-degree action-replays are a common feature and Hawkeye goal-line technology has been used since 2015. Not only was the league one of the first to broadcast in ultra high-definition (UHD), the Bundesliga was also one of the first of the top leagues to deploy the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) for all games.
“Innovation really is at the centre of everything we do,” Klein said of their position as an early adopter of technology in football. “From an innovation standpoint we are ready to adapt and try new things.
“Take VAR. We are talking about working with the referees, talking about having the feed sent into a centralised platform and then having the technology to interact with the VAR referee and the on-field referee. We implemented that in advance of any other league. It’s important for sports development and for product development.
“There is also virtual LED advertising too – we were the first football league in 2018 to introduce this. This speaks to internationalisation because it’s about giving flexibility to clubs and sponsors to advertise to international markets with different partners.”
Another key element in the league’s development is the rise of eSports. Launched in 2012, Virtual Bundesliga (VBL), the first eSport competition held by a professional football league, has continued to grow and develop and saw more than 150,000 people take part in the TAG Heuer headlined competition last season.
On the day of the final, the highest cumulative YouTube live viewing time in VBL history was recorded at 3,782,292 minutes – the equivalent of more than seven years. Furthermore, Bundesliga media partner SPORT1’s live coverage on the weekend of the final was watched by over 1.1 million viewers in total.
The significance of innovation is highlighted by the fact that the Bundesliga, in conjunction with Messe Düsseldorf, organises a bi-annual international platform for technological progress and innovation.
The purpose of the ‘SportsInnovation’ event is to provide an international stage for tomorrow’s trends across the whole array of potential application areas – from sports and performance analytics through to television production and stadium technology. Following the hugely successful inaugural event in 2018, the next SportsInnovation will be held between 25-26 March 2020, once again in Düsseldorf.
“We were the first major European league to host a sports innovation conference. There were over 1,000 guests over the two days which attracted 51 exhibitors from 24 countries with a focus on football production, technology and data solutions, second screens and a number of other innovations.”
The unique set up saw technologies deployed in live game situations, giving companies and delegates the chance to see the innovations running in real time.
A strong focus on youth development has been at the centre of DFL’s strategy since 2001 during which time Bundesliga clubs have invested over 1.4bn Euros in elite player development. This is the result of system which emphasises that clubs must have a youth development programme that meets specific criteria.
“That is the reason why so many international players come and develop their skills in the Bundesliga,” commented Klein, identifying the international attraction of the Bundesliga’s youth programme which has seen players such as Jadon Sancho, who joined Borussia Dortmund from Manchester City and Alphonso Davies, the young Canadian midfielder who signed for FC Bayern München in the summer, continue their development.
The attraction of its strong youth development programme sees the Bundesliga have the youngest average age amongst Europe’s top leagues at 25.4yrs, with many of the world’s top wonderkids playing some of the most dynamic and fast paced football on the planet.
Football is global, and the Bundesliga is a global brand. In order to grow that brand successfully, the league is determined to deliver on the ground. To support their German headquarters, international offices in the Americas, AsiaPacific and China (coming Spring 2019) are key to achieving their ambitious goals.
The selection of the international office locations was based on profound research, using market-by-market business analysis to ensure the delivery of the highest quality of standards are met through the Bundesliga’s global expansion.
These offices are very much hands on, providing local market knowledge and support for the league’s successful on-ground activities. Recent examples include localised storytelling through digital campaigns which were launched in Brazil, USA and Thailand, using former Bundesliga legends and local youths.
Another is set to launch in Japan in early 2019 featuring current SV Werder Bremen striker Yuya Osako. They have also been busy developing events and fan activations, such as the Bundesliga Legends Tour and the Bundesliga Experience. By working with former legends of the game, clubs and their players, these projects have been extremely productive in terms of creating physical connections between local fans and Germany’s top-flight league.
In November, Oliver Kahn supported activity in Japan whilst World Cup winner Lothar Matthäus was in India. Jay-Jay Okocha recently fronted a Legends Tour to South Africa while Paulo Sergio and Ze Roberto took part in the first Brazilian Bundesliga Experience.
Such events are not only used to promote the league, but also incorporate development activities and interaction with partners to help create deeper connections across the world.
Setting Sights On The Far East
Asia remains a key growth market for the Bundesliga, with the league a favourite for millions of fans across the region, evident in social media engagement and interaction. In addition to the impending China office opening in Beijing next year, the Bundesliga and IMG Reliance recently announced an exclusive long-term understanding to develop and promote football and the Bundesliga in India through a series of grassroots, marketing and knowledge sharing activities over the coming years. Further activities are also planned in South East Asia over the coming months.