This weekend the Bundesliga resumes its season, the first of the major leagues in Europe to do so. This is a personal and professional success for DFL boss Christian Seifert, who negotiated the deal. But who is he?
Christian Seifert seems visibly worn out these days. Recent weeks have demanded a lot from the CEO of the DFL (German Football League).
By the second weekend of March, the COVID-19 had brought football to its knees. For Seifert, the crisis began then and he did everything he could to save the season. He called general meetings of all 36 professional clubs in the top two German leagues, held talks with politicians and experts and gave many interviews to newspapers and TV stations. During its biggest crisis, Christian Seifert became the face of German football.
Seifert was by no means a household name to football fans before all this. Until this point, a constant media presence hadn't been his thing. The 50-year-old prefers, where possible, to pull the strings in the background. He's done so with great success, particularly in the marketing of the Bundesliga.
Seifert has earned a reputation as a 'billion-dollar dealer' who represents the interests of the clubs, whether big or small. Since he arrived in 2005, the DFL has raised €10 billion ($10.8 billion) in TV rights sales. The current contract (valid until summer 2021) brings the league €1.4 billion a season.
This brought Seifert recognition in the form of job offers from the Premier League and from US sports companies but it also came with harsh criticism. Fan groups charged him with pushing commercialization at the expense of fan interests.Seifert would not be bowed. "Professional football has great economic success and it must stop justifying itself," he retorted. Some found his response to be arrogant.
Career next to the field
To some, Seifert exemplifies the cliche of the smart and slick businessman. He always dresses formally and to football purists he appears an outsider. But don't let that fool you: Seifert, who was born in Rastatt in southern Germany, knows and loves the sport. Since childhood, he has been a fan of Borussia Mönchengladbach and comes from a football-loving family. A grandfather played for Freiburg, while an uncle made it to the second tier in Belgium. But Christian couldn't reach such heights on the field. "You realize that the good Lord has set limits to your possibilities," he once said.
His versatility on the pitch — he played striker and sweeper — has shone through in his later life as a negotiator and boardroom puppeteer. It is also likely to have served him well in the current crisis talks, though those defensive skills may have proved more important.
With a notable degree of humility, the DFL boss made it clear to politicians and the public that, while football as a product makes a handful of young footballers rich, it also guarantees jobs and a livelihood for at least 56,000 people. In order to persuade, he may also have called another skill. His interest in physics and technology enabled him to "think very strongly in processes and structures," he explained years ago. This helps him "to keep the overview in complex situations".
'Football must change'
The current hiatus has served to highlight the once-unstoppable rise of professional football in financial terms. This is something that's obviously made Seifert think. He wants to set up a task force named "Future Professional Football" to sound out experts about the path forwards. The free flow of vast sums of money has long been an issue both within his organization and the public eye.
As a result of the coronavirus crisis, the hyper-capitalization of Germany's favorite sport has once again come in to the spotlight. Seifert knows his responsibility is not just financial, but social. "If it is possible to cap manager salaries, then it must also be possible to cap the salaries of consultants and players," he said recently in German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
Seifert also floated the idea of a salary cap, like the one used in various US professional leagues. A few years ago an attempt by former UEFA president Michel Platini to impose a salary cap and limit agents' fees failed because of EU law. It is possible that those in positions of political responsibility could now change their minds. "Then I will give you a promise that if UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin is going to the EU, I will be the first to accompany him." Seifert is both a supporter and a critic of capitalism. Can this go well?
DFB chief pales in comparison
To initiate such a discussion in an industry that was booming before coronavirus and one in which many players are striving to return to the old status quo as quickly as possible is risky. But Seifert is judged by his statements. In this crisis he is fulfilling his role: he explains, lobbies and acts.
He also recognizes the opportunity inherent in the current situation: "If we now have the courage and perseverance... then something positive can come out of this crisis."
A return to action ahead of its competitors could bring the Bundesliga a bit closer to the Premier League. However, there is the threat of having to repay a reported €397 million to broadcasters if it goes wrong. The Bundesliga will probably be able to avoid truly serious damage if it is able to continue playing until the end of the season. It might even emerge from the crisis as the winner.
But everything hangs on the silk thread of the players' health. Only in time will we know whether Seifert's mission was successful.