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Bundesliga on tour: playing catch-up

August 3, 2023

Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund were the only Bundesliga clubs to travel abroad this summer, and they're not happy about it. After the collapse of the DFL's planned investor deal, the league remains at a crossroads.

Borussia Dortmund fans celebrate the first goal at Soldier Field, Chicago
Borussia Dortmund fans were outnumbered by Chelsea and Manchester United fansImage: Shaina Benhiyoun/Sport Press/ZUMA/picture alliance

With a 3-2 win over Manchester United and a 1-1 draw with Chelsea, Borussia Dortmund have enjoyed some encouraging results against top Premier League opposition during their pre-season tour of the United States.

Nevertheless, the fixtures in Las Vegas and Chicago once again highlighted the gulf between the Bundesliga and the English top-flight when it comes to internationalization and global marketing.

Of the 50,000 fans in attendance against United at the Allegiant Stadium, those wearing the red and white of the record English champions vastly outnumbered those sporting the black and yellow of last season's Bundesliga runners-up.

The ratio of yellow to blue was slightly more balanced against at Soldier Field against Chelsea but, away from the games themselves, anecdotal reports suggest a lack of familiarity with "Borussia Dortmund" in hotels, restaurants and in the region generally, particularly in comparison with the Premier League behemoths.

Rummenigge: 'The Premier League is driving us mad'

That the Premier League far outstrips the Bundesliga in terms of global popularity and recognition is hardly a revelation, but the issue has been thrown into sharper relief this summer following the collapse of the German Football League (DFL)'s investment plans and a growing split between Germany's top clubs – led by Bayern and Dortmund – and the rest.

After German clubs collectively rejected proposals to sell a share of future international broadcast rights revenues in exchange for billions of euros of immediate investment, the nature of the DFL's future commercial strategy is still unclear, and attention has turned back to the value of those current TV deals, especially compared to the Premier League.

The DFL, which operates the Bundesliga, currently makes just €160 million ($175.2m) per year from the sale of the league's international broadcast rights. Reports in Germany this week suggest that is set to increase to around €200m this season – still below the €275m they were worth before the pandemic, and barely comparable with the Premier League's current international broadcast rights deal, which is worth around €2.03 billion ($2.52bn) annually.

"The Premier League is driving us mad," said Karl-Heinz Rummenigge at the recent SpoBis (Sports Business) conference in Düsseldorf.

The former Bayern Munich chief executive, who is back on the board in Bavaria following the departures of Oliver Kahn and Hasan Salihamidzic, revealed that the DFL had once been targeting figures in the region of €850m.

"Our international broadcast rights marketing is catastrophic," the 67-year-old said.

Japanese Bayern fans wait outside the team hotel in Tokyo
While Borussia Dortmund wer in the USA, Bayern Munich headed to Tokyo. But the rest of the Bundesliga stayed at home.Image: Klaus Bergmann/dpa/picture alliance

Bayern and BVB: Bundesliga needs to do more

Pre-season tours are one way of addressing that, yet while ten Premier League clubs are traversing the globe this summer, and with top Italian and Spanish clubs also globetrotting, the Bundesliga has been represented only by Borussia Dortmund in the United States and Bayern Munich in the far east.

It's a situation which has not gone down well in either Bavaria or the Ruhrgebiet, with the split which appeared during the discussions over the DFL's investor plan growing larger.

"In my opinion, other Bundesliga clubs could do more to boost their presence internationally, whether with their foreign players, sponsors or other relationships," complained Bayern president Herbert Hainer, speaking to journalists in Tokyo, where the German champions lost 2-1 to Manchester City before going on to beat Liverpool 4-3 in Singapore.

Bayern have opened up official offices in New York, Shanghai & Bangkok in recent years. Dortmund have bases in Shanghai and Singapore, and have plans to open a third in New York, too. But Hainer insisted: "It can't be that only Bayern and Dortmund take the Bundesliga around the world."

Across the Pacific Ocean, Borussia Dortmund director of marketing Carsten Cramer agreed, saying: "We need to do more for our internationalization. We can't just keep saying that the Bundesliga is lagging behind. We have to do something about it and visit the markets where people are interested in the Bundesliga."

Dortmund will make around €5m from their summer travels – better than nothing, but also not a game-changing amount.

"If we want to increase our international revenues to a meaningful degree, there's no getting away from it: we have to show our presence," Borussia Dortmund chief executive and DFL supervisory board chairman Hans-Joachim Watzke told Kicker magazine last year.

"This ultimately means that every Bundesliga club and a number of Bundesliga 2 club need to go out into our target markets."

Soccer fans take photos of Borussia Dortmund midfielder Julian Brandt
Target market: But Julian Brandt and Borussia Dortmund weren't the biggest attractions stateside.Image: Nam Y. Huh/AP/picture alliance

Bundesliga playing catch-up with the Premier League

During the Bundesliga's extended winter break last season, Eintracht Frankfurt did embark on a week-long tour to Japan, where they have a partnership with J-League side Urawa Red Diamonds. Makoto Hasebe, one of the biggest names in Japanese football, has just extended his contract with the 2022 Europa League winners into a tenth year.

At the same time, Cologne, Stuttgart and Hamburg all traveled stateside, while Bayer Leverkusen have made several visits to Mexico in recent years, hoping to capitalize on the popularity a number of Latin Americans who have featured for the Werkself.

Even SC Paderborn, the ultimate yo-yo club who have played in all of Germany's top three divisions in the last decade, have visited the United States.

But it's small fry compared to the Premier League, which has established an insurmountable financial advantage and, despite Manchester City winning five of the last six league titles, including the last three, retains the perception of being more competitive than the Bundesliga.

Borussia Dortmund might have come close last season, but 11 consecutive Bayern Munich titles are hard to argue with.

The English top-flight can also fall back on an Anglo-Saxon linguistic and cultural familiarity, more easily transportable across the world, and a wealth of individual stars which the Bundesliga struggles to match, especially when top young players generally move from Germany to England rather than vice-versa.

The names on the backs of Borussia Dortmund shirts in Las Vegas told their own story: for Erling Haaland and Jude Bellingham, the Westfalenstadion was just a stepping-stone on their paths to bigger things, as it was for Jadon Sancho, who lined up for United.

Of Dortmund's current crop, the club were keen to push Gio Reyna ahead of the 2026 World Cup in his homeland, as well as youngster Karim Adeyemi, popular with a younger generation due to his exciting style of play and social media presence.

Otherwise, it's veterans Marco Reus, Mats Hummels and Emre Can who enjoy popularity – albeit more for past exploits than present.

Both Reus and Hummels were in the Dortmund side which contested the 2013 all-German Champions League final at Wembley, while Hummels won the World Cup with Germany a year later. Emre Can is well known for his four years with Liverpool and two at Juventus.

Success sells, and Borussia Dortmund aren't delivering enough of it, while Bayern Munich are having too much – at least domestically.

Anti-investor protests on Borussia Dortmund's Yellow Wall
The Yellow Wall sells - but those who populate it don't want to be soldImage: Ralf Treese/DeFodi Images/picture alliance

Competing interests

What Bundesliga clubs can capitalize on, however, is German fan culture.

Borussia Dortmund in particular are well aware of the marketing potential of the famous "Yellow Wall" – however those responsible for creating that atmosphere, the hardcore ultras and active support, have little interest in internationalization and marketing.

On the contrary; they were the driving force behind the highly visible protests against the DFL's – and BVB CEO Watzke's – investor plan last season, and have already made their opposition to developments such as television-friendly kick-off times, competitive games abroad and proposed super leagues eminently clear.

Meanwhile in Munich, Bayern's organized fan groups were so critical of their club's sponsorship deal with Qatar Airways that the club recently opted not to extend it.

They can do all this because they maintain legal stakes in their member-controlled clubs in accordance with the 50+1 rule – often a foreign concept to audiences abroad.

In Dortmund, for over a decade now, the talk has always been about finding the balance between "Borsigplatz and Shanghai" – between the square just north of Dortmund city center where the club was founded, and the international fanbase it needs to continue to compete.

As they head back to Germany from Las Vegas and Chicago, they're no closer to perfecting that balance. Neither are Bayern Munich, and neither is the Bundesliga. They're still playing catch-up.