Several South Asian countries have experienced a boom in viewership of football events like Champions League matches in recent years. DW explores whether the German national league can capture part of the market.
You win a crucial final and the fans will elevate you to the status of some kind of god; you perform badly against an archrival and they will burn you in effigy in the streets - so strong is the obsession with cricket in South Asia.
For a large majority of people in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, their love for cricket is indeed irreplaceable, but in recent years, football seems to be carving out a niche of its own. Big international tournaments like the World Cup and European championship have always generated interest there, but lately, European club football is also making inroads in this relatively untapped market. Facing strong competition from the English Premier League (EPL), Spain's La Liga and Italy's Serie A, can Germany's top tier, the Bundesliga, find its feet in South Asia?
According to the league coefficient ranking compiled by the football's European governing body, UEFA, and based on performances in European competitions over the past five seasons the Bundesliga is the continent's second-strongest league. The Bundesliga is also the top football league in the world in terms of average attendance and it is now broadcast on television in more than 200 countries.
Football fans in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have traditionally tended to follow English football, partly due to their colonial past, but the broadcast of Champions League matches has exposed them to a number of other star players and different styles of the game. As a consequence, within a few years, Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich seem to have won over some hearts. Unfortunately, that is where it ends - for the time being at least.
Bundesliga lacks penetration in the market
Kamran Wajih, the director of planning and strategy for Express Group, a leading media outlet in Pakistan, told DW that apart from these two, German teams lack name recognition in the region and therefore people do not watch their matches.
"The Bundesliga is very localized, they have not even tried to capture the global market. It seems, stadium-going audiences are more important in Germany than television viewership," Wajih said.
Asif Khan, the sports editor for a Pakistani satellite channel, News One, told DW, that "a few years ago a local TV channel telecast Bundesliga matches, but the venture was probably not viable and hence discontinued."
In neighboring India however, things look a bit different. In 2015, the country’s leading media conglomerate, Star India, teamed up with DFL Sports Enterprises, which markets the Bundesliga, to bring German matches to fans in India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The license agreement covers five seasons, from 2015-16 to 2019-20. Sanjay Gupta, Chief Operating Officer of Star India, was quoted as saying that the partnership was in line with the company’s strategy to promote football and the fact that Germany has bred some of the world’s best players and teams, has made the Bundesliga one of the most exciting leagues to watch.
German soccer coach Monika Staab (L) gives instructions to Pakistani female soccer players during a training session
Measures required to boost Bundesliga viewership
Kamran Wajih believes that through better marketing and more recognizable players and teams, the Bundesliga can make it big in his country as well.
"The Spanish league is now trying to capture the Asian market, scheduling matches earlier so that football fans in the Far East can watch them at convenient times," Wajih noted.
Asif Khan believes that the Bundesliga would do well to do invest more in marketing its franchise in Pakistan.
"In the past couple of years, teams from Malaysia, Bangladesh and Palestine visited Pakistan for bilateral games," Khan said. "The DFL should also assist Pakistan in developing the sport at the grass-roots level which will eventually trickle down into more exposure for German football."
Rameez Javed, an avid football fan from Pakistan, linked promotional activities - such as German clubs visiting the regional states - to the success of Bundesliga there.
"Leisure Leagues in Pakistan are arranging trips of legends such as Brazil’s Ronaldinho to Pakistan to promote the sport. Such measures give much-needed exposure to the sport," Javed said.
Arunava Chaudhuri, a German-Indian football expert, pointed out the vast potential for growth of German Bundesliga in the region: "In India, football - not cricket - is the biggest participation sport these days." According to Chaudhuri, football is the most played sport in Maldives, Bhutan and Nepal as well. And despite their recent strides in international cricket, it is surely the biggest sport in Afghanistan.
The German-Indian football expert told DW that India is the like the US, where in the last twenty or so years, football has grown. It is the biggest participation sport in India and is widely played in schools and open spaces. Arunava Chaudhuri further added, "this is something that the Bundesliga needs to tap into to be able to grow in the region and simultaneously also help develop football in South Asia."
FIFA is in the process of expanding the World Cup, 48 teams will feature in 2026 rather than the 32 competing in recent years. With a significant increase in the participating teams, the sport aims to become even more global - and national leagues may be able to take advantage of this provided they adopt the right strategies. Local experts are of the opinion that Bundesliga has only just began to penetrate the South Asian market and in order to expand, it must invest in the development of basic infrastructure for the sport in target countries and also work on increasing distribution of club level German football. The combined population of South Asian countries is roughly 1.8 billion; with roughly 25% of the entire global population concentrated in such a small area, an opportunity surely exists.