The broadcast rights for the German Bundesliga are currently being renegotiated. First-broadcast rights have until now belonged to pay-TV channel Sky. But the pay-TV model has not yet caught on in Germany.
If soccer fans in England, Spain or Italy want to watch their favorite teams play on TV, they have to reach deep into their pockets. In those countries, all professional football is only shown on pay-TV.
Not in Germany, where the highlights of each and every game in the Bundesliga can be enjoyed, gratis, on free-to-air television or radio. Even though pay-TV broadcaster Sky has secured first broadcast rights, those who are satisfied with a summary an hour after the final whistle don't need a subscription.
Sky offers live transmissions of every game, and also the possibility to see live clips of other matches being played at the same time. But the number of subscribers is still too low for the private broadcaster to make a profit, and Sky is still in the red.
Why pay for something you can get for free?
Christoph Fritsch, an economist and media expert at the University of Cologne, isn't surprised that pay-TV isn't able to make any money with soccer in Germany. Why should a football fan pay for something that can be seen on the public broadcasters ARD and ZDF for free?
These broadcasters, financed by license fees, are an almost overwhelming competitor for pay-TV broadcasters. German public television, "in comparison to England, Italy and Spain, offers high quality programming," says Fritsch. "That is especially the case for soccer."
The free-TV offer seems to be enough for most German soccer fans. They aren't able to watch the games live - at least, if they don't attend in person - but "they can still watch soccer," says Fritsch. "The sports shows offer game recaps and short reports, something that is certainly not available in other countries."
Soccer programming is much sought-after in Germany. "Bundesliga football is top-rate content, and it draws in many viewers," says Fritsch.
Broadcasters don't live on sport alone
But sport alone isn't enough for pay-TV channels to make a profit. Brian Sullivan, head of Sky, admitted as much in a recent interview with Financial Times Deutschland.
"A business model with just one product, even one as strong as the Bundesliga, just won't work," he said.
Fritsch agrees. He says broadcasters that rely only on sports broadcasting rights don't earn any money, since "soccer is relatively expensive content." Like a restaurateur or gas station operator, private broadcasters need to widen their range.
"Very popular, expensive content must be mixed with other changeable content to make the entire package profitable," says Fritsch.
But this sort of calculation can only work if the popular, expensive content is available. For a pay-TV channel, this means that it needs to hold exclusive rights to big games or tournaments - only its microphones and cameras must have access to the event, and no other broadcaster. But this exclusivity is somewhat difficult to achieve in Germany.
In Germany's federal political structure, with its 16 states, all with their own autonomous cultural domains and a whole host of public broadcasters, programming can be used as a political tool. A politician who promises to have the games of the national team or the Bundesliga matches broadcast free of charge may enjoy a significant boost in the next election.
For this reason, public broadcasters have been able to keep the upper hand in the battle for soccer broadcasting rights in Germany. Soccer is a cultural asset with a special meaning and the public broadcasters, committed to supporting Germany's national treasures, say they should be able to report freely on the sport.
"News of major sporting events is considered a basic informational need, with a social relevance," says Fritsch. "This sensibility is vey pronounced in Germany."
Author: Dirk Kaufmann / cmk
Editor: Ben Knight