Long envious of the ability of England’s Premier League to raise its appeal to fans around the world, Germany’s Bundesliga is ramping up its own efforts to promote German soccer among the lucrative fan, sponsor and broadcasting markets in Asia and the United States.
While English clubs competed in prime-time matches over the Christmas holidays, several German teams have used part of the traditional five-week mid-season break to train – and promote – their clubs and the Bundesliga on other continents.
Whether the Bundesliga will ever become as well known and popular around the world as the Premier League – with a head start of more than a decade in marketing itself internationally – remains to be seen. But the German clubs appear bound and determined to enter the fray to become a global brand in the multi-billion-euro soccer market.
Their enthusiasm to expand is fueled by a desire to tap into lucrative TV deals that territories around the world are prepared to pay to broadcast games from the best leagues in the world. The Bundesliga, Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A and the Premier League are considered to be the top four leagues.
This winter alone saw six Bundesliga teams travel outside Europe to places as far away as the United Arab Emirates, South Africa and the United States.
“The United States is a key market for Bayer, our owner, and also for our club.”
The winter training camps are soccer’s answer to spring training for baseball teams – a chance to escape the winter for several weeks of intense training and prepare for the rigors of the second half of the season.
For the first time, FC Schalke O4 ventured across the Atlantic to train in Orlando and compete in the Florida Cup, a new international tournament that featured eight top clubs from Europe and North and South America. The games were broadcasted to more than 180 countries.
“The team wanted to practice in a different location outside Europe, and we were also interested in exploring new international marketing opportunities to promote not only our club but also the Bundesliga, and to win fans and build a community,” Alexander Jobst, a board member of FC Schalke 04 responsible for marketing, said. “So we decided on Florida.”
As did Bayer Leverkusen, the club owned by the German pharmaceutical giant Bayer, which has significant operations in the United States. Both clubs competed in the Florida cup, though not against each other, and both held their training sessions in Orlando, although Schalke trained and played one of its games in Fort Lauderdale. Players from both teams also participated in local Disneyland activities, including the amusement park’s twice-weekly parade.
“The United States is a key market for Bayer, our owner, and also for our club,” Jochen Rotthaus, head of marketing at Bayer Leverkusen, said while watching the team practice in Orlando. “We want to establish an even stronger brand here to increase our fan base and attract new partners. Our winter training and participation in a tournament in the U.S. is good for both.”
Winning over new fans is easier said than done. But it clearly helps to have a top billing, like Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, the Mexican striker who played with two of Europe’s top clubs, Manchester United and Real Madrid, before joining Bayer Leverkusen, where he scored 17 goals in his last 14 matches.
He drew not only numerous fans from his home country to the Florida training sessions and tournament, but has also been a magnet for the club on Facebook. More than 20 percent of the club’s nearly 2 million followers are located in Mexico.
Both Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke were able to finance about a third of their costs in the United States, roughly €100,000 or $125,000, through a special promotion fund run by the new international task force of the German Football League, the DFL, which is responsible for the operation of the Bundesliga 1 and 2 divisions. One of the key goals of the task force is to promote the league to help generate interest from networks around the world so the DFL can sell broadcasting rights worldwide.
“The more countries that buy broadcasting rights, the more we all benefit,” Mr. Rotthaus said.
The DFL has a five-year deal with Fox to broadcast more than 300 games per season and distribute via the Internet all matches from Germany to 80 countries, including the United States.
“It is essential for the clubs to work with the league and the task force to coordinate all the various activities in international markets,” said Mr. Jobst, who is also a member of the DFL international task force. “Only through such cooperation can we narrow the gap with the Premier League.”
Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke are following in the footsteps of Bayern Munich, Germany’s best-known soccer team club worldwide. The club spotted the rising popularity of soccer in the United States some time ago and decided to capitalize on the trend in 2014. That year, the Bavarians not only played in a number of pre-season friendly games in the summer, as part of a tour sponsored by one of its key investors, Audi, but also opened an office in New York. A U.S. branch of its famed youth program, which honed the skills of players such as Thomas Müller, Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger, followed later in the year.
Audi also sponsored a Bayern Munich tour of China last year, where the team played a string of friendly games to enthusiastic fans there who were able to sing some of the fan chants heard in Germany. The club opened an office in Shanghai after the tour and has since launched a Chinese-language website.
On Tuesday, in a further internationalization move, it announced a global partnership with Yahoo Sports to distribute editorial content and videos in English and Spanish to key markets, including the United States and Latin America.
Bayern Munich, which is currently leading the Bundesliga, completed its winter training camp in Doha, Qatar on Tuesday. The club’s nearest competitor in the standings, Borussia Dortmund, was nearby in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. It chose the Middle East after holding its last five winter training sessions in Spain.
Internationalization has become the buzzword at Borussia Dortmund, Germany’s only publicly listed soccer club. Last summer, the team from the industrial Ruhr region played a number of friendly games in Asia and is expected to return during the summer break.
“We have four primary target markets in the southeastern Asian region, including Japan,” said Carsten Cramer, the head of marketing and a board member of Borussia Dortmund. “We’re also targeting China but our activities there are still in the early stage.”
“You need to know us to buy us. We want to make more fans and partners aware of us.”
The club manages its Asian operations from its own office in Singapore and plans further activities to promote its brand, merchandising and partner activities, according to Cramer. The club is also “studying” the U.S. market, where it offers soccer camps and promotes its merchandising together with Puma, its equipment supplier.
“You need to know us to buy us,” he said. “We want to make more fans and partners aware of us.”
Having a top player from the region, like the Japanese midfielder Shinji Kagawa, wearing the club’s traditional yellow-and-black jersey, has contributed to Borussia Dortmund’s popularity, especially in Japan, according to Mr. Cramer. “It’s super helpful,” he said, adding that the club’s other international players, like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who plays for the Gabon national team and is the current holder of the African Footballer of the Year award, also help increase the club’s popularity beyond Europe.
But Mr. Cramer was quick to add that there’s no better promotion than to compete with Europe’s top clubs. “The best measure to draw more attention is to be permanently in the Champions League,” he said. “We need to get back into the Champions League as fast as possible.”
John Blau is a senior editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition, covering sports and politics. He would have enjoyed a winter break in Florida as well. To contact the editor: firstname.lastname@example.org