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The Bundesliga is following its own path to compete with the European elite

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Christian Seifert, CEO of the governing body of the German Bundesliga, outlined the DFL’s efforts to expand globally and remain competitive while staying true to its roots.

Christian Seifert, CEO of the DFL, speaks to the press at the German Football Museum, Dortmund, Germany, August 3, 2019
Christian Seifert, CEO of the DFL, speaks to the press at the German Football Museum, Dortmund, Germany, August 3, 2019
Bundesliga International

The CEO of the governing body of the Bundesliga, the German Football League (DFL), Christian Seifert spoke to representatives of the media, including SB Nation, at a panel held at the German Football Museum on the eve of the DFL-Supercup in Dortmund. In his remarks, Seifert laid out the DFL’s current vision for sustainable success in the new era of globalization and commercialization and ever fiercer international competition — especially with the English Premier League.

Fans first

Seifert connected the Bundesliga’s long-term goals to three anchor points: economy, sports, and society. In Seifert’s view, a successful league must be successful in all three areas. He emphasized the third area — society — above the others:

We always started with the people, because every sports week starts with the people, because only if you have people who are coming to the stadium, who are watching on TV, only then will you find sponsors and media who want to invest in this competition. And usually if you take this money and reinvest it into the competition, the competition gets better. People are more excited, and more sponsors and more years [of success are] coming.

FC St. Pauli v SpVgg Greuther Fürth - Second Bundesliga
St. Pauli, based in the red light district of Hamburg, is a cult club of the 2nd Bundesliga.
Photo by Oliver Hardt/Bundesliga/DFL via Getty Images

One testament to the massive importance of the Bundesliga in everyday Germans’ lives is the 2. Liga, the second professional league in Germany. By average attendance, Seifert stressed, “The second league in Germany is the seventh-largest football league in Europe. It’s close, if you look at the average amount of people per day, we have 21,000; in Italy, [Serie A] has 23,000 on average.”

Hence, in marked contrast to the efforts of La Liga president Javier Tebas, the idea of playing a league match outside of Germany is out of the question. Seifert explained:

This is just on our understanding. We love the fans outside of Germany; we pay attention to them; we do everything we can — also the clubs — in terms of media when the clubs do their trips. But the league — we think we owe also to the people who have been coming there for decades not to take away a matchday from them and play it in other countries. [Although] I respect it, we would never consider it.

That resistance to global marketing and commercialization extends to ticket prices at home. Hence it is “very important,” in Seifert’s view, “that Borussia Dortmund accepts that they make €70 million less than Manchester United from ticket sales, even though they have the same amount of people in the stadium. And I think this is a statement, but that means that Dortmund and we have to work much harder.”

Cultivating the game

Refusing to play league matches abroad is more than merely a gesture to the German fans: it also adheres to the traditions of the sport itself. Clubs were and remain rooted to the cities in which they were founded. The idea of moving a franchise, often seen in the United States, for example, is utterly foreign to German thinking.

Public Viewing at the relegation match
The clock stopped when the once mighty club of HSV Hamburg was relegated to the 2nd Bundesliga in 2018.
Photo by Christian Charisius/picture alliance via Getty Images

And other aspects of American professional sports leave the Bundesliga cold. Among those is the concept of a closed league, even though the gap in the competitiveness between clubs at the top and bottom of the table under the promotion-relegation system has grown significantly in recent years.

From an investor’s perspective, he explained, “being relegated is the worst thing that can happen to your investment. But it just doesn’t fit European football culture.” For Seifert and the DFL, even though Bayern Munich has won the Bundesliga seven consecutive times, a closed league or a playoff system would deny fans of other clubs their own respective competitions according to their clubs’ means. Seifert explained,

It’s not only about who becomes champions. This is just a classic US discussion, where you have ... only one Super Bowl and only one Stanley Cup, because you play for the playoffs. In fact, a league like the Bundesliga has five competitions in one. It’s about who becomes champion, who plays Champions League, who plays Europa League — which is very popular in Germany — who goes to the relegation matches, and who’s relegated to the second league. So we have five competitions in one week.

In light of the frequent churn of teams at the bottom of the first league and the top of the second, it would be an interesting possibility (at least in this author’s view), if the Bundesliga experimented with a closed league with greater financial parity, in which Champions League and Europa League spots remained up for contention — of course the often gut-wrenching relegation battles would represent a significant sacrifice.

Youth development

The other side of the DFL and the Bundesliga’s commitment to the sport of soccer itself concerns the development of the next generation of players. In Seifert’s view, national leagues have an “obligation” to develop talent. “For the development, for the for the genesis of the young, talented players, the leagues are absolutely not replaceable,” Seifert argues.

Borussia Dortmund Season Opening At Signal Iduna Park
Manuel Akanji, a 24-year-old defender from Switzerland, featured at the Supercup for Dortmund on August 3, 2019.
Photo by Alexandre Simoes/Borussia Dortmund via Getty Images

That obligation is a major argument as to why the DFL rejects the creation of a “European Superleague” of elite teams: such a Superleague would inevitably weaken the domestic leagues, especially those in smaller countries. Seifert argues,

Once smaller countries like Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, where we get some players from, once they don’t have enough money anymore to invest in their professional development, the quality of the game will suffer over time.

Seifert regards efforts to transcend the national leagues, presumably to their detriment, as driven by short-sighted, short-term profit-seeking. He views the soccer world as a delicate ecosystem that could be thrown out of balance by excessive commercialization:

This is not a football. I’m deeply convinced is not the right product to think [about] that way. And we have to be very careful not to damage this whole system in a in a way, which will then be hard to go back.

The cultivation of youth players, to which Germany largely credits its World Cup success in 2014 and the strength of its current young national teams, is an essential part of that ecosystem. The DFL also requires every club in the first and second league to operate a youth academy, another way in which the league makes good its commitment to player development.

Sustainability

Although seldom mentioned outright, the English Premier League seemed to be the negative example the worst of whose excesses the Bundesliga is determined to avoid. “I was just reading that in the second league in England, the ratio between wages and [revenue] is 106%. Which is not a sustainable business model, if you if you invest 6% more than you’re trying to sell” (cf. Championship 2018 Finances — Wages).

Seifert emphasized the DFL’s effort to find a sustainable financial model that would provide for the future health of the league. That means reconceiving the league as a media company, not as a short-term business venture:

In everything that we do here, we are trying to see, act, and feel like a media company, because only media companies are successful with our product. They want to work for a long time with us. And this is why we are not trying to squeeze out the market every three years. We really want to make a sustainable success with all of our partners over the years.

Football Bundesliga - Video proof Photo by Henning Kaiser/picture alliance via Getty Images

The Bundesliga has therefore invested in raising the quality of its product — the games fans experience on the pitch or see on television in several ways. The Bundesliga does its own television production and has created its own data company. Based in Cologne, the league’s data company Sportcast collects and distributes sophisticated match data to every club in the Bundesliga on an equal basis, so that they all may benefit from access to the data, whatever their respective resources. “We want to drive innovation,” Seifert said, “and we want to drive this game and develop this game in a bright future.”

Staying competitive

For all of the DFL’s commitment to German tradition and the sport itself, the Bundesliga has not remained immune to the effects of globalization, commercialization, and escalating international pressure. I asked Seifert how the Bundesliga is trying stay competitive internationally as transfer fees and wages continue to explode, a trend driven primarily by clubs with a radically different ownership structure than is the case in the Bundesliga. He said,

I think this is a very good question, and it’s big topic also at FIFA — not only the overall amount of money, especially if you have some kind of state driven sponsorship, which is hard to compete with, when you just get for regular sponsorship. But on the other hand, also, the transparency of the whole transfer system sometimes raises some questions. And I think it’s a it’s a big challenge.

But at present, the DFL has limited options. As a member of Europe, Germany finds itself within a “European legal framework,” Seifert explained, “where it’s hard, for instance, to set some salary cap [and] also to regulate or to set a minimum of investments.” But Seifert

I personally think this market needs some regulation; I do not say that a free market is the right answer to everything. It needs some kind of regulation. But the other side of the [coin] is that a lot of companies and a lot of people are making a lot of money off this transfer system. And as long as they are able to attack any kind of regulation, legally, it will be hard to practice all over the world, all over Europe.

Seifert does not rule out the possibility of intervention by the European Commission, if the integrity of the Bundesliga really came under serious threat. He acknowledged, “The fact that the European Commission Set professional football on the list with 47 topics which are in danger of money laundering should be a real warning.” But any regulatory effort would have to be coordinated “globally,” and that is no simple task.

Nonetheless, Seifert feels that the amount of money involved transfer fees and agent services, which has placed even the biggest clubs in the Bundesliga under some stress, will level off and eventually fall before the unique ecosystem in which German soccer thrives is jeopardized.