The respective directors of internationalization of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund sat down together together with the president of Bundesliga International, Robert Klein, to discuss with the press their efforts to internationalize their respective brands. As each team pursues its own internationalization strategy, the directors emphasized their overarching solidarity both with each other and with the broader ambitions of the Bundesliga to win new fans for the league in markets overseas.
The DFL is aware of the massive potential for growth overseas. Klein stated that there are roughly one billion soccer fans in Asia, and 118 million of them are (already) avid Bundesliga fans. That presence constitutes a major opportunity for the league: but the goal is not merely to tap that market more effectively for media rights and partnerships; the DFL aspires to serve the fan base by reaching these fans on the local level. That was in part the purpose of creating Bundesliga International, the globally oriented branch of the DFL. Klein stated,
So the idea [behind] Bundesliga International was that the DFL and the clubs realize that there should be a focus specifically on the business and media rights as one part of it. But a key part is also telling our stories, because in the end, the people and the fans are either following clubs and more and more international superstars with local stuff. And to be able to tell those stories also locally, we wanted to be able to make sure we’re on the ground.
As the two biggest clubs in the Bundesliga, Bayern and Dortmund are at the forefront of the push to reach fans overseas. Bayern founded offices in the USA and China, while Dortmund initially concentrated on Southeast Asia before also branching out into China and the USA. That engagement has translated directly into massive gains in international support. For Bayern, as Wacker explained, the club has seen its number of fan clubs in the USA rise from 8 to 150, and the number of fans rise from 13 to 33 million.
Rivals at home, partners overseas
Cramer, in turn, was frank about Dortmund’s status as a smaller club with a different brand and different appeal, but he was confident that Dortmund’s story appeals to fans overseas. Dortmund’s authenticity as a sports club, Cramer stressed, is its biggest selling point
Dortmund is able to tell a very interesting and exciting story, because, in our understanding, football is our core competence, so it’s really the football we are concerned about.
While Bayern and Dortmund may define themselves differently and pursue different emphases, both internationalization directors emphasized that they see themselves as partners in their respective overseas endeavors, both with one another and with the Bundesliga. Cramer explained, from Dortmund’s perspective,
[The] Bundesliga can be proud that they do not have only Bayern Munich but also Borussia Dortmund. And although we both compete for the title tonight, I get there is space enough for two clubs to represent the Bundesliga, and I would say Dortmund, Bayern, and [the] Bundesliga define themselves as partners. So whatever we do internationally, we never would do without [the] Bundesliga, and even Jörg [Wacker] and me, I would say we are able to get along with our activity.
The DFL has in fact created an international commission to help facilitate overseas travel for other clubs in the 1st and 2nd Bundesliga. “We want the clubs to travel,” Klein stated. The league has collaborated with Eintracht Frankfurt in particular recently. Eintracht traveled more than any other Bundesliga team this summer, Klein explained, riding high on its spectacular European campaign.
Going global while staying real
The word “authenticity” was frequently on the lips of both Wacker and Cramer. Although they did not always explicitly say so, both Bayern, Dortmund, and the DFL’s representatives draw an sharp contrast between their own approach to building their global brands foremost around their clubs and the efforts of other clubs that centered around the outsized media presence of global superstars. Cramer was asked whether promoting the club rather than a superstar player posed a dilemma for Dortmund. He emphasized the club’s core values and its solidarity with the league:
No dilemma. Because for us, it’s very, very important to be as authentic as possible. We never tried to position our brand in order to differentiate us from others. I never would do things just in order to be different to the Premier League clubs. We try to be as authentic as possible, we try to be Black and Yellow. And The more authentic we are, the more credible we are. Maybe internationalisation will take some more time. Maybe this story is a bit more complicated. Maybe It takes time to gain the hearts. But [the] Bundesliga has so many unique selling points that we don’t need to copy and paste items [from] other leagues. We are Bundesliga; Dortmund is part of [the] Bundesliga.
No stars above the club
Citing Mario Götze and Jadon Sancho as examples, Cramer acknowledged that the presence of major stars on the team can facilitate the club’s efforts to build its brand overseas, but the club nonetheless never puts the stars first. Dortmund could never succeed as an international brand, in Cramer’s view,
if we [gave] up our core characteristics and intensity, authenticity, [which] are the most important characteristics of Dortmund. And as you just see here on this [gesturing at a backdrop showing the Yellow Wall], this is the superstar of Dortmund, the Yellow Wall. And players will move and go on, and they might identify for the period of their contract with the club. These people [gesturing at the Yellow Wall] make the difference.
Wacker echoed Cramer’s sentiment and cited the very recent example of Colombian superstar James Rodriguez, whom Bayern allowed to return to Real Madrid at the conclusion of his loan rather than sign him permanently by exercising a purchase option for €42 million. Wacker described James as,
an amazing superstar, [who] was transporting our brand. But then this shows — and it’s not my decision, it’s not his decision — it’s always football and sports first.
Sarpreet Singh, for example, a player of Indian heritage whom Bayern recently signed from New Zealand, was also mentioned as a someone whose Indian heritage Bayern was looking at very carefully, but only after the club decided he was right for competitive reasons:
The decision is made by the sports department, and the most important thing [is that] the player has to fit the team. It’s all about that, and it’s nothing about the marketing story or the followers or how strong he is in different countries [i.e. for marketing].
That prioritization of the club and the club’s competitive needs on the pitch is what separates the Bundesliga from other leagues and commercial endeavors such as Red Bull’s athletic involvement. Cramer explained,
That makes the difference to other leagues to have completely different other business purposes in mind: we are playing football. Both of us do not belong to a football company [that] owns clubs and clubs around the world in order to develop different talents. That’s not the Bundesliga approach.
Too romantic for modern soccer?
But even Cramer acknowledged this approach to international markets may sound “romantic.” Citing the superstar players of the Premier League as a major part of their own international marketing efforts, Manuel Veth (@ManuelVeth) asked the panel how they could transport their chief selling point, the unique club culture and fan atmosphere of the Bundesliga to an overseas market like the USA. Cramer acknowledged that it is difficult:
It is very, very helpful if you do have famous players on board, because without famous players, without faces, without celebrities, it’s difficult. But I’m still convinced that especially in a market like the US the people are interested in different stories.
I’m still convinced that the way we play football, the way we act — that was our experience when we when we played CF and also South Bend — the way we we communicated with the supporters was different than the Premier League Club do. And I’m still convinced that the people are able to [appreciate] the value of behavior like this, although we do not have the super-superstars.
Klein, however, added that the Bundesliga does in fact have recognized superstars and other aspects that are appreciated by broadcasters and overseas fans: “It’s about authenticity, it’s about superstars. But it’s also about youth,” he said. The result, in his view, is “an unbelievabl[y] subtle football, which we need to get more people to watch because it’s got speed, but it’s got skill.” The way the game is played in the Bundesliga is itself attractive.
The league’s attractiveness to young American players also stands it in good stead to make inroads internationally. No other league has featured as many Americans as the Bundesliga, where 10 players currently play and over 50 have played in the past. Klein is confident that the Bundesliga will “make a major contribution to the 2026 US men’s national team. No other league can offer that.”
All abord the Bundesliga train
The clubs ended by emphasizing their solidarity with one another and with the Bundesliga as a whole as they work to achieve their international goals. Cramer concluded the questions with a fascinating metaphor for the league’s joint push to reach international markets:
Let me try to describe it with with a picture. I would say, talking about the Bundesliga talking about internationalization, we could use a train; and of course Bayern Munich is the engine, and especially Dortmund is able to [appreciate] the value Bayern Munich has done for the Bundesliga. But we are part of the train, and we are definitely not sitting in the last wagon of the train. Maybe we are sitting in the second wagon, and this wagon is not that far away from the engine. And if you’re sitting that close by the engine, it might be attractive for you also to jump on the engine... and that’s the situation that drives this picture.
With slightly different emphases, but largely sharing the same philosophy and goals, Bayern and Dortmund are at the head of the Bundesliga hype train. And the message they are telling (and selling) international fans is that the hype is real.