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BFW Exclusive — European football as seen from Leverkusen: An interview with Bayer 04 CEO Fernando Carro

Bayer 04 Leverkusen CEO Fernando Carro discusses the economic landscape of European football, the abortive European Super League, the Bundesliga, and how Bayer Leverkusen navigates this world while developing top talents.

Bayer 04 Leverkusen - Fernando Carro de Prada Photo by Rolf Vennenbernd/picture alliance via Getty Images

Bayer 04 Leverkusen CEO Fernando Carro is a veteran businessman with a passion for football. Originally from Barcelona, he assumed his current position in 2018, after decades of experience in the German business world, including CEO of the Bertelsmann subsidiary Arvato. As of June 2021, Mr. Carro also is an executive member of the European Club Association.

Mr. Carro kindly took the time to discuss several areas of the contemporary football world in connection with a press event held at Leverkusen ahead of their home game against Celtic FC on November 25 (an exciting 3-2 win for the hosts).

His responses to our questions are valuable both for their incisive business acumen and for their perspective: Bayer Leverkusen is a top-tier German club that regularly contends in the Champions League, yet also inhabits a domestic league dominated by Bayern Munich and lately has sees its brightest stars depart for the giants of the super-wealthy English Premier League.

Competing in the Bundesliga

BFW: Bayern Munich already seems poised to win its 10th consecutive championship. They may earn it on the pitch, but much of their success rests on an entrenched economic advantage that appears to grow every season. Bayer Leverkusen is almost always in contention for a Champions League spot, but is that enough?

Carro: “I think it’s not only a question of economic differences: it’s basically a situation where Bayern can maintain the core of a team for many years because they don’t have the pressure to sell players to replenish their budgets. Therefore they can have the continuity within their team, and any other club in Germany—Borussia Dortmund, Leipzig, Leverkusen—they are more in need of getting that extra money through transfers.

“It is much more difficult for our clubs, due to the lower resources we have—and of course also lack of titles and lack of trophies—to have the players stay for a longer period of time. And this means that we have much more movement with our teams and less stability to have the same group of players and the team to be formed over several years. To point it out in a positive manner: we need to gain stability and resilience within our talented squad much faster, in order to have maximum success.”

The European Super League

BFW: Bayer Leverkusen was not one of the Bundesliga clubs courted by the breakaway clubs that founded the European Super League. What was your reaction to the attempt, both as CEO of Bayer Leverkusen and as an executive board member of the ECA? The fight is also not over: can the majority of clubs remain relevant in the face of growing inequality with the elite?

Carro: “Let me be clear. Those behind the Super League did not want to tackle the inequality issue. They actually wanted to increase this gap you mention. So let’s separate the issues here between the challenge of the teams with more money and less money—this is one topic—and the Super League issue.

“The money topic is a complex topic for all of football and its one that UEFA, that the ECA [and] the clubs will have to solve. The Super League supporters just tried to solve their individual problems. Within the range of team budgets they are still at the top, but in terms of revenue, it’s still not enough. They want—or need—even more. So this means that the Super League would have taken in maybe three or four times more money.

“The Super League is perhaps an attempt for clubs that are not in the Premier League, like Real Madrid or Barcelona or Juventus, to bridge the gap to the Premier League. In my eyes, even if they were part of this Super League, they would not achieve what they are trying to do. So in the end for me, the objectives of the failed Super League attempt were simply egoistic, and apart of that, they were poorly prepared and addressed.”

Revenue for the Bundesliga

BFW: There’s no easy way for the Bundesliga to close the gap with England and Spain on money from broadcasting rights. Is there anywhere where the Bundesliga needs to improve marketing-wise?

Carro: “Let me say first that the Spanish league and the English league are doing a good job. In Germany, we are doing a very good job nationally. I think we have the potential to improve internationally. I know we cannot be compared to the Premier League because of the immense global heritage, the most common language worldwide, their amount of stars in the League, and because of Bayern Munich being too dominant in recent years. But I think even with some of those fundamental differences, we could be doing a better job and we can improve what we’re doing—$200 or $300M for international TV rights is not enough for a major brand like the Bundesliga.”

Developing young stars at Bayer Leverkusen

BFW: How is Bayer Leverkusen so successful at finding and developing players? No sooner did Kai Havertz depart for the Premier League but Florian Wirtz emerges as the next generational talent for Germany. How does Bayer Leverkusen do it?! What does the club look for in players it signs?

Carro: “I think from a philosophy of the club: we believe in young players, we trust young players, we give young players like our U19s spots to train with the top team. It’s always a question of performance, but we open the doors and we give them opportunity. I think that is quite unique and an approach that our Sporting Director Simon Rolfes stands for and develops with focus and ambition.”

“Of course, it’s something that stands out and has been very well done by Bayer 04 Leverkusen over the last years. We have a track record, players trust us. They come here and they know if they play well, they will get pitch time on the highest European level. It’s not just something that we talk about, but we go out and do it and we make sure to put the philosophy into practice.”

Growing women’s football

BFW: How is Bayer Leverkusen supporting their women’s team and women’s soccer in general? Do you see potential for growth?

Carro: “We are supporting them from the top down quite a lot and I see a lot of potential. We have Thomas Eichin, a very experienced sports executive who has overseen the men’s teams at Werder Bremen and 1860 Munich and is a former professional player himself. He is responsible for both the development and the management of the women’s team.

“I actually try to rate us on a broader scale than just a few games. I aim for a sustainable development here and think we have built a fantastic foundation in recent years. Now, more than ever, we are trying to keep the team together for longer terms and work on growing the infrastructure and resources that we have for the women’s team.”

BFW sincerely thanks Mr. Carro and Rob Penner of Bayer 04 Leverkusen for making this interview possible.

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