Friday’s edition of daily American newspaper The New York Times featured Bayern Munich’s famed Bundesliga dominance and explored an interesting proposition: what is it that fans want, dynastic dominance or competition? Rory Smith, chief soccer correspondent at the paper of record, outlined some arguments in favor of each — but subscribed also, perhaps, to superficial narratives about German football. Let’s break it down.
Sports dynasties in America, if loathed by rival fanbases, are also begrudgingly respected — well, even amid grumbles (fair, at times!) over how they might be damaging the sport. For a neutral audience, there’s nothing we enjoy better than a small-market MLB team smashing it in the face of the New York Yankees — the Times’ hometown team, also dubbed the ‘Evil Empire’ for their consistent dominance in payroll power.
In Germany, of course, Bayern are the Empire. The baddies, that’s us. Ten Bundesliga titles on the spin, a transfer window for the ages, and if there were any thoughts that the team had lost a step or were starting to show vulnerability, Joshua Kimmich torched them — and the net — in about five minutes on opening day.
The crux of this argument — that despite conventional wisdom, there is actually an ineffable draw towards dominance in sports — comes from a July 2020 working paper out of the University of Liverpool entitled “Armchair Fans: new insights into the demand for televised soccer.” In the Times piece, Smith presents the authors’ argument that viewership was connected to brand and quality rather than certainty of outcome. On these measures, Bayern are top.
It should be noted that the data used in this paper comes exclusively from the English Premier League, covering a period “the middle of the 2013/14 season” to “the end of the 2018/19 season.” Nevertheless, Smith’s extrapolation is that Bayern’s success is actually a boon for the Bundesliga, an advertisement of what quality is on offer in Germany — and it’s an argument not uncommon in defense of the status quo.
But, Smith points out, there’s a catch. Another quote from that working paper is this — “A match with the highest championship significance...would be expected to attract an aggregate audience size 96 percent higher than one with no implications at all for the prizes to be awarded at the end of the season”, teams involved notwithstanding. A similar finding with a smaller boost (54%) applied to matches with relegation significance.
In Smith’s interpretation, what this means is that what fans value even more than branding, balance, or anything else, is “jeopardy” — games with real stakes, where “everything is on the line.” And jeopardy is something that the Bundesliga ultimately does not provide, what with its best team on another inexorable march to a crowning sometime in April or May.
Indeed, it’s telling that it’s the title winner stakes that produced the most sizeable measured effects. For comparison, Champions League qualification — which for me personally is one of the more intriguing aspects of each Premier League season given the number of top teams in contention — produced a weaker effect and with statistical significance north of the usual boundary (if barely: p = 0.051).
That leads me to maybe a slightly different conclusion — that all these leagues would be served by a play-off, where jeopardy is achieved, and on a schedule to boot — but perhaps that’s a whole ‘nother discussion!
How far is the gap, really?
This is a question both for Bayern Munich and its closest competitors — and for the Bundesliga and other leagues.
Perhaps the most eyebrow-raising line from the Times article was the one claiming that “England...has no fewer than [six] teams that go into the season with a shot of winning the championship that is at least more than theoretical.”
Manchester City have won four of the last five; one team (Leicester City) not named City, Liverpool, Manchester United, or Chelsea FC — a group of five teams — has won it since 2003/04, and that was the Arsenal’s Invincibles year of yore. Those were the days of a different Top Four — or three? Liverpool finished fifteen points below third-placed United that year.
If there’s English jeopardy, there isn’t much of it, not lately. Liverpool and City are more than a clear cut above, and each have bagged what look to be elite strikers of the next generation in Darwin Núñez and Erling Haaland. As the Premier League pulls away from the rest, so too does the cream of its crop.
As for the Bundesliga, it’s true that Bayern have superior financial muscle, but Borussia Bayer 04 Leverkusen, RB Leipzig, and especially Borussia Dortmund also have wage bills that dwarf many of the remaining teams. That they haven’t put up a serious fight in recent years is another story.
Since 2016/17, the Premier League champions have won on an average of 94.8 points — 83% of the maximum possible. Bayern averaged 79% and eclipsed the 83% mark just once in this span (2017/18). If there’s less brutal mid-table competition in the Bundesliga than elsewhere, the other three titans have a smaller hill to climb than it might look.
If Bayern are “[riding] roughshod over all and sundry”, they’re doing so with slightly less absolute dominance than the Premier League’s small class of upper elite.
A little more jeopardy could be the extra zest that’s needed — across the footballing world. The study’s authors mention a “story of declining demand” season over season, “which might not augur well for growth in revenue from future domestic contracts.”
But how far Bayern are from that, and how different things are at least trending in the Premier League — perhaps conventional wisdom overstates these. The study’s results on brand power are reassuring for the club.
As for the brands of the Bundesliga’s other capable teams — who knows? There are at least seeds of promise this year.
We’ve got Eintracht Frankfurt as the reigning Europa League champions, Dortmund bringing Ballon d’Or nominee Sébastien Haller and Kopa Trophy nominee Karim Adeyemi in a strong transfer window, RB Leipzig signing Germany stars David Raum and Timo Werner and out-muscling the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United for young phenom Benjamin Šesko. After two matchdays, Dortmund are sitting at six points, having taken care of business in the hard times with key players missing.
As scary as Bayern look, it seems there might yet be some life in our competitors — and this exciting, youth-filled, tactically diverse, and traditions-rich league.
Hope you enjoyed the read, and check out the original column in the Times as well — it’s an interesting piece, and you’ll enjoy the opening! Let us know what you think in the comments below.