Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Bundesliga and a World Where Football is Not Enough

Probably couldn't have asked for a better segueway into this post than ARF's last posting. Read below for his take on the EPL and the Bundesliga this year. My focus, however, is on the Bundesliga generally. About two weeks ago I spoke with a German friend about the Bundesliga, and I compared it to Ligue 1, in the sense that the Bundesliga seems perfectly content to be the fourth best league in Europe. In other words, it is satisfied with its lot in life.

Everyone knows not to expect any big moves from France. The French and their league are content with their middle-of-the-road status in Europe. Lyon has been competitive to an extent, and no other team in France seems to aspire to much in Europe. The days of Marseille are over. But my German friend vociferously disagreed with extending this analogy to Germany. The Bundesliga and Ligue 1, he asserted, had nothing in common.

And the truth be told, he was right. As ARF stated below, the Bundesliga tends to be an exciting competition, with close league finishes, lots of goals, some attractive play, and a competitive level that goes deep into the table. Add to that the fact that the Bundesliga has numerous "historical" teams that have marked eras, and several dark horses that have truly achieved (see Wolfsburg, 2009). At least one team, Bayern Munich, is willing to splash around some serious coin in its pursuit of glory (Ribery, Toni, and Klose were all signed in one summer).

And yet, I didn't even know the proper name of the German league tournament, or who had won it (the DFB-Pokal or German Football Federation Cup, and Werder Bremen beat Leverkusen in 2009). Now part of my ignorance, and it seems the greater ignorance towards the Bundesliga, has to do with time. If one follows la Liga, the EPL, Champions League and international play, it doesn't leave much for other leagues. But I'll still watch the Turin and Milan derbis. I'll check out Boca-River and Copa Libertadores knockout games. Yet aside from three or four Bundesliga games preceding Liga games on GolTV I've seen very little of the Bundesliga.

But teams like Bayern Munich, Borussia Monchengladbach, Werder Bremen, Dortmund, Hamburger, Werder Bremen, and recently Schalke and Wolfsburg have impressed both in the win column and in their play. So what's wrong with the Bundesliga? Why didn't it step out of the shadow of Serie A during the Moggiopoli and ascend to be the third best league in Europe? That moment was a singular opportunity to do so, and maybe even grab a fourth Champions League spot. The answer to these questions, at its base, is rather simple: marketing. The Bundesliga, despite its historical and present quality, has failed almost remarkably to market itself.

First off, there is no true grudge match in Germany. Bayern Munich v. Munich 1860 is not going to draw the international masses. Indeed, the parity in German football has removed this critical element from the mix. Second, the Bundesliga has not had a true golden age from which to capitalize recently. Bayern has faltered internationally since their Champions League win in 2001, and no other Bundesliga teams have truly stepped up. During the Bundesliga's true golden age, the 1970s, global marketing of club teams as we know it today didn't exist. Neverthless, it's worth noting that this "golden age" was just that - during that decade one German club made the semifinals of European play every year, Bayern Munich won three European Cups back-to-back, and several Bundesliga teams won the UEFA Cup (remember this was when only champions made the European Cup, so the UEFA Cup was a bigger deal). Sadly, the 1970s saw the domestic popularity of the Bundesliga go down due to a 1970 match-fixing scandal.

In the 1980s the Bundesliga witnessed reduced European success, though again, Bundesliga teams made four Champions League and four UEFA Cup finals that decade. Hamburger even won it in 1982. The 1990s continued the reduced visibility of the Bundesliga, despite Borussia Dortmund's 1996 Champions League victory. But even then, the Asian and North American football markets weren't being mined the way they are today. Further, my German companion pointed out, German clubs work within a legislative and financial framework that may restrict the lavish spending of other leagues. I won't pretend to know the intricacies of German ownership laws, but if true, this only adds to the Bundesliga's difficulties. And so the Bundesliga, like every other league except the EPL, was left marketing its best teams. Internationally, that left Bayern Munich, a team that has struggled to assert itself this decade, despite having initial successes in the 2000s.

No league has marketed itself as well as the EPL. While it's elite teams market themselves to the fullest, the EPL has also worked on marketing the league as a product, so that people actually care about the Hull City's of the world. La Liga has much to learn from the EPL in this respect, but has survived on the individual marketing prowess of Real Madrid and Barcelona, their rivalry, and extensive European success from those teams as well as at times Valencia, Deportivo, Villareal, and Sevilla. Serie A too has taken advantage of its world brands (AC Milan, Inter, and Juve) and Italy's success in international competition. The Bundesliga, on the other hand, has regressed in European competitions, precisely at the moment the German national team has failed to achieve as it usually does. And so it seems the Bundesliga has fallen victim to two, equally important factors, at least in terms of world renown. The first, is plainly recent on the pitch performances, both in Europe and for the national team. The second is failing to market the Bundesliga as a whole, so that Bayern Munich's drop in form doesn't diminsh the accomplishments of the Werder Bremens, Stuttgarts and Wolfsburgs of the league.

Truth be told, aside from the EPL no European league has grasped the idea of deliberately marketing their national league as a product aside from the individual teams or stars. This is a concept pioneered by the United States where a sports business model is built on selling the NBA or NFL rather than the Lakers or the Patriots. Just like people care about Hull City or West Ham, people need to care about Eintracht or Udinese or Malaga. Otherwise a league runs the risk of losing its appeal simply because its big clubs have off-years. That is what the Bundesliga has fallen victim to. The league's star (Bayern Munich) hasn't done much recently, and world fans live in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world. Add to that a failure to market the league as a whole, and its a recipe for problems. But that doesn't change the fact that ARF is right. The Bundesliga is an interesting and exciting league that deserves much more credit than it's given. Hopefully, for the good of the Bundesliga and European parity, we see its teams return to the European stage and reveal one of the best kept secrets in football: the Bundesliga's a quality product, and we should all be watching a bit more of it.

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