By J Hutcherson (Sep 19, 2017) US Soccer Players – The Bundesliga has a longstanding reputation as the European big league most resistant to quick change. They’re not going to revamp their competition just to chase more money. They’re not going to redo their particular club structure that favors the ideal of a club without considerable debate. They’re not going to change just because it’s the popular move. Well, at least until recently.
Germany’s topflight is currently in a state of self-induced flux. They’d like to compete economically with the rest of Europe, much less the Premier League. They’d like to modernize their club structure to help make this possible. It’s hard not to notice how well this works in other places, so why not follow the model that’s currently working?
Supporter angst is the latest and most obvious reason. Fans are protesting. They’re calling out the Bundesliga’s attempts to alter the ownership structure designed to keep clubs true sporting clubs rather than professional soccer teams. They’re doing it in stadiums with banners asking why anybody wants something different.
Call it the RB Leipzig effect. “RB” stands for Red Bulls, the German version of what we’ve seen in Austria and Major League Soccer. Leipzig isn’t much of a club by German standards. They followed the letter of the rules to turn an existing club into what’s now quickly become a Bundesliga power. There are those pesky initials in front of the city name, reminding everybody else that it’s the sponsor in prime position.
RB Leipzig’s success certainly hasn’t helped the argument against their model. The Bundesliga realizes the cost of being a one or two club league. They can look around Europe and see what that means for a competition. As the Premier League demonstrates, it’s better to be a league with four or five teams regularly capable of winning the title.
Seeing Bayern Munich as a problem rather than strictly as an asset is nothing new in Germany. It’s just that not so long ago, FC Hollywood had the common courtesy to take every other season off. They’d win, but so would a few other teams. That’s no longer the situation. Bayern’s lock on the Bundesliga title is the same problem Serie A currently has in the era of Juventus. It’s great for one club, maybe not so much for the league.
Now is not the time for anything that isn’t great for the league. The Premier League raking in money from foreign TV rights is the new ideal. It powers a league economically making even their small clubs capable of competing financially. The Bundesliga wants in, but there’s not necessarily a clear and quick way to get there.
America looms. The market seems unlimited from a European perspective based solely on broadcasters willing to pay. We already know that the ratings probably don’t justify the outlay. That might not matter in the era of cable companies scrambling and unbundled access already in place. What this looks like even a year from now is a question those cable companies, stakeholders, and investors would like to be able to see. What we know is that right now it is benefitting live sports.
That’s the version of events in the States pushing Europe’s big leagues to try to get in on that right now. We know it’s isolated. The big money is for the Premier League and the Champions League, the obvious choices for an American audience. The Bundesliga can certainly stress USMNT players in their league, but there’s still a language barrier and a general appeal issue.
Playing spot the Premier League shirt is still an easier game and for obvious reasons. Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund’s popularity is a given, but it isn’t pulling their league along with it. Common sense says buying something with a club badge on it doesn’t obligate anybody to really care. If that was true, the New York Yankees would have the biggest TV ratings on the planet. At best it’s an indication, and it’s one that doesn’t flatter the ambitions of the Bundesliga.
It’s those ambitions fueling so much angst in Germany. There’s an argument normally raised by fans asking why the Bundesliga should focus outwards at all. This is a league with the highest average attendance, an ownership structure that doesn’t demand the same funding as foreign clubs, and success in Europe as things are. The quick answer is because professional sports is competitive across the board and the Bundesliga is losing the TV rights game.
The quick comparison for the Championship’s new domestic TV deal is that it’s worth more than the Bundesliga’s domestic TV deal. Considering that we’re talking about different countries, there are ways to make that less troubling for those running the Bundesliga and their clubs. That neither of these deals are in the same universe as what the Premier League should get at home, much less abroad isn’t going to make the Bundesliga feel any better.
Amid all of this is what we’ve seen on banners in Bundesliga stadiums this season. It’s a collective “who cares” when it comes to chasing the money. There’s more nuance to that, but it’s asking a basic question about scope and what fans want from the domestic league.
It’s easy to write “their” domestic league, but that’s part of the problem the Bundesliga’s fans are raising. It’s ownership of scope, something that the Premier League stopped considering on anything but their own terms when they voted for their breakaway all the way back in the early 90s.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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