Let's Go Germany

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Football is one of the most popular sports worldwide. Legions of fans, including in Asia, religiously follow their favorite teams over the course of a season and during major tournaments. But how are German football and the Bundesliga perceived in Asia? Can the German league keep up with its European counterparts?

The FIFA World Cup is – besides the Olympics – the biggest sporting event of the world, held every four years in different countries across the globe. At its best, football has the marvelous ability to cross barriers of language, race and gender to bring together people from all walks of life.

But football is, of course, also a lucrative business: between sponsors, TV deals, expensive merchandise and ticket sales, Europe’s top clubs not only compete for titles but also spend unbelievable amounts of money to sign world-class players and talented youngsters who they hope will turn into shining stars on an international stage.

Although the most successful and popular clubs are European-based, there is no shortage of football fans in Asia. Generally, the English Premier League (EPL) attracts the highest number of supporters in Asia – clubs like Manchester United recognized early on that the Asian market holds an enormous potential. Indeed, Manchester United was among the first EPL Clubs to travel to Asia for friendly games and pre-season tournaments, dating back to the mid-1990s.

The Bundesliga – with FC Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund leading the way – then followed suit. Over the last couple of years, several Bundesliga clubs have traveled around the world during pre-season, where they have the opportunity to directly interact with their fans. In 2017, Bayern Munich visited China and Singapore, Borussia Dortmund traveled to Japan and China, while Schalke 04 also played friendly games in China and Eintracht Frankurt toured through the US. For the many fans abroad, it is a unique opportunity to see their idols up and close.

Jaiz Anuar Yeop Johari, President of the FC Bayern Munich Fan Club Malaysia, first fell in love with football when watching the World Cup in 1986 as a 9-year-old and became a fan of the Bavarians when the club visited Malaysia for a mini-tournament during the opening of Stadium Shah Alam. He has been an avid supporter of FC Bayern Munich since. The members of the fan club regularly watch Bundesliga games together and take part in friendly tournaments.

“In 2017, I participated in the FC Bayern International Fanclub Tournament, which took place in Singapore and was part of the International Champions Cup,” the 41-year-old said when asked about the highlight of his life as Bayern Munich fan. “My team finished in 3rd place, and we had the chance to engage with FC Bayern legends, such as Giovanne Elber, Miroslav Klose, Raimond Aumann, Hasan Salihamidzic and even Uli Hoeness.”

For Jaiz, the Bundesliga holds a bigger appeal than the EPL, the Spanish La Liga or the Italian Seri A.

“The Bundesliga offers an interesting and fast style of football,” he explained. “It also doesn’t shy away from giving young players and young coaches the opportunity to compete. For example, we can see Kai Havertz of Bayer Leverkusen at the age of 18 playing high-level football. At the same time, there are Domenico Tedesco of Schalke 04 and Hoffenheim’s Julian Nagelsmann, two dynamic young coaches in charge of top clubs of the Bundesliga.” 

However, traveling around the world to promote German football and the Bundesliga is not completely free from criticism. Ralph Hasenhüttl, coach of RB Leipzig, said last year that too much was expected of the players of some Bundesliga clubs on their “marketing tours” abroad – this accusation, however, was quickly brushed aside by Bayern Munich CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.

“I find his comments cynical and divisive,” he said during the club’s visit to Singapore last year. “Clubs that went on tour to Asia or the US performed a service in terms of Bundesliga TV marketing. It’s all about solidarity.

“We achieved our goal to visit our Asian fans and bring them closer to our team,” he added. “More than that, we were able to strengthen our economic and political ties on this side of the world.”

After the all-German Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund in 2013 and Germany’s victory at the FIFA World Cup in Brazil one year later, the interest in the Bundesliga experienced another surge. Additionally, FOX Sports Asia, an Asian cable sports network owned by FOX Networks Group, now shows Bundesliga games every weekend, reaching millions of fans in Malaysia, Indonesia and other Asian territories. To further tap into the Asian market, Bayern Munich opened an office in Shanghai, China and Borussia Dortmund in Singapore.

Suresh Letchmanan, Managing Director of BVB Asia Pacific Pte Ltd, said that the club chose Singapore as location for its hub in Asia because it serves as a gateway to embark into Southeast Asia, China, India, Japan, Korea and even Australia. Additionally, some of the club’s main partners and sponsors such as Evonik and Puma have their Asian-Pacific offices in Singapore as well.

According to Letchmanan, the primary objective of the office in Singapore is to raise the club’s brand and visibility in Asia. 

“Other activities include increasing the fan base, growing the merchandise business to have more black and yellow shirts in stores, working closely with the media and positioning ourselves, as well as creating awareness through various media platforms via PR activities and activation campaigns, like bringing players, legends and the team on tours to Asia, and lastly to secure and acquire new sponsorships and partnerships,” he added.

It would be easy to assume that the rivalry between FC Bayern and BVB is also carried over to market penetration in Asia. However, this is not the case, as Letchmanan knows.

“We are competitors – on the pitch,” he explained. “[Off the pitch], we team up to help promote German football. Bayern and BVB are by far the two strongest and most successful, hence the most popular German teams. To be honest, Bayern is on a different level altogether and their sporting success speaks for itself. We have our own strategy in place, and I would not necessarily say that we are competing with them head on. At the same time, there is also an element of friendship and camaraderie with Bayern and other Bundesliga teams.”

At the end of the day, he stressed, the joint promotion of all Bundesliga clubs help the German league to position itself as a whole, which is important for German football.

“The more the Bundesliga is present [abroad], the better it is for all the clubs,” he concluded.

The refined marketing strategy of German football clubs and the Bundesliga has paid off: according to a 2017 report conducted by the Mailman Group, a Chinese technology and social media agency, the German Bundesliga is more popular than EPL, La Liga or Seri A on China’s digital media, citing the TV deal with broadcaster CCTV5 showing Bundesliga matches as well as the league’s valuable marketing campaigns and Chinese-language website as main reasons.

In Forbes’ annual list of “The World’s Most Valuable Soccer Teams”, Bayern Munich currently ranks 4th after Manchester United, Barcelona and Real Madrid, respectively, while Borussia Dortmund comes in 12th.

But even though the Bundesliga doesn’t have a David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi as “league ambassadors”, it knows where its true asset lies: with the fans. Thanks to a great infrastructure, state-of-the-art stadiums and affordable ticket prices, the Bundesliga is the best-attended league in Europe. According to a study by KPMG Football Benchmark, the average crowd size per game in the Bundesliga is over 41,000, compared to 36,000 in the EPL, 28,000 in La Liga and 22,000 in Serie A.

This wave of euphoria, it seems, has also reached the Asian shores. 

This article was first published in the May/June 2018 issue of MGCC Perspectives, the bi-monthly magazine of AHK Malaysia.