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How Germany's Bundesliga hopes to get more US soccer fans' attention

Jonathan Tannenwald, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Soccer

PHILADELPHIA -- Andreas Heyden, head of digital operations for Germany's Bundesliga, knows his league is fighting an uphill battle to capture soccer fans' attention.

"1.5 billion people in the world speak English. 600 million people in the world speak Spanish," he said in a recent interview with The Inquirer, compared to just 150 million German speakers worldwide. "Our competitors, the (English) Premier League and (Spain's) La Liga, have an audience automatically with nearly half a billion potential fans."

If you've watched Bundesliga games on Fox or Univision channels during the networks' four-year run as rights holders, you might be surprised that Heyden is so pessimistic. Although not every game is televised, there are games regularly on Fox Sports 1 and UniMas, and even a handful on Fox's main broadcast network.

The league has become the top destination for U.S. national team prospects moving to Europe, and has had a few big Mexican names, too. And if you're looking for atmosphere and entertainment, the Bundesliga has long been at or near Europe's top in attendance, decibel levels and goals per game.

But Heyden isn't wrong. The Bundesliga has not broken through here in the way many hoped it would when the Fox deal began, bringing the league out of a long era of irrelevance on fringe channel GolTV.

Take the weekend of Nov. 9, for example, when there were four Bundesliga games on TV -- including Bayern Munich-Borussia Dortmund, the league's biggest game. Because of Fox's college football commitments, the 12:30 p.m. ET kickoff on Nov. 9, a Saturday, was forced to lowly Fox Sports 2. Just 72,000 viewers tuned in, according to Nielsen.

 

At the same hour, the Leicester City-Arsenal Premier League game was on NBC's broadcast channel, drawing 779,000 viewers. On Sunday, NBCSN drew 773,000 viewers for Liverpool-Manchester City, the two top title contenders (Telemundo drew a further 402,000 in Spanish), and the Seattle-Toronto MLS Cup final drew 1.2 million viewers across ABC (823,000) and Univision (447,000).

FS1 had three games over the weekend, including two with American players. None drew more than 51,000 viewers to the channel. Spanish-language figures on Fox Deportes and Univision's TUDN were even smaller.

No wonder Bundesliga CEO Christian Seifert recently told SportBusiness.com that he's "a little bit disappointed from Fox as a partner."

So the league will try something different when the Fox deal ends after this season: a six-year deal with ESPN that will put almost all games exclusively online through subscription platform ESPN+. The network has agreed to air at least four games per season on linear TV, but that's barely a drop in the bucket.

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