German Soccer League Bundesliga Looks to Expand U.S. Viewership

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The league’s U.S. TV rights contract with Fox Sports expires next year.

As Bundesliga International’s five-year U.S. TV rights contract with Fox Sports approaches its expiration date in 2020, the German soccer league is weighing options to find the right balance between broadcast TV and streaming that will help its U.S. viewership grow.

The soccer league, which has the world’s highest average attendance for the last five years, has opened an office in New York that oversees development in the Americas. While soccer is the most beloved sport in almost all South American countries, in North America, and in the U.S. in particular, it comes after football, basketball and baseball in popularity. But the number of its fans is rising in the U.S., especially among young viewers, and the German league is leveraging that to formulate its broadcast rights strategy.

“There is research that shows [in the U.S.] in the age group of 0 to 18 a growth in the last 10 years in terms of uptake of the sport and also the following,” Bundesliga International CEO Robert Klein told The Hollywood Reporter in an interview. “With this information, we’re able to target our strategy to the right potential consumers and in the right manner. That also involves going to the right commercial and digital partners to create a constant narrative around our [soccer] season to be able to be successful.”

Bundesliga International is also catering to an expanding minority population in the U.S.: “Another important point not to forget in the North American territories is the Hispanics, which is a significant and growing part of the population and they are [soccer] crazy,” Klein added. “So they definitely put soccer above the American sports, and for that we then have a separate, different language strategy on the one hand, and also for a different culture.”

The league has a partnership with Turner’s online sports platform Bleacher Report, and its own channels on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Incidentally, Klein said that Bundesliga’s existing TV rights contracts around the world, except for in Europe and China, are also coming to an end at the same time. So the club is entering a sales period to decide on how to maximize its viewership going forward.

Klein noted that the league has to strike a balance between the price and size of the audience a bidder can offer for its broadcast rights. “This is the billion-dollar question in sports,” he said. “We’re the stakeholder of clubs, so certainly the money factor is a big one. Having said that, the growth of the brand and its penetration and presence is important. So you’ll always have this balance between typically free-to-air, pay TV, or say, OTT and digital. It’s usually a balance, but, you can also, more and more in the market, look at the right matrices that could deliver across all three. And then when you have all the offers on the table, you can make the decision.”

The league is also facing the increasingly pressing issue of piracy, particularly in the Middle East, where pirate television channel beoutQ has infringed the rights of Qatar-based broadcaster beIN Sport. “In the Middle East, it’s almost industrial scale, and certainly the most sophisticated piracy we’ve seen to date,” said Klein, who has been calling for better related legislation in the region, and soccer bodies are pursuing legal action to tackle the problem.

“The first thing we’re trying to do is to work with the leagues — the other rights holders — as we believe if we work as a team, we’d have a better impact,” Klein said. Bundesliga is a member of the Sports Rights Owners Coalition, the Audio-Visual Anti-Piracy Alliance and the German Society for the Prosecution of Copyright-Infringement. “The other thing we’re trying to do is to support the partners within their local legislation, where sometimes we have more success than less. In Asia, it seems that piracy is also a significant problem, more could be done. It is absolutely a crime. It’s unacceptable. And I don’t think we should be shy about saying it,” he stressed, and said that it would be smart for the soccer bodies to consult with their counterparts in the film industry, which has been fighting the same problem for decades.