German football may be having its annual winter break, but in the marketing departments of the Bundesliga’s top clubs, work is well under way preparing for the summer tour. And for the last few years that has meant trips to Asia.German clubs have, by their own admission, been late in their pursuit of the Asian market. So now they are playing catch up.That is why last summer found Bayern Munich playing in Singapore, their rivals Borussia Dortmund in Japan and both of them in China. “When we went to Shanghai we weren’t interested in being welcomed at the VIP area. We asked to use the public terminal in order to have contact with the people.” says Dortmund’s chief operating officer Carsten Cramer, whose club have toured Asia for the past three years.”Once we are alive in their hearts we won’t lose them. And then people are maybe interested in spending money.”
‘The system’And that is what this is largely about.German football clubs are famously more prudent financially than many European counterparts. In 2016, the combined wage bill of the Bundesliga teams was equivalent to 49% of their total revenues. In the Premier League it was 63%.It was the third time in a decade that the Bundesliga had achieved wages-to-revenue ratio below 50%. But to keep things that way while still challenging their rivals on the pitch means increasing income. Asia is not the only market (both Dortmund and Bayern Munich are off to the US this summer for short tours fitted in around the 2018 FIFA World Cup).But with young populations that are getting more affluent, Asia has become an obvious place to sell merchandise and TV rights, run paid-for coaching academies and find sponsors.”We want to get the best players and best coach and to do this we need the financial backing,” says Joerg Wacker, a board member at Bayern Munich in charge of the club’s overseas strategy.”Going international is a way of earning money to get the best players onto the field. That’s the system.”
China fansWhen European clubs talk about cracking Asia, they often really mean cracking China.President Xi Jinping is a fan of the sport and the country has a 50-point plan for football, including getting 50 million people playing the game by 2020 and building 70,000 pitches in the same period.”The sheer size of this growing market is an attractive prospect for European clubs looking to increase their fan base and revenues,” notes the Deloitte 2017 Annual Review of Football Finance.This is not news to Germany’s big two; both clubs have websites and apps in Mandarin. Bayern Munich has already has an office in Shanghai with many of its staff working full time on its social media. It has a Weibo page and a channel on WeChat – the messaging service so integral to the lives of many young Chinese.And just as the success of Japanese star Shinji Kagawa has helped Dortmund grow its fan base in that country, the ultimate marketing tool for any club will be to find and sign a truly world class Chinese player who can work wonders on and off the pitch. “We have built four football academies in China and my philosophy is that there will be a Chinese player at Bayern at some stage,” Bayern’s president Uli Hoeness told German publication Blick in May.”There will be a lot of interest when we have this Chinese player. If we then play a game on Saturday at 2pm when it is primetime in Shanghai or Beijing, 300 million Chinese fans will be watching on their iPhone, all paying one euro to watch the game.”
Kicking off over kick-offsThe increasing value of Asian TV deals was made all-too-clear during the latest negotiations to broadcast the English Premier League in China. While SSMG pays about £13m each season for the rights to show matches live in China, from 2019-2022, rival PPTV will pay closer to £180m.Asian fans are the key reason Premier League bosses agreed to make at least one game each week a lunchtime kick-off, catching the peak Asian evening viewing slot. But while Germany has seen some flexibility from the traditional Saturday 3pm starts, the Bundesliga has so far been more reluctant to pander to television audiences.”Internationalization never will substitute the relevance of our home market,” insists Carsten Cramer of Borussia Dortmund. “A kick off at 12 noon on a Saturday in Germany might be interesting for people in Asia, but if you see a half-empty stadium with not such an intense crowd then it’s not German football. “We can’t create an artificial product just to make it accessible to other places in the world.”
Expansionist viewThe Premier League’s commitment to building its brand in Asia means that not just the top teams have a following. Across the region, sports shops stock official merchandise from Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool.But you will also find kits from the like of Everton, Southampton, Newcastle, Crystal Palace and Burnley on sale.The lesser-known German teams have made fewer inroads. “Right now there are only two German clubs who are able to interest people in this area of the world,” says Mr Cramer.This will only change, he believes, when smaller clubs feel the need to look outside their home market. “There’s no reason to say Everton is more famous than Hamburg or Cologne, but Everton has had an international strategy in last 15 to 20 years. Even Stoke City have played more friendly games abroad than Cologne for example.””And even for us, there are markets where it is difficult to reach because we are not that well-known. “So how can I complain about Hamburg or Frankfurt, if we have some problems reaching the people ourselves?”‘Expensive’ merchandiseBut Bayern Munich’s Joerg Wacker argues the best way to promote German football is to do the talking on the pitch.Germany are reigning World Champions, he points out. The 7-1 destruction of Brazil in the 2014 World Cup semi-final will live long in the memory. And he notes that Bayern Munich have been in five of the past six UEFA Champions League finals. The 2012/13 final was an all-German affair. For all their popularity overseas, Premier League clubs have fared far less well in getting to the final stages, he says.
And it seems many of the Asian fans who passionately follow German football, share the same philosophy.Kukuh Rahardi, who heads the Indonesian branch of the Bayern Munich supporters club, admits he stated supporting the club almost twenty years ago because they were popular and successful.He acknowledges he and his friends do not contribute much financially to the club: “Buying official merchandise is difficult for us because it’s so expensive.”But dressed head-to-toe in red, there’s no questioning his dedication, especially when the club comes on tour.”It’s like a dream for them to come here,” he says. “I saw them in Jakarta in 2010, so it has been a long wait.”