“You have probably been to the Emirates or Etihad. But that is not football, it is theater,” says Borrusia Dortmund CEO Carsten Cramer while talking to a group of Indian reporters on a media visit to the Bundesliga club’s office. Cramer is taking a dig at the rampant commercialisation of the English Premier League that runs on oil and mining money from abroad.
At a time when the Bundesliga is looking to go ‘international’ and compete with the EPL and the La Liga; it difficult to shun ‘gas-pipeline money’. “There is so much money around the world from people who want to invest in football clubs but we are not looking for companies which try to buy shares. We are looking for sponsors and partners. We don’t want to be a club which is owned by some rich people from around the world. That is not Dortmund.”
Of the 18 clubs in the top-tier Bundesliga, only Bayern Munich feature in any top ten of a money-list of football clubs around the world. Bayern ‘s success on the field and its marketing forays have become a benchmark for most other Bundesliga clubs.
In May last year, Bayern spread its wings to China and opened a office in Shanghai. Seven months later, Dortmund followed them. It was also the year when Bundesliga International was launched, a rebranded marketing, licensing and digital services arm of the league.
Maurice Gorges, the marketing manager sales (Asia Pacific) of Bundesliga International believes that over the past three years clubs are open to tapping the market outside Germany.
“I think lot of clubs also realise that the domestic market is saturated to an extent and if you want growth you have to go abroad. Earlier there were about 10 people working for German football outside Germany but now that number is about 50,” Gorges says.
The Bundesliga gives subvention money, which covers hotel expenses and flight tickets if clubs undertake tours abroad in key markets. But many small clubs aren’t interested.
Maurice gives the example of his home team FSV Mainz, a club which has 14,200 paying members, miniscule compared to Bayern Munich’s 300,000. “When it comes to a club like Mainz, they don’t see a lot of leverage in internationalisation. They can survive with the domestic sponsor partners and the media money they get. It is one example but it applies for lot of other clubs too. Domestic fans are not very happy about foreign investors,” Maurice says.
Germany also has restrictive regulations that drive away potential investors to elsewhere in Europe. No outsider can buy majority stake in a German football institution since it is mandatory for clubs to adhere to the ’50 plus one’ rule – which means clubs and their fans control majority of voting rights and stake.
This has resulted in German clubs failing to hold on to talented stars who keeping the biting the bait dangled by the petro-dollars flushed English clubs. Two years ago Schalke had to sell winger Leroy Sane to Manchester City because they could not match the $50 million offer from a club.
However, all is not lost since there are cases of reverse brain-drain too. Footballers, disillusioned by being on the bench of high-profile English clubs, have turned to the Bundesliga. Jadon Sancho, one of the stars of the Under-17 World Cup, moved to Dortmund from Man City last August after failing to get game time in the English club. A fortnight ago, he scored his first professional goal and provided two assists in a crucial game against Bayer Leverkusen in which champions league berths were at stake.
The Germans have a plan in place to keep the supply chain active. They have pumped in 163.41 million euros in youth academies in 2016-17 — a 54 per cent increase over a four year period — according to the latest Bundesliga report.
Though, they aren’t in a tearing hurry, or hopelessly desperate, but going global figures prominently on Bundesliga’s growth vision document. Cramer sums up why they want to do things at its own pace.
“It would be easy to increase awareness in India by hiring a talented Indian player maybe in the youth team or second team but we are not a marketing club, we are a football club. And we hire players who are able to make the club better, but we don’t do it just for money. We would be happy to hire an Indian or Chinese player and I am sure the player would be very comfortable but we would never do it for money or business purposes.”
At one corner of the state of the art German football museum in Dortmund, is a sculptured figure of a coal miner, a reminder of the working class roots of clubs like FC Schalke, a history the fans are proud of. Finding a way to embrace the modern economics of world football without hurting the sentiments of the fans, is a challenge the Bundesliga is grappling with.