Digital dominance: the Bundesliga's gamble on social media

Digital dominance: the Bundesliga’s gamble on social media

The Bundesliga is looking to branch out by increasing worldwide viewership to maximise its profitability, a move which represents a significant identity shift for Germany’s top flight.

However, in doing what has been necessary to improve revenue, the Germans outpaced the other elite European leagues in the race to establish an engaging digital presence, setting up the Bundesliga for the long-term growth that its corporate stakeholders are looking for.

What happened?

In 2012, Europe’s top-tier leagues (other than the market leader – the Premier League) realised that the internet could be a brilliant method to capture the attention of new audiences in Europe and beyond.

La Liga, for instance, uploaded its first YouTube video on August 31, 2012: a goal from Messi which was pretty average by his standards. Similar uploads kept flowing, but it was clear that La Liga was hesitant about giving away too much for free – after all, each club relies on TV money to fund their operations.

On the other hand, when the Bundesliga exploded onto the social media scene a year later, they made a big splash. Although it took a while to fine-tune the content, it wasn’t long before the social media team was making slick, shareable videos that were attracting millions of hits.

This clip of a Hakan Calhanoglu knuckleball freekick from February 2014 now has over 2.7 million views:

The choice to produce all of the channel’s content in English demonstrates that the Bundesliga’s main goal in running the YouTube channel is to grow its global reach. It also has a Twitter accounts in English and Spanish, while Bayern has a profile specifically made for their fans in the USA.

The end result

Having almost nine million combined followers and likes on social media is nice, but of course the attention doesn’t mean anything unless it translates into cold hard Euros for the Bundesliga and its clubs.

Fortunately, the gamble paid off. Overall league revenue has seen an increased rate of growth since 2012, reaching €3.37 billion in 2016/17.

Of course other factors are at play here – the league has managed to keep ticket prices low while improving the overall standard of football seen on the pitch. There was even an all-German UCL final in 2013, although recent results haven’t been quite as good.

The case for continuing this strategy

At this point you might be thinking that lauding the Bundesliga for embracing social media is a bit silly – after all, nearly every major brand is online these days. La Liga, Serie A and Ligue 1 now upload highlights to YouTube free of charge.

But if we look west, we can see why social promotion channels cannot be ignored.

As flummoxing as this is, Europe’s biggest football league, the Premier League, does not have a YouTube channel as of April 2018.

Instead, you’ll have to venture onto Sky Sports’ page to watch analysis and interviews, but finding Bigfoot would be easier than uncovering top-flight match footage on the platform where a billion hours of content are now streamed every day. If a GIF with some footballs can score almost a thousand retweets, how much social attention would a goal highlight reel on YouTube be able to pull in? The Premier League is missing out, big time.

They’re still the biggest league though based on international coverage, so what’s the problem?

Well, the evidence is that the Premier League’s dominance might be slipping, albeit slowly. BT and Sky only paid £4.46 billion for the right to show matches from 2019 to 2022, down from £5.14 billion for the three previous years. None of the major American tech giants, who were widely predicted to make bids, have so far made any offers for the remaining broadcast packages.

When Disney paid $52.4bn (£39bn) in December 2017 for the bulk of 21st Century Fox’s business, which included a 39% stake in Sky,  the Premier League looked like it might eclipse the groundbreaking 2016 – 2019 TV deal that totalled in excess £5.2bn. This would have been a result of a ‘tech company bidding war’, with Sky propped up by Disney against rivals rumoured to be Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google. In the end, Sky and BT have maintained their oligopoly on the Premier League broadcasting market.

Since there’s unlikely to be any more bids that will meet the reserve prices, the Premier League is looking at its first fall in domestic TV rights earnings since the 2004 to 2007 deal.

There’s also evidence that the league’s bosses are worried that the PL is falling behind in its online video offerings. A year or so ago the social media team began producing some half-hearted content: goals from the archives with old commentary, which were uploaded to Twitter and Facebook. There’s also been the odd skills montage, which usually generate a lot of attention:

Clearly then, the Premier League is exploring its options in giving fans more access to the content they actually want. They realise that their current offerings are pretty boring in comparison to what the Bundesliga shows us.

What’s next

The Premier League’s failure in the digital domain reinforces the importance of the Bundesliga’s video content strategy: after all, the English league seems to be looking to copy the German approach. Whether the Premier League adopts a more progressive attitude towards giving away some of their content online remains to be seen.

Having free highlights available online is great for fans of Germany’s top flight. If you’re away for example you can still see what you need to see, although it’s not quite the same as watching the match live.

Although having a social media presence is awesome in that it makes the league more accessible to the people who fund it, we must remember why this expansion is happening. If the ongoing commercialisation of the Bundesliga isn’t kept in check, the German footballing public could see the end of member ownership of clubs as they know it, eventually leading to massive rises in ticket prices.

Strangely, it’s almost as if the two leagues are going to swap places with each other. As British football moves towards the German way of managing fan interaction, the Bundesliga could well adopt the profit-driven mindset that Premier League supporters have derided for the past decade.