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48 hours at Signal Iduna Park… what goes into hosting the DFL Supercup

SportsPro goes behind the scenes at the home of Borussia Dortmund to find out how German soccer’s annual curtain raiser comes together.

by Tom Bassam
48 hours at Signal Iduna Park… what goes into hosting the DFL Supercup

There is a story that tour guides at Signal Iduna Park love to tell about why they have two hairdryers in the home dressing room. Apparently Uefa insisted that Borussia Dortmund install them after Cristiano Ronaldo complained at their absence following a visit with Real Madrid. Dortmund were told to put two in but no one said where, so they duly installed both for use by their own players.

Why is this relevant? Well it tells you everything you need to know about the club, and by extension soccer in Germany, that they do not pander to the prima donna elements of the sport. Repeatedly throughout SportsPro’s visit to the DFL Supercup, the Bundesliga’s ‘football as it’s meant to be’ catchphrase is evident in action.

The DFL Supercup is hosted by the winners of the previous season’s DFB-Pokal, German club soccer’s top knockout tournament. As Bayern Munich won both that competition and the Bundesliga last season, Dortmund, as runners-up, were awarded the 2019 edition.

Dortmund itself is not a particularly pretty place, but it has heart and a fierce passion for soccer. The skyline dominating stadium is a reflection of that - even with the DFL trying to neutralise the venue in a manic rebranding effort in the 72 hours before kick-off.

The unmistakable sight of Borussia Dortmund's Signal Iduna Park

For the DFL, it is the only game of the season that is entirely on its watch and its own production. As ever with the German league body, that is overseen by its in-house team. Whilst the neutral white branding being hastily installed covers some of Dortmund’s trademark yellow when SportsPro visits the site the day before the main event, it is a largely futile task. The whole install operation takes around two days, following several weeks of pre-event planning, but ultimately on gameday it still feels like Dortmund are at home.

As a soccer destination, Dortmund has plenty to offer visitors. The stadium tours are clearly popular and doing a solid trade as the final preparations for the showpiece game were going on around them. Even as power drills buzzed away and the rehearsing broadcast spider cam whipped its way across the playing surface like a mesmeric robot, it was not hard to feel the venue’s atmosphere. It has familiar terrace smells, cacophonous sound and match-worn scars emanating from every crevice.

In the city centre, the DFB-Museum, Germany’s national soccer museum, was also busy. The building, designed by architects Hentrich-Petschnigg & Partner, sits opposite Dortmund’s main train station and is quite something. Exhibits across two main exhibition floors show the history of both the German national team but also domestic club soccer. The contents are as rich in history as you would expect. Fathers can embarrass their kids in the Sky Sports record-your-own commentary booth, whilst the more inquisitive can peer at a forensic investigation of the 1966 Fifa World Cup final or learn about the founding of the Bundesliga.

Eyes on the prize at the German Football Museum

In the build-up to kick-off around the stadium the atmosphere is friendly despite the two teams’ great rivalry. Policing is minimal and both sets of fans happily mingle in the lively Strobels bar. Located in the north east corner of Signal Iduna Park, the venue’s sizeable beer garden plays host to a bizarre DJ and at one point a brass band who both entertain the drinkers with a blend of traditional, odd and questionable song selections (Three Little Birds, a highlight).

The genial atmosphere is at odds with what you might see in England or France for such a high-profile fixture. The Bundesliga places a lot of faith in its fans: it essentially asks them to run most of the league’s clubs and that sense of trust runs down to the streets. Whilst virtually everyone is in either yellow or red, there is no boiling blood or tension. Local police report just four arrests made in connection with the match.

Away from Signal Iduna Park, DFL Digital Sports rolled out a new micro-service ahead of the game for users on the Bundesliga app to help fans in Germany and overseas to identify their regional broadcaster. DFL Digital Sports has also upped the platform’s push notifications so they are now faster than broadcast. “When you’re on the toilet you know when to run,” jokes Andreas Heyden, chief executive of the league’s innovation arm, when discussing the upgrade. 

It is a light-hearted comment, but they take digital activation very seriously at the DFL.

“In the Southeast Asian markets we have to be very careful with push notifications,” Heyden explains. “As the game ends at 3am we don’t want to spoil the result.”

Spidercam is a central piece of the DFL's broadcast toolkit

It’s the one league match – not a club match – where we control the media experience

On the broadcast side, the onsite operation for the Supercup would be politely described as compact. The TV trucks are spread between the running track on Dortmund’s quaint old Stadion Rote Erde, which sits next door to their current home, and across the south east corner of the venue.

From this tightly grouped collection of technical trucks and miles of cable, the DFL sends the match to more than 200 of the 211 Fifa member countries, with augmented reality (AR) specialists Supponor also on hand to provide localised pitchside branding in different territories.

In Germany, ZDF and DAZN have the rights to the match, which the latter secured through a recently-signed sublicensing deal with Eurosport. Again, though, regional personalisation is at the core of the output. Multiple broadcasters have pitchside position as the Supercup production is being offered in ten languages.

Jadon Sancho stole the show

“That includes Thai, Bahasa, Japanese, Polish, Chinese, etc,” Heyden adds. “We have also prepared storylines for the build-up throughout the day. We have to be realistic, the Supercup starts in New York at 9am in the morning and 7am-ish in LA, but it’s 1am in Southeast Asia. So the teams have different stories to prepare.

“It’s the one league match – not a club match – where we control the media experience.”

In terms of other technological upgrades, the Supercup broadcast was being done with new camera systems for UHD. The league has also introduced new AR graphics that allow the overhead cameras to appear as if they were moving through digital projections hovering above the pitch.

“With spidercam, the NFL is our benchmark,” says Heyden. “But in the NFL they have mostly static shots. We are flying through the virtual trophy – I think it looks pretty amazing.”

Post-match, a partnership with WSC Sports sees the company’s artificial intelligence platform create tailored video content minutes after the match has ended, with highlights packages quickly produced for different territories, and even for the participating clubs.

The league also has content influencer partners such as 4-3-3 pushing out social media content throughout the match, ensuring all bases are covered.

For fans on the ground, ticketing for the 2019 Supercup was a pretty simple operation. “It’s Dortmund v Bayern, you don’t really need marketing”, a member of the host’s commercial team explains. Sales were largely handled by the clubs, with a handful of neutral tickets hitting the market and Lagardere managing the corporate boxes, as it does for Dortmund under the terms of their partnership.

The majority of sales were done through Dortmund’s official ticketing partner Eventim Sports, which has a secondary market platform built into it, but on gameday fans outside the ground were still on the lookout. The attendance was 81,365, with around 8,500 supporters from Munich. Officially it was a sell-out but there were a few empty seats in the west stand.

Noticeably absent during the match were two of Dortmund’s big marketing bastions. Returning captain Mats Hummels was injured in training but more striking was the subdued atmosphere in the famed Südtribüne. Speaking to some of the club’s ultras post-match they explained that whilst some would attend the game, the commercial nature of the Supercup meant the dramatic displays and megaphones were left at home. The crowdfunding required is apparently not to be put to use for “glorified friendlies”.

Despite this assertion the game was certainly more competitive than the English equivalent, the FA Community Shield. As a means of showing off the DFL’s product, the Supercup delivered on its ‘football as its meant to be’ mantra. As a demonstration of the clever combination of well-utilised technology and German soccer’s rough around the edges appeal, the league looks well set as it prepares for its next overseas rights push.