Politics & Governance, Esports & Digital Sport, Soccer, Europe

‘It was a massively complex project’: Breaking down the Bundesliga’s return

Germany’s Bundesliga became the first of Europe’s top soccer leagues to resume its pandemic-hit season when it returned to action in mid-May. Robert Klein, chief executive of Bundesliga International, reflects on the complex task of completing a disrupted campaign in the most challenging of circumstances.

by Ed Dixon
‘It was a massively complex project’: Breaking down the Bundesliga’s return

There was a palpable sense of excitement as the Bundesliga stepped out of Covid-19’s shadow and into the sporting spotlight on 16th May.

Inevitably, all eyes were going to be on the first major sports properties returning to action, especially one as big as Germany’s top-flight soccer competition. But aside from the thrill of seeing one of Europe’s biggest leagues back, there was the opportunity to unpick and assess the myriad of measures the Bundesliga had implemented to play in what some have taken to calling ‘the new normal’.

Getting there after a two-month layoff had taken an extensive, clinical approach. No more than 300 people were allowed in and directly around stadiums, with clubs made responsible for stopping supporters from gathering outside venues. Mascots were ditched, while ball boys were cut down to four, having been told to wear gloves and tested for coronavirus. TV reporters wore masks, and plastic sheets were placed over their microphones. Players walked out to deserted arenas having been advised to avoid communal showers and wait until they were back in their hotels before washing off dirt and sweat.

Fears of fans breaking social distancing were unfounded. At Borussia Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park, renowned for its cauldron-like atmosphere, the only reported passers-by were joggers.

Robert Klein, chief executive of Bundesliga International

Tellingly, those health protocols were just a small part of the comprehensive 50-page ‘Medical Concept’ formulated by the Bundesliga and the German Football League (DFL) while working closely with the government once a May resumption looked on the cards.

“It was a massively complex project that required an inordinate amount of work from all stakeholders,” Robert Klein, chief executive of Bundesliga International (BLI), tells SportsPro. “There are 16 states in Germany and they are responsible for their own health regulations and decisions. Therefore, you needed 16 states together to agree. Ultimately, if one didn't, it was going to be difficult to have matches.

“The matches were taking place in the stadiums, the teams were travelling, and therefore you had to have the ability to move between the states and have that agreement. A medical taskforce was set up shortly after the suspension of the league on 13th March. It was super important to create the blueprint to allow this to function and to give players and staff, anyone who’s going to be in and around the stadium. And, crucially, not taking any testing capacity away from society. That was always rule number one.

“The German government was committing to half a million tests a week and we never took any away from there. We, in fact, ordered extra tests when we saw that there was extra capacity in the laboratories that we worked with.”

Health and safety precautions saw balls disinfected before matches

The green light from local government was given on 7th May, leading to what Klein hails as “an incredible day” that arrived a little over a week later. As big as the task at hand was, it couldn’t be used as an excuse not to deliver a broadcast product at least on a par with the pre-lockdown incarnation.

“It was exhilarating, it was worrying, because we were the first to go,” adds Klein, who describes the response as “overwhelmingly positive”.

“Beyond that, we were from the start saying anything that we can share from our experience, whether it's the medical experience which we published in German and English, people could get in touch.

“We have an international affairs department who were speaking regularly with leagues around the world - not just football leagues - to share in our experiences.”

The returning round of fixtures drew plaudits from the likes of Liverpool’s title-winning manager Jürgen Klopp, who heaped praise on the Bundesliga for showing it was “possible” to play entertaining games behind closed doors. His comments were all the more pressing as the Premier League scampered to draw up plans for Project Restart ahead of its June return.

Players were advised to avoid communal showers and wait until they were back in their hotels before washing

Off the pitch, Klein is quick to highlight BLI and DFL’s various efforts to support the wider domestic game during the height of the pandemic. Actually getting out playing again appeared to have been only one part of a much bigger jigsaw.

In a show of solidarity, the DFL allocated some €7.5 million (US$8.4 million) for the men’s third-tier and women’s Frauen-Bundesliga, with a further €1.5 million (US$1.7 million) going to amateur soccer leagues in Germany. Added to that, the four Bundesliga teams competing in this season’s Uefa Champions League - Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen and RB Leipzig - created a €20 million (US$21.8 million) solidarity fund to support other league clubs, as well as those in the second-tier 2. Bundesliga.

The lockdown also saw an outpouring of content to appease fans searching for their Bundesliga fix.

Notably, the league’s partnership with gaming giant Electronic Arts (EA) saw the launch of the Bundesliga Home Challenge, an online FIFA tournament that pulled in an average of more than two million unique viewers over its run. It also saw 11 broadcast partners show the gaming competition across 103 territories.

The back catalogue was also prised open, offering what the Bundesliga calls ‘the world’s largest football archive’, providing 3,640 hours of footage during the lockdown. Subsequently, 2,318 broadcasts were aired in more than 100 countries. The league went on to enjoy the highest duration of broadcast hours compared to other elite European soccer leagues during its hiatus.

Cardboard fans were among the additions in empty stadia

“Towards the end of April, once we knew the break was going to be longer, we had to work actively with our partners, that was our biggest concern,” reflects Klein. “We had to find ways to service them because they still had programming grids. It was actually a very good test of the DFL as a media business.

“We created opportunities for players to interact from home, with some playing in the Bundesliga Home Challenge, others taking part in digital activations, and many engaging in interviews and round tables, which have worked very well. That’s something that will continue.

“People have had a time to step back, to think. One [thought] is, do you need to travel so much? The other is, can you use the internet better and all the tools that are available? That came to the fore.

“It was a difficult time for our partners but we managed to bridge the gap as well as possible, and they were getting some really good audience scores across their digital platforms and so on.

“It was a testing time, don't get me wrong. But it was one where Bundesliga International was able to prove the culture and philosophy we have, which is to work directly with our partners, engage them and try and find short-term solutions. We own the whole value chain (which includes production and archive) and our set up allows for flexible and creative solutions.”

Further activations took place at home and abroad. Once lockdown kicked in, Borussia Dortmund’s first digital viewing party notably attracted 2.9 million viewers in China, while clubs reached out to their communities to help tackle the health crisis.

Dortmund's Signal Iduna Park was used as a testing centre, while VfL Wolfsburg and their pharmacy partner Mickefett delivered 100,000 masks to their city. Eintract Frankfurt offered food delivery for club members within the area considered as a risk group, while FC Köln handed over 500 litres of disinfectant to the city’s Corona Committee.

Players got in on the act, too. Bayern Munich’s Leon Goretzka and Joshua Kimmich launched the donation initiative #WEKICKCORONA, which raised more than €4 million (US$4.5 million) for social and charitable institutions.

Crucially, the united front highlighted the Bundesliga’s inclusive, thorough response to Covid-19. It is no coincidence the solidarity on display during the pandemic’s peak - be it through BLI, the DFL or the German government - culminated in the competition being the first of the major European leagues to return.

It is an example Klein hopes other competitions can draw upon.

“It continues to be a testing time,” he says. “But, overall, to be able to have sports back on the screen and a potential blueprint that can be shared and adapted for individual sports and locations is very pleasing. It was really powerful to see players, clubs and partners coming together in a time of crisis to deliver top class football for fans around the world.”

Covid brought crisis management but you mustn’t forget about the future business.

With the domestic season wrapped up and Bayern Munich crowned Bundesliga champions for an eighth successive year, thoughts are now turning to the 2020/21 campaign, which is set to begin on 18th September. But the true extent of the pandemic's impact, particularly financially, on sports properties is still to be felt. As disheartening as that may seem, Klein believes the strong global reaction to the Bundesliga’s return stands it in good stead for the future.

“In the long-term, we remain the same and as ambitious as ever,” he asserts. “We will have to see what the impact is over the next 12 to 18 months. What we have definitely seen is that the appetite for live sports, and actually in its virtual version, is still very high.

“We’re in a [broadcast rights] sales period right now. There are territories in Asia, in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, and we will have to see how that pans out. The conversations we’ve had show there is a very strong interest in the Bundesliga.” 

This sentiment was echoed in September 2019, when the league struck a long-term media rights partnership with US broadcaster ESPN. That deal begins in time for the 2020/21 season and will help significantly increase the reported €220 million (US$248 million) the Bundesliga currently receives from its overseas rights deals each year. Perhaps, as Klein alluded to, there will soon be more reason for the league to be optimistic.

Looking further ahead, as leagues around the world pivot to combat the lingering legacy of the coronavirus, stakeholders are all too aware that the lessons learned during lockdown must be adhered to and, where necessary, adapted to stay afloat. Daunting though that may be, Klein boils the key components down to two simple aspects – acting early and working hard.

Bayern Munich won their eighth successive Bundesliga title in June

“You have to work hard to get concepts in place and work smart,” he says. “Recognise that you're in a two-step process. Covid brought crisis management but you mustn’t forget about the future business. So there was the crisis management, the immediate setting up of how to get out of this, and then also looking to the future, which is the restart and, in our case, now also the next season.

“We’re creating concepts around fans, re-entry to stadiums, how that can be done in a safe way, how soon can it be done, and creating the right schedule within a very tight calendar for next year. All the leagues will be starting later and, at the end, you've got Euro 2020, or Euro 2021 as it will be at that stage. You need to plan ahead.

“Within all of that, you have your broadcasters, you have your commercial partners, and they are invested and they want their return, and you must work with them. You need to manage those two streams in parallel and find the right time to implement the right resources. If you can get that focus right then you've got a chance for success.”

A sprinkling of German sensibility, he adds, wouldn’t go amiss either.

“You need some luck, as ever, and also strong, complex project management, which the Germans do very well.”