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Opinion | A guide for the NFL, NBA and NHL to win big in Germany

Maximilian Baier, client manager at Mailman Group, explains how US sports properties can use digital innovation and local understanding to make big gains in the increasingly valuable German market.

by Maximilian Baier
Opinion | A guide for the NFL, NBA and NHL to win big in Germany

Let me start by sharing a personal story.

We literally bled for our club to save it from bankruptcy, we built our stadium with our own bare hands, we own this stadium and the club itself. We are the members and fans of my hometown team Union Berlin, who went from playing in Germany’s fourth division 14 years ago to successfully competing in our first-ever Bundesliga season.

A historically anti-establishment club, today stands against the modern highly commercialised soccer. Inside our stadium, we like to stand, wave our flags, shout, drink beer, eat Bratwurst (and confirm your German stereotypes). Sport and fans are our entertainment, we do not need anything external.

Why am I telling this story? Because it is an extreme portrayal of the traditional, now changing, German standpoint towards pro sports and is very different to the US. A German sports fan believes in values such as authenticity and the integrity of a sports brand. From the people, for the people.

However, especially amongst younger audiences, there is a growing acceptance towards the commercialisation of sports properties. New clubs like RB Leipzig go in a very different commercial direction, and are finding success. The club grew their social media following by 59 per cent across Twitter, Facebook and  Instagram during the last Bundesliga season, even prior to their successful Uefa Champions League 'final eight' campaign. That level of growth was more than any other German club in the same period.

The opportunity

Germans connect with sports like they do with their friendships - they only have a few that change rarely, they are deep-rooted and stay for life. The same goes for sport. Germans overall only know one sport, soccer. It dominates everything and is very different from England or the US where people follow several sports regularly. This is changing amongst Germans in Generation Y and Z, who are increasingly becoming ‘sports fans’, opening their hearts and pockets for US sports brands to conquer.

The growing audience for US sports in Germany is mainly a result of the Americanisation of culture via the internet or an increased willingness among younger generations to travel compared to their predecessors. Combined with better language abilities, exposure to the American market and therefore affection for one of its key entertainment products, sport, seems natural. In 2020, the National Basketball Association (NBA), National Football League (NFL) and National Hockey League (NHL), as well as challenger sports such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), are all bullish about winning over Germany, seizing the opportunity mainly via digital communication. This is shown by the increasing amount and quality of German speaking content on the NHL’s account, which saw video views double and a 65 per cent increase in engagement.

There is an opportunity for US sport brands, especially with the recent uncertainties around the relationship between the US and China, America's number one international market. This puts Europe more in the spotlight for US properties, especially Germany as it is Europe’s most populated country and the world’s fourth largest economy.

US sport in Germany is mainly about consumption rather than participation. People watch football, ice hockey or baseball more than they play. Passive sports consumption is still a huge and growing market with annual revenues currently of €26 billion (US$30.6 billion), meaning that the average German spends €371 (US$436) per year on passive sport consumption (excluding those under 16).

Leagues and teams active in Germany will be able to offer more international media value for existing sponsors and potential new local ones (see Mercedes investment in Atalanta). The German market also offers opportunities for additional broadcasting revenue for rights holders, given the country's total media and broadcasting expenditure is €4 billion (US$4.7 billion). The German sports industry makes second highest percentage contribution to GDP in Europe.

The first property to actively start unlocking this potential through the past decade has been the NFL. In 2014, the Super Bowl saw a 42 per cent audience increase from the previous year's 950,000 viewers to reach more than double that figure in 2020 by bringing in 1.9 million. The Super Bowl has become an increasingly mass phenomenon in the under 35 age group. The regular season's growing core fanbase came in with the ProSieben broadcasting deal in 2015, which put the games on free-to-air (FTA), a contract which has just been extended.

ProSieben's NFL broadcasts can now score a TV market share of up to ten per cent, with more than 600,000 viewers tuning in. The real hook for the NFL was that its broadcast partner managed to popularise a whole sport to a generation of Germans by taking an innovative approach to community building, with now more than one million followers across its related digital channels.

For the NHL, ice hockey offers many opportunities in Germany. It is the most deeply culturally rooted US sport of the three, with an older but also wealthier target audience. Winter sports are very popular in Germany, giving ice hockey a lot of attention, especially during the Winter Olympics. Germany previously held the world record for the highest attendance at an ice hockey match, with more than 77,000 people watching the 2010 IIHF World Championship as the national team beat the US in overtime. What Germans love about ice hockey, is that the stadium experience and vibe is the closest thing to soccer, as described earlier.

The NBA has historically had the most attention of the three leagues in Germany. After the Michael Jordan hype in the 1990s, Dirk Nowitzki brought the league into every household, as he became Germany’s Yao Ming. The Dallas Mavericks therefore have arguably the biggest following of any US team in Germany and with Maxi Kleber on the books they already have a new potential German star lined up.

Nowitski represents his sport like no other individual in Germany. He has helped build a local core fan community that follows the NBA. Basketball feels for most Germans the most familiar, with most having played it, they understand the basic rules and appreciate the athleticism of the players.

The recent acquisitions by DAZN of the Uefa Champions League and Bundesliga soccer rights for its German service will further elevate the chances of US sports tapping into more casual sport fans, as the majority of NFL and NBA games are also on the over-the-top (OTT) platform. DAZN will see a significant increase in subscribers in the next two years, which will likely increase viewership of second-tier sports.

The challenge

Despite the recent growth, US sports can still be considered niche in Germany, even in the target group of men under 35. This is for several reasons: physical location; time difference; soccer's dominance and a conservative national mindset.

Bringing regular season games to Germany, digital activation and increased exposure on free-to-air TV will help but battling soccer and an innate conservatism is harder.

In order to achieve their commercial goals, US rights holders need to tap into one-on-one communication with the German fans, sparking their interest and growing a community. Currently, only four NFL teams have German accounts and there are none in the NBA or NHL.

Each of the three big sports that want to enter the market also have specific challenges.

While the NFL is the fastest growing amongst the younger audience, its difficult rules are a barrier and Germans are not used to a game with so many breaks. The players are also harder to resonate with because they wear helmets. Germany might arguably be the biggest football market in Europe, but it is still very much a pure consumer rather than a participator sport.

For the NHL, it has to deal with a strong domestic product. Ice hockey is Germany’s third most popular team sport, but this is mainly due to the popularity of the DEL, which the draws the third highest attendances for any ice hockey league in the world. Clubs like Eisbaären Berlin have an average attendance of more than 13,000, which is close to the NHL average. A key factor for success for the NHL will be the collaboration with these local teams and communities.

Standing in front of the NBA is the strong foothold established by the domestic basketball competition and EuroLeague, which two German teams currently compete in. However, basically every German basketball fan has an NBA team. One issue for the NBA is the irrelevance of the regular season to German fans. Outside of the hardcore, most followers are only focused on the playoffs.

How to succeed

1. Be clear about your value proposition in the market. What’s your story?

First of all, brands must identify the right strategy before entering the market and understand the people they want to win. The majority of the target audience of US sport brands in Germany are males between the age of 16 and 35. This generation cares about values, a sense of belonging and the integrity of brands that they support. They want to be part of the journey of the brand and product. The brands they consume are what defines them. This is key to consider when thinking about what it takes to grow a community.

For example, Paris Saint-Germain managed to win over more young fans recently in Germany by positioning themselves as an urban culture brand and with social media influencers. With German hip hop heavily inspired and influenced by its French counterpart, the club were in a unique position to win over a young and very diverse group. The club have since opened their own academy in Germany.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, the Alba Berlin basketball team launched an education and sport crossover video series, gaining as much as 1.7 million views per video, specifically targeting parents by supporting them during difficult times. Germans see sport brands as an integral part of the community that are expected to give back.

Borussia Dortmund took a very different approach to winning fans over in China, where the fundamental appeal is similar as it is for US brands in Germany. By building a fan-centric app on the WeChat platform, the club were able to provide a digital community space where fans could share their experiences, organise events and regularly interact live with Dortmund stars. The club's fan-first identity translates organically to other markets and allows for people to come together.

All of the above are reasonable approaches to go about growing in an international market, with a very different target audience each. Germans generally have no cultural, family-related or regional connection to US sports. In order to win over fans, brands have to understand the market's unique features, the mindset of the people and how it fits with your own brand. Then double down to go all in on your target audience.

2. Choose the right platform for you

The right choice of platform and strategic approach is key to success of digital communication.

Instagram is the fastest growing major social media platform in Germany, specifically in the key sub-35 target audience for US sports. The NFL, four of its teams and the NHL have recognised this already with dedicated German speaking accounts on Instagram. If we are looking at a fan funnel, Instagram would sit right on top, with the potential to not only engage existing fans in their natural environment but also reach potential new ones.

Twitter is a niche platform in Germany with an older audience compared to Instagram. However, its users are generally better educated and usually more internationally minded, making it interesting for US brands. The existing core audience of teams will also already be active here in order to follow the official news of the teams via their English-language channels. However, those users are not generally active on the platform. Twitter can be effective, but is not an essential social platform for sports properties in Germany.

Facebook is still the social media platform with the most users in Germany, but under 35s only very rarely still actively use it. What Facebook is increasingly becoming for properties is a closed group community activator. Facebook groups now build the bottom of the fan funnel, prior to commercialising, and is home to the most dedicated community.

TikTok is fast-emerging as a platform for young audiences and all three US major league properties have big potential for success there due to its spectacular playing style and the emotional storytelling ability. To really succeed on TikTok, it is key to jump on to local challenges, music and trends. Hence, it would make sense to be an early mover and think about a standalone German TikTok account.

Podcasts are a very untapped opportunity for US properties in Germany. According to the latest figures, one in three Germans are now listening to podcasts and for the those aged between 16 and 29 that figure reaches 40 per cent. Spotify's sports podcasts top charts have six football-related podcasts in the top 30. Ad revenue for podcasts has also doubled in the past two years. Major US sports properties should certainly be considering German-language podcasts.

3. Original content with local stories

Most US sports fans in Germany are young, they have a very good level of English. If you want to resonate with them, it is not just about conquering the language barrier, but also about the stories you tell. Output should focus less on translating global content for the market, but rather on creating original pieces from local German editors, that understand tone of voice, interests and trends in the market.

Local hero stories of Mark Nzeocha in the NFL, Nowitzki in the NBA and Leon Draisaitl in the NHL are drivers of awareness to hook a potential audience for the sport. After gaining initial interest, how do you convert this into a regular audience? This has to be done via consistent engagement, with hyperlocal communication essential in order to succeed and resonate.

For example, the top-performing post on the Minnesota Vikings' German Twitter channel last season was Stephen Weatherly trying to speak German by giving shout outs to German fans. What’s more, all five of the account’s top performing posts from last season were either German subtitled videos or featured German language-specific graphics. You need a local team and expertise to support you.

4. Activate and grow your community

Similar to what soccer is in China, US sports are for young Germans. It is a platform and community to stand out from their parent's generation and other people in their network. Fans of US sports fast build a sense of belonging when they are able to discuss their passion with others, as it is still a niche environment and allows them to create a deep relationship into that community. This is a key motivator for a generation that is often lacking this community feeling, on or offline.

This community feeling can be translated into the digital space. The success of the NFL shows that community work should be the most integral part of any German strategy. ProSieben's Ran NFL actively integrates its Twitter feed and fans into the live show, which is why that platform works so well for the NFL in Germany. 

That is even more effective in Facebook groups. As mentioned, they are an integral part of a core community action now. For example, during last season’s NFL playoffs the Minnesota Vikings's global account ran a campaign called '#GoGetIt' - which the German account localised by asking for photos of followers to show their support in the Facebook group. They then used those images to create a collage spelling #GoGetIt across their Instagram, Twitter and Facebook Group channels. That post is the team’s third most engaging post of all time on Instagram.

The NBA has doubled down on this approach further by forming an on-the-ground community around its Junior NBA branch in Hamburg in 2020.

5. Build a membership scheme

Germans spend  €1.3 billion annually on club memberships and donations. The concept of ‘membership’ is deeply rooted into the German club system and is something that strongly appeals to fans. Five of the top seven sports teams with the most members are German and soccer giants Bayern Munich are the sports team with the most in the world, counting approximately 300,000 amongst their number.

Sports properties will have to start to think how they can build international membership schemes and provide value to these members, as they are unlikely to ever attend a live game of their favorite team. Exclusive content, product and fan events will all feed into this.

Drilling down, membership products could even be created via different hyper local Facebook groups, for specific cities or regions, as the German concept of pride can rather be described as regional rather than national. From here, the next step would be to establish an international digital product where users can chat in forums about the latest news, organise viewing parties and watch exclusive fan-focused content.

Lastly, be patient and consistent. We Germans always take long to adapt to anything new. But when we do, we go all in. The opportunity is big, but the challenge is too.

Mailman Global Group includes the Mailman digital sports agency in China as well as Seven League, a European-based digital sports agency and consultancy.