Has the “Pay TV Era” Been Bad for the Bundesliga?

Max Regenhuber argues that. contrary to conventional thinking, moving the Bundesliga to "pay TV" has been benefitted the league.

Waldstadion, March 2nd of 1991. Eintracht Frankfurt host 1.FC Kaiserslautern to kick off the 1990/91 Rückrunde to the tune of seven goals.

But that’s not the real reason why Frankfurt’s 4:3 win will forever be remembered as one of the most important games in German football history. What made this game so special, you ask? It happened to be the first ever Bundesliga match shown on a pay TV network and therefore marks the beginning of the “Pay TV Era”:

(Reinhold Beckmann welcomes viewers.)

Initially, the Bundesliga and German Pay TV provider “Premiere” didn’t even know whether Pay TV would work in Germany. So they agreed to do an 18 month trial period first. Since there weren’t many Pay TV decoders in German homes at that time, the network only paid 5.5 million Deutsche Mark (2.2 million Euros) for the broadcasting license.

Needless to say, Premiere’s “Topspiel der Woche” was a huge success. Premiere eventually upgraded from analogue to digital broadcasting standards and by the year 2000 every single first and second tier Bundesliga match was available in German homes. Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Network swallowed Premiere and it’s 2.3 million subscribers in 2009 and grew the user base to 5 million subscribers.

Today, Sky alone accounts for 80% of the Bundesliga’s domestic media revenue. This number alone illustrates how much influence Sky has gained around the league.

Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch pretty much owns European football.

Over the years, pay TV has become such a controversial topic in Germany, that it’s worth to take an honest look at the so called “good old days” and compare them to the “Pay TV Era.” To get an idea what Bundesliga football was like before Pay TV existed, the 1990/91 campaign, which initially kicked off without a Pay TV deal in place, seems to be a good place to start.

Pre-Pay TV Era

Germans Lothar Matthäus, Juergen Klinsmann, and Andreas Brehme all star in Serie A’s Internazionale Milan.

During the summer of 1990 die Mannschaft, won the World Cup in Italy thanks to a squad loaded with German all time greats. But when the Bundesliga season kicked off a few weeks later, many of the biggest names didn’t show up on Bundesliga team sheets. Thomas “Icke” Häßler (Juventus), Karl-Heinz “Air” Riedle (Lazio), Rudi Völler (Roma), Thomas Berthold (Roma), Andreas Brehme, Lothar Matthäus and Jürgen Klinsmann (all three played for Inter) had all taken their talents to Bella Italia before the World Cup.

The Serie A was so superior that Bayern star Stefan Effenberg chose to ditch Germany’s biggest club for Italian mid-table side Fiorentina.

Another batch of Germany’s finest players were headed south across the Alps within the following years: Stefan Effenberg (Fiorentina), Thomas Doll (Lazio), Jürgen Kohler, Stefan Reuter, Andreas Möller (all three Juventus) and Matthias Sammer (Inter) also earned Serie A minutes. Bundesliga clubs were so deprived of marketable stars, that a dedicated Serie A highlight show called “RANissimo” was a huge success on German TV.

Thus, Serie A had all the elite German stars, brand new World Cup 1990 stadiums, and frenetic Ultras. Fast time in Serie A. By contrast, German clubs lacked star power, played in run down 1974 World Cup concrete bowls and only a few Germans even knew what an “Ultra” was back then.

Just over 21.000 people attended Bundesliga games  on average during the 1990/91 season. Bayern Munich lead the league in attendance with 36.000 per game, but an embarrassing amount of seats remained empty in the 69.000 seater Olympiastadion. Bottom dwelling club Bayer 05 Uerdingen sold exactly 10,547 tickets per game and finished dead last in the 1991 attendance ranking. All in all, the Bundesliga was a tough sell.

Whether the “good old days” were superior to the “Pay TV Era” is open to debate. However, by the metrics of attendance and talent level, the the “good old days” don’t look so “good” in retrospect.

25 Years after the “Pay TV Era” Began

Let’s fast forward to 2017, a time when you can count the number of die Mannschaft key players that make a living abroad on one hand (Sami Khedira, Mesut Özil, Toni Kroos, Julian Draxler). Just two of Germany’s 2014 World Cup final starters were not under contract at a Bundesliga club (Özil, Miroslav Klose).

These days even the richest foreign clubs wouldn’t dare to inquire about Bayern’s star players, since Bayern isn’t selling anybody they want period. Dortmund (Marco Reus), Schalke (Benedikt Höwedes) or Bayer Leverkusen (Karim Bellarabi) now also have the financial means to hold on to elite players. Unless an offer comes in way above market value (Leroy Sane, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Heung Min Son), Bundesliga aren’t inclined to sell to anymore.

Pay TV channel Premiere in the 1990s. This network was later swallowed by Rupert Murdoch’s Sky network.

Even though many don’t like to admit it, you can argue that pay TV saved the Bundesliga, because once the Pay TV revenue started to pour in, suddenly all the “Italian mercenaries” came home. Bayern (Matthäus, Klinsmann), Dortmund (Riedle, Sammer, Möller, Kohler, Reuter), Leverkusen (Völler), HSV (Doll), Karlsruhe (Häßler) and Gladbach (Effenberg) all used their Pay TV income to restore some of the lost glory.

Eventually, the influx of die Mannschaft superstars during the mid-nineties kicked off a Bundesliga boom, which is still in full swing. Since the introduction of pay TV, attendance figures have skyrocketed to 41.000 per game (2017). But what about the lower leagues? Well, the present day 2.Bundesliga averages almost as many visitors (20.900) than the German top flight did in 1991. And you currently have three 3.Liga clubs (Magdeburg, Rostock, Duisburg) who have better attendance numbers than some 1.Bundesliga clubs had before Pay TV arrived.

There’s no denying that the pay TV money and its attendant popularity boom has also trickled down to the lower leagues.

This is the type of stadium a third division club like 1.FC Magdeburg is able to afford these days.

So from this perspective, the claim that pay TV “destroyed football” in Germany doesn’t seem particularly persuasive. However, detractors can point to the emergence of a new type fan, the so-called “couch potatoes,” as directly resulting from the pay TV boom in German football. Thus, detractors might continue to argue, that a conflict of interest is created between Pay TV viewers and stadium audiences.

Ultras vs. Couch Potatoes

Away travelers, like these urinating VfB Stuttgart supporters, were the ones negatively affected by the introduction of Pay TV.

In 1990/91 a typical Bundesliga Matchday consisted of two possible kick off times. Three games on Friday night, six games on Saturdays at 3.30pm. The high number of simultaneous Saturday kickoffs were very convenient for Bundesliga “road warriors”; on the other hand, this format limited pay TV subscribers to a maximum of two televised games per week. In the early years, pay TV had a pretty hard time in the German marketplace, since Premiere offered fans only 180 minutes of football per week, or 68 out of 306 possible Bundesliga matches per season — about 20% of Bundesliga matches.

Today, your typical Bundesliga matchday features five kick off times, which equals 450 minutes of football per week on pay TV. For away travelers, the new “Salami-Spieltag” (a game day split up like Salami slices) is a rough deal. Imagine you are an SC Freiburg supporter and your team plays away at Hertha Berlin (a 7 hour drive) on Sunday 5.30pm. You wouldn’t be home before 3am and then get up for work a couple of hours later.

Ultras and away travelers have plenty of reasons to complain, because they are the big losers of the Pay TV revolution. Thing is, those beautiful arenas and exciting players that Bundesliga clubs are now able to afford don’t come cheap. Since Bundesliga tickets are cost controlled by the clubs, it’s the commercial sports bars and Pay TV viewers that pay the lion’s share of the Bundesliga’s bills.

Your typical German Sky Sportsbar.

Take Schalke 04 for example: Die Knappen average 61.000 visitors per home game which is a massive, in fact it’s the seventh highest average in world football. Yet even those numbers pale in comparison to the 540.000 average viewers that follow Schalke on Sky. Keep in mind that German stores and businesses are closed on Sundays by law, so quite a few Germans have to work, conduct business or run errands on Saturdays.

Obviously it’s a tough call to make, but doesn’t it seem kinda reasonable to inconvenience a few thousand away travelers in favor of millions of pay TV subscribers and overseas fans? Since all but two Bundesliga clubs sell more that 90% of all available tickets, there aren’t any valid reasons to go back to the old matchday format. That’s just how the world works. Moreover the German “Ultra culture”, that didn’t exist in the early nineties, is Germany’s largest youth culture movement today.

It looks like the improvements pay TV has brought to the Bundesliga (better players, better stadiums) have attracted way more new Bundesliga fans than were scared away by the inconvenient kick off times. Honestly, if convenient kick off times are such a big deal, how come most of the Bundesliga stadiums were half-empty in the early nineties? The narrative that “Pay TV destroyed the Bundesliga” is therefore bogus.

Anybody who compares the Bundesliga of 1990/91 to its 2016/17 version, can’t deny that pay TV has brought a lot more to the table than it has taken off it.

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1 Comment

  1. I think the last sentence is a bit of a straw man in the sense that ALL of the big European leagues are better off than they were in 1990, due to a number of different factors.

    My fear is that we are in danger of losing a generation of fans as cord cutting continues apace. Even aside from that, kids in German homes without an expensive cable package get absolutely no exposure to top flight football. Maybe when they are older they will discover the sport and want to invest in ways to see it, but sure seems short sighted not to have occasional Bundesliga or Champions League matches on free TV.

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