July 27, 2017

Ten Talking Points on the 2015/2016 Bundesliga Season Part 1

The Bundesliga’s 2015/2016 season is just about over, with only the second legs of the two promotion/relegation playoffs yet to come, with Bayern Munich doing the double by winning the Pokal on penalties Saturday.  As always, it’s been another great Bundesliga season, but these first three of these ten narratives explain the special flavor of German football during 2015/2016 and how the league will be influenced in the future.

10. FC Ingolstadt and SV Darmstadt 98 Survive

One of the marks of the just-concluded 2015/2016 Bundesliga season is that both clubs promoted from Bundesliga 2 last summer, FC Ingolstadt and SV Dardmstadt 98, survived their season in the top division to return next year.  Moreover, FCI has never played first-division football prior to this season, while Darmstadt have been absent from the first division for three decades and were playing in 3.Liga in 2013/2014.

Schuster knows his stuff
Schuster knows his stuff

The survival of Ingolstadt and Darmstadt is remarkable in that, in recent seasons, only one club without significant Bundesliga pedigree, FC Augsburg, have managed to climb up to Germany’s first division, and stay. FCA gained promotion following their 2010/2011 Bundesliga 2 campaign and have remained a first-division ever since, even breaching European competition this past year.  Otherwise, though, SpVgg Greuther Fürth, Fortuna Düsseldorf, Eintracht Braunschweig and SC Paderborn 07 have jumped up for a quick grab of the ring, given their fans glimmers of survival hope (F95 recorded five clean sheets in its first five 2012/2013 Bundesliga matches — though they won but two of those matches) only to be only shot down throughout the trials of a Bundesliga campaign and return immediately to the second division.  Only clubs with established first-division pedigrees, such as Hertha Berlin, Eintracht Frankfurt and 1.FC Koln have otherwise been able to earn promotion and stay up.  The last club prior to FCA to earn promotion and stay was Jurgen Klopp’s Mainz, who earned promotion following a second place finish in Bundesliga 2 during the 2008/2009 season.

For those who enjoy new clubs entering the league and staying, the work of Ingolstadt and Darmstadt have been a breath of fresh air, and they earned their keep without having to fret through the season’s last round of results, a fairly impressive achievement.  But for traditionalists, the survival of the Audi-powered FC Ingolstadt club, a “plastic’ club without lengthy tradition or a big fanbase that enjoys the advantage of outside financial resources contrary to the spirit of the Bundesliga’s 50+1 rule is nothing to celebrate.  And with the coming of next season’s promoted Leipzig side of Red Bull notoriety, five of the 18 Bundesliga clubs next season will carry the label of being a ‘plastic’ club.

Personally, I have empathy for the traditionalist take, but I can’t get behind it — it’s not a cause that makes me want to grab sword and shield and storm the stadium walls of the ‘plastic’ teams — Bayer Leverkusen, VfL Wolfsburg, TSG Hoffenheim, FC Ingolstadt and RB Leipzig.  My personal feeling is more in line with that of Max Regenhuber as expressed in his final RB Leipzig Watch article of the season.  Maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up as a Bundesliga fan, and thus the might and histories of the traditional clubs isn’t part of my Bundesilga DNA.  Maybe, because I’m an American grown up on American sports culture where certain teams (the NY Yankees, LA Lakers) have always had a competitive (financial) advantage and have been dominant for extended periods of time.  And maybe it’s because, with the exception of Wolfsburg’s 2008/2009 title, the plastic teams haven’t won much of anything.

Nevertheless, that takes nothing away from the work done by Dirk Schuster at Darmstadt and Ralph Hasenhüttl at FCI over the last few seasons.  Both clubs were tough to beat but offered enough in attack to gain the points needed, and well-deserve another year in the top flight.

Fox and the Bundesliga 

It was three longggggggggg seasons for American Bundesliga fans between the time that GolTV, the licensed carrier of Bundesliga matches in the U.S. disappeared from most satellite/cable networks until Fox began their inaugural season of Bundesliga coverage last August.  It was a difficult time to keep up with the league, and we’ve been salivating for the return of Bundesliga to our TV screens since the announcement of a licensing deal between Fox and the Bundesliga effecting the Americas and parts of Europe and Asia was announced in the fall of 2013.

Eric Wynalda and the Fanatic in Florida
Eric Wynalda and the Fanatic in Florida

Having the Bundesliga back on TV was a true joy, and overall I thought Fox did a good job presenting the league in the U.S. (I can only fairly comment on the product I see).  Their pregame studio shows featured individuals such as Ian Joy and Eric Wynalda who played in Germany and are fans of the Bundesliga, and that knowledge and excitement were evident.  I think some of us were disappointed in some of the commentary teams covering the matches — I’d have preferred more match commentary featuring the familiar voices of Phil Bonney, Gary Preston and Alan Fountain, but that is personal choice.  The in-game camera-work was superb.

Fox did fail in making a consistent home for the Bundesliga, though, week in and week out. Bundesliga matches weren’t treated as the priority that we fans feel is appropriate, and games were bumped in favor pf coverage of NASCAR, English FA Cup matches and a plethora of other contests that are part of the Fox sports package.  I had purchased the Fox Soccer 2 Go package, so I didn’t feel the pain so much, but it was aggravating to see our beloved Bundesliga often tossed around like a rag doll, coming up second to auto racing and mixed martial arts fighting.

But… to be fair, the Bundesliga TV ratings in the U.S. were consistently poor, and one can hardly fault Fox for choosing programming from which they’ll make more money.  It’s that simple.  The ratings for the late-season FC Ingolstadt-Bayern Munich match were third highest (approximately 500,000 viewers of the match carried on Fox over-the-air network) among the 37 professional club soccer matches aired that weekend in the US, but that number was the exception, unfortunately, rather than the rule.  More typical was the ratings gathered the week before by World Soccer Talk, where the highest rated Bundesliga match, the Bayer Leverkusen-Hertha Berlin fixture shown on both FS1 and Fox Deportes, was only 16th among the 40 soccer matches rated that weekend.  Some EPL, La Liga, Liga MX and MLS matches that weekend received higher ratings. (The Leverkusen-Hertha match drew 215,000 viewers while the weekend’s most-watched match in the U.S., Manchester United v Leicester City, drew over 900,000 viewers).

Whatever you deduce from the ratings and priorities of Fox and their Bundesliga property this season, what cannot be ignored is the absolutely horrid job that the Fox Soccer website did in covering the Bundesliga.  Given that this is Fox’ official soccer homesite, it is completely counterintuitive that the site paid so little attention to the league that cost Fox a small fortune for its foreign television licensing rights.

The coverage Fox Soccer gave to the Bundesliga was minimal, at best.  Just looking at the site earlier this past week, only one of the top 15 ‘Latest’ story headlines has anything at all to do with the Bundesliga…and that’s the story detailing how Manchester City is now interested in acquiring Schalke’s Leroy Sane.  This was with the Bundesliga relegation/playoff beginning and the Pokal Final between heavyweights Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund coming Saturday.  It would seem that those two items are newsworthy, and the Eintracht Frankfurt-1.FC Nurnberg relegation/playoff was being televised on Fox Sports 1.

So while Fox TV did a good job covering the league, their website did basically nothing to promote German football, the top domestic soccer league in their sports programming lineup.  As someone who scans many websites frequently to come up with Bundesliga news for our Twitter feed, the disparity between such news as provided by ESPN FC, the site of another sports network, and that of Fox Soccer, was huge — one would think it was ESPN who held the Bundesliga television rights in the U.S.  So, for me, it’s difficult to have a real understanding of the popularity of the Bundesliga on Fox when the company’s own website did practically nothing to promote the league.

Hopefully, a more unified approach between the Fox TV networks and it’s website to promote the Bundesliga will result in better ratings and a more consistent programming approach for the league next season.

8. Chicharito and the Introduction of Bundesliga Salsa

Javier Hernández Balcázar, the Mexican striker better known as “Chicharito” (the Little Pea), was an acclaimed player before the 2015/2016 season.  Very popular in Mexico because of his 43 goals in 80 matches for El Tri since 2009, his time at iconic club Chivas de Guadalajara, and his pedigree (both his father and maternal grandfather were Mexican internationals who featured in World Cup matches), Hernandez had carved out a niche for himself by having success overseas at Manchester United and while on loan at Real Madrid.

But Chicharito, who grew under the tutelage of Sir Alex Ferguson when he first arrived in England, had become less and less important after SAF’s retirement with the Red Devils. As the 2015/2016 season began, current Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal made it clear that the Mexican, who’d missed a PK in early season action, would not hold an important role in the Red Devil’s team.

But it was still a surprise when, on the last day of the summer transfer window, it was announced that Chicharito was making a permanent move to…..Bayer Leverkusen???  A Mexican striker in the Bundesliga???  Certainly, Mexican internationals had made some impact in German football, with Francisco ‘Maza’ Rodriguez featuring for VfB Stuttgart a few seasons back and El Tri veterans Ricardo Osorio and Pavel Pardo featuring for that club in their championship 2006/2007 season, but generally speaking Germany has not been a go-to destination for Mexican players, who frequently don’t play abroad because of the relatively high wages available in Mexican club football.  Players from Latin America have prospered in Germany, especially foreign record-goal scorer Claudio Pizarro of Peru and many players from Brazil and to a lesser extent, Argentina and Chile, but rarely has a Latin American player come onto the scene in such a manner, especially in the age of social media.

But Leverkusen Roger Schmidt was a great believer in the quality of the Mexican, and his faith paid off almost immediately.  Chicharito made his debut September 12 as a substitute in a loss against Darmstadt, and then started four days later in a Champions League tilt with BATE Borisov, scoring his first Leverkusen goal.  On September 23, the 27 year-old scored his first Bundesliga goal in a 1-0 win over Mainz, also earning himself Man of the Match honors.  A brace against AS Roma in Champions League play followed, as Chicharito scored five goals in six CL matches, not good enough for Leverkusen to advance from the group stage, but enough for the club to earn a Europa League spot for the new year.

And the goals continued as Chicharito ended the season with 17 goals in only 28 Bundesliga matches, along with another nine goals in a total of 12 Pokal and European matches combined.  He had his poacher goals, but as the season went on he showed his versatility, scoring three goals with his left foot, three with his head and 11 from his right foot on a variety of tap-ins, well-aimed curling shots and charges forward towards goal as Leverkusen overcame a injury-related drought to finish the season with seven wins in eight matches to capture the third berth in the Bundesliga table and the guarantee of Champions League football for yet another season.

And while his ability on the field was of the foremost importance to Leverkusen, according to team executive Michael Schade, there is no doubt that Leverkusen were the recipients of a new host of fans because of their popular Mexican star.  Supporters of El Tri fervently support their national team players, and Spanish-language sports channel Univision Deportes regularly televises league games of PSV Eindhoven and Porto, two European clubs that feature several Mexican stars.  Chicharito was constantly the focus of stories on the official Bundesliga website and the number of followers of Leverkusen social media increased beyond anyone’s estimate because of the success of Mexico’s favorite striker.

This is significant.  In reading financial reports on the Bundesliga, the league and its clubs are doing very well, but much of that success comes from a maximization of corporate sponsorships, not only in shirt sponsorships and stadium naming rights, but additional relationships maintained by individual clubs and corporate sponsors in the automotive, beverage, travel and other industries.  The only real path to continued revenue growth is overseas.

And that’s where Chicharito is a double-threat — on the pitch as a player of great quality and also in attracting interest in Bayer Leverkusen and the Bundesliga in particular.  It’s no coincidence that Leverkusen matches generally drew the highest viewership numbers in the United States, home of many El Tri supporters.  It’s no coincidence that Leverkusen jerseys were spotted in a country where they were rarely if ever seen before or that their social media following skyrocketed with Chicharito’s success.

In the aftermath of what Chicharito accomplished in 2015, Eintracht Frankfurt signed Chicharito’s former Chivas’ teammate, Marco Fabian, while FC Ingolstadt brought in Paraguayan international Dario Lezcano.  With American teenager Christian Pulisic working his way into Borussia Dortmund’s first team in the new year and others surely to follow, the Bundesliga is increasing its presence in the New World and winning new fans to the league.  It won’t happen overnight, but this influx of interested fans should certainly help the Bundesliga maintain successful revenue growth and help the league stay competitive in European football.  So we say thank you, Little Pea.

Cheering for Chicharito (photo by Liam Newberry)
Cheering for Chicharito (photo by Liam Newberry)

 

 

 

 

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Gerry Wittmann

Gerry is the founder of the Bundesliga Fanatic. Besides loving German football, he also enjoys the NBA, collecting jerseys and LPs, his pets and wishes he had more time for fishing, bicycling and learning the bass guitar.