Donata Hopfen, the chief executive of the DFL, the German soccer league, insists the top-flight Bundesliga needs to be “more present” and “more creative” to grow its brand internationally and compete with other major leagues in Europe.

With the Bundesliga and second-tier Bundesliga 2 suffering a decrease in revenue of more than €1 billion ($999.1 million) over the last two seasons due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Hopfen has identified international expansion as a key area where German soccer can grow its revenue.

The DFL chief, who was appointed last year, believes the Bundesliga has failed to develop enough of a presence in global markets and is keen to increase its reach.

Speaking at the Leaders sport business conference in London yesterday (September 28), Hopfen said: “We are intensively looking at what other leagues are doing and how they are developing. In the international territories we are all competing for audiences and revenues, and there we have a big chance because in the international game we have not been as present or as strong market-wise and brand-wise.

“We have a lot of potential to close the gap there, I see us being among the top three leagues, and I want us to close the gap. We do have a big opportunity here to be more creative and also to be more present when internationalizing our Bundesliga story.

“We are in a time of change and transformation and trying out new things early on and being innovative. We have lots to win and little to lose so when it comes to digital and international, Bundesliga has potential and has chances to close the gap.”

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Hopfen continues: “The entire sphere is growing to become more international and media consumption can happen everywhere. Taking a global view on things is exactly the right thing to do.

“The Bundesliga has not been as present internationally. We have three rather small offices but a lot of potential to present our brand even more in the international markets.

“The competition is growing to be a global one, and the Bundesliga has huge potential to be even closer to fans worldwide than we have been now and that is what we are focusing on.”

Hopfen was named as the DFL’s first-ever female chief executive in August 2021, replacing Christian Seifert.

Prior to joining the DFL, she spent 14 years at German publishing group Axel Springer, which included a role as managing director of its media outlet Bild.

Having been in charge for just over 12 months, Hopfen reveals the challenges of leading the league are bigger than she envisaged.

She said: “When you become part of the system and look at things from the inside, some of the things do look different. When looking back now, the dimension of change within the industry, and the dimension of challenges we have ahead of us are just different from what I saw from the outside.

“Our spectators only came back to the stadiums in May. We played the entire last season almost without fans in the stadium, which obviously has a financial impact. We lost over €1 billion over the last two years just because of Covid.

“Covid has led to fast-changing audience behavior and the younger target groups are coming up and consuming very differently. The other leagues that we compete with – the Premier League, LaLiga, Ligue 1, and Serie A – have very different models when looking into capital foundation.

“LaLiga and Ligue 1 have injected capital, meanwhile, and what I see looking from the inside [is that] the entire business is changing, the transformation is actually taking place faster than I would probably have foreseen from the outside, and the chances that come out of this and the challenges that come with it are larger than I would probably have seen from the outside.”

Hopfen’s predecessor Seifert was of the view that German soccer would not necessarily benefit from changes to the 50+1 regulation that prevents outside investors from owning more than 50% of a Bundesliga club.

With Bayern Munich having won the Bundesliga title for the past 10 seasons, some clubs have been pressing for the relaxation of the 50+1 rule to attract additional funding.

The rule stipulates that members (ie fans) retain majority control of teams in the first and second divisions, and is intended to ensure that they remain close to their communities and are financially stable.

Hopfen believes the rule has its pros and cons but ultimately feels it is beneficial to have it in place to maintain the traditional values of the league.

She said: “[The 50+1 rule] is a real unique selling point for the Bundesliga – that all the clubs need to listen to their fans, be very close to them, and be aware of the fact that without the fans a lot of decisions simply cannot be taken.

“That’s something that will be an advantage even more going forward because we have seen a lot of other clubs where investors came in and then they changed things, and especially in the UK there have been some recent examples where I really question whether the tie to the fans is still as intense as it used to be.

“So, the heritage of tradition and close tie to society is a big pro on this one. Also, the fact that clubs can simply not be taken over by somebody is also a very sustainable model. In terms of sustainability, this will evolve to be a big advantage in the mid to long-term for the Bundesliga because we can simply not sell off our soul.”

On the cons of the model, she adds: “On the other hand, it's not as easy to get capital in or to copy other leagues and their behavior. When others are taking capital in, we need to find our own way to go in a comparable way but that’s a big chance now, to not just copy what others do but to maintain our tradition and still try to find new ways and manage the balancing act between being economically successful and still being very close to tradition and society and fandom.”

The DFL is reportedly looking to revive plans to sell a share of its television rights to a private equity firm and is preparing an auction process for potential investors to buy a minority stake in a new commercial subsidiary.

This is despite 36 clubs from Germany’s top two divisions voting in May 2021 to withdraw from talks with private equity groups that were looking to take a 25% stake in the international media rights over a 25-year period.

The proposal was reportedly voted down because around two-thirds of the 36 clubs felt they were in a strong enough position financially to be secure without the injection of extra funds.

The top German league is seeking to follow in the footsteps of Spain’s LaLiga and France’s Ligue 1, which both sold commercial stakes to CVC.

The DFL’s overseas rights revenue is projected to hit €480 million by the 2029-30 season, calculated as a rise of 8% each year.

Image: Marvin Ibo Guengoer – GES Sportfoto/Getty Images