At a media roundtable inside the RB Leipzig Training Center, Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber spoke at length about the growth of the US as a soccer market. In his view, the US is “the most valuable commercial market in the world,” with the country's “very large” sports consumer market providing a source of income for the sport globally.

German soccer’s top-tier Bundesliga has long been a home of young US talents with players such as national team captain Christian Pulisic and forward Gio Reyna all developing in the league. Bundesliga as such is broadcast in the US on national network ESPN, and the league holds an international office in the country, lending credence to Garber’s words.

Garber was visiting Leipzig after the club announced its first-ever US pre-season tour.  

RasenBallsport (RB) Leipzig is one of three global top-tier soccer teams owned by energy drinks and sports conglomerate Red Bull, with other locally named franchises in Brazil (Red Bull Bragantino), and in the US (New York Red Bulls), where RB Leipzig will be based on its tour of the country’s east coast.

Why tour the US?

Founded in May 2009, RB Leipzig is controversial in Germany, where domestic soccer is renowned for fan ownership and opposition to large corporate interests. According to the club, however, their global perception is different, claiming that its reputation in Germany doesn’t matter to international stakeholders.

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International expansion has worked well for Red Bull as a brand, particularly in the US where the franchise model of teams and more indentured corporate interests means there is less stigma around Red Bull’s association with soccer.

In bringing the German brand to the US audience, RB Leipzig has three main goals, which Johann Plenge, RB Leipzig's chief business officer (CBO), explained in an interview with GlobalData Sport (Sportcal): “Firstly, we want to approach and reach out to fans of our club. Secondly, it's important [to grow internationally] for our partners that we do have at the club. And thirdly, the US market is extremely important for the Bundesliga.”

Given Leipzig’s location, the links with Red Bull Salzburg over the German border in Austria are strong (Red Bull is the club's main sponsor, although is no longer a shareholder in the side), but Plenge also explained why the east coast of the US, not Austria or Brazil (where the most recently established Red Bull club plays), was chosen as a priority region for international expansion.

“The foreign country where we have the most fans following the story of RB Leipzig is the US, and then second place is Brazil,” Plenge outlined. “So, for now, we decided to go for the market where we have the most relevance. For the beverage business, the US market is the biggest globally.”

According to Plenge, among Bundesliga sides, RB Leipzig is the third most prominent club in the US in terms of views and social media engagement/impressions, making the country an attractive prospect for increased international presence.

“It’s an investment into the future,” Plenge said of RB Leipzig’s presence in the US, continuing: “It's a long-term investment because we want to reach more fans and also obviously want to do business with our partners that also have their commercial activities in the US.”

“We are very happy to also already have partners on board to support the journey and support it from a financial point of view.

RB Leipzig boasts global partnerships with the likes of bicycle brand Specialized and hotels and resorts chain IHG, both of which operate in the US, whilst also naturally having a similar number of domestic-focused partners. “I think you need a good balance of both,” Plenge says of the sponsorship mix.

“We want to have domestic partners who see RB Leipzig as a domestic platform for their commercial activities. But also there are the expectations of our partners [such as Leipzig and IHG] that see RB Leipzig as a valuable asset in the activation of their commercial plans in [not just] Germany, but also abroad.”

In Plenge’s eyes, the new US tour only boosts the club’s ability to capitalize on the latter set of sponsors. “Having the US tour ahead [means] we have a broader [sponsorship] inventory that we can offer an upsell to our partners,” he explained.

One prominent example is Puma, who will take over kit production duties for the club from the 2024-25 season onwards. Puma is a German brand with a global reputation and globally facing operations, making Leipzig’s tour an attractive prospect to activate in the major US market.

“We will definitely do a couple of activities together with [Puma],” Plenge stated. “They also have an office, and the big Puma store, in Manhattan, so there are several links that we will have with Puma. We will use them to leverage the tour and they are also eager to support us because for them it's a cool story, being the equipper supporting the first US tour ever for us.”

How the multi-club model aids international touring

Given the enhanced focus on the US for Leipzig, its New York Red Bulls (RBNY) sister club will naturally play a prominent role in ingratiating the German side with the US audience.

“They are experts in [the US] market,” Plenge says of the RBNY franchise, adding that the Red Bull conglomerate’s expansive and multi-faceted business will be another driver of any intercontinental success. “[There] is a big support that we are getting not just from the New York Red Bulls but from the Red Bull brand [as a whole].

“The [RBNY staff] are the experts that will help us to grow roots in the US. Furthermore, we have additional partners such as the Red Bull Media House that helps us to find the right approach to address the US sports fans. We have the Red Bull beverage brand that helps us. They have an office in Manhattan, we will also visit that and activate there with them.”

Red Bull's established corporate infrastructure in the country is a major boon for the club’s plans to integrate into the US market. Borussia Dortmund, one of the club’s closest rivals, recently opened its first office in the US, with the club’s managing director Carsten Kramer saying to a media roundtable days later: “In such a competitive market like the US where other sports are so successful, I think you have to be present in the market to get some feeling how the [soccer] culture is running.

“If you want to transfer a story from Germany to the US, you have to be present in the market, you can't just send messages from Germany or play a tour once a year and maybe produce some digital content.”

However, brief and poorly thought-out tours will not create a lasting impression on foreign soccer fans, Plenge states, explaining: “This is not a one-off, but we will constantly go to foreign markets and the US market is one of our most important. How this will develop depends on our performance.

“This depends on whether we'll be successful in offering something really unique. Because we don't want to be another European soccer club, going to the US, flying in, flying out, [only] playing two matches. We really want to be on the ground and we want to be present in Manhattan and the [RBNY] training facilities, giving the opportunity for soccer fans to see and feel and reach out to our club, and we do a good job there. That's a perfect platform for commercial success for our club and partners.”

How the US tour will aid the Bundesliga

As the Leipzig CBO mentioned previously, the US is also a major target market for the Bundesliga itself, and Leipzig’s commitments to growth in the country go hand in hand with the league in the club’s eyes.

“For the Bundesliga, the US market is the most important broadcasting market outside of Europe,” Plenge states. “We have the ESPN [broadcast] contract and it's expiring in 2026, so now's the right time to help convince ESPN that Bundesliga is a good product that should be distributed in the US.”

Of the Bundesliga’s total revenue mix in its 2022-23 accounts, broadcasting accounts for around 34% and although growing international broadcast numbers don’t immediately aid RB Leipzig, the club still takes a “high tide lifts all ships” approach in aiding Bundesliga growth in these new territories.

“It's not directly a benefit for us, it's a benefit for the Bundesliga and the commercial activities of the Bundesliga, broadcasting and foremost but also commercial partners,” Plenge said. “And then, through the distribution of Bundesliga revenues, we also participate in our own investment.”

That Leipzig’s strategy for the US extends over multiple years, even beyond the expiration of the current ESPN deal, is not a deterrent for Plenge, who hopes that the club’s appearances in the country can go some way towards growing the strength of the relationship between US broadcasters and the Bundesliga.

“We want to strengthen the fundament that is our international broadcasting revenues, especially compared to other, bigger, leagues in Europe,” he said. “There's a lot of room to grow, and with these kinds of pre-season tours, we're helping the whole league to grow.”

At home, the currently underway tender process for the Bundesliga’s domestic TV deal is experiencing major turbulence with OTT broadcaster DAZN halting the process while accusing the DFL body of violating competition laws with the auction.

DAZN has threatened legal action against the DFL over the domestic tender, but Plenge does not foresee the issue affecting international rights deals the league seeks to strike, stating: “We are 100% confident that we will have a good result in the domestic tender, we have full trust in the DFL management.”

Whether or not the growth of the Bundesliga’s presence abroad can help to insulate its clubs from such shocks remains to be seen. However, seeing its teams commit to the international outreach that has long been the preserve of sides in richer competitions such as England’s Premier League, will no less be an enticing prospect for the commercial future of German soccer.