How Germany’s Bundesliga hopes to get more U.S. soccer fans’ attention
The home of many top American players is gambling on a move from Fox to ESPN that will put fewer games on TV, but make more games accessible online.
Andreas Heyden, head of digital operations for Germany’s Bundesliga, knows his league is fighting an uphill battle to capture soccer fans’ attention.
“1.5 billion people in the world speak English. 600 million people in the world speak Spanish,” he said in a recent interview with The Inquirer, compared to just 150 million German speakers worldwide. “Our competitors, the [English] Premier League and [Spain’s] La Liga, have an audience automatically with nearly half a billion potential fans.”
If you’ve watched Bundesliga games on Fox or Univision channels during the networks’ four-year run as rights holders, you might be surprised that Heyden is so pessimistic. Although not every game is televised, there are games regularly on Fox Sports 1 and UniMás, and even a handful on Fox’s main broadcast network.
The league has become the top destination for U.S. national team prospects moving to Europe, and has had a few big Mexican names, too. And if you’re looking for atmosphere and entertainment, the Bundesliga has long been at or near Europe’s top in attendance, decibel levels and goals per game.
But Heyden isn’t wrong. The Bundesliga has not broken through here in the way many hoped it would when the Fox deal began, bringing the league out of a long era of irrelevance on fringe channel GolTV.
Take the weekend of Nov. 9, for example, when there were four Bundesliga games on TV — including Bayern Munich-Borussia Dortmund, the league’s biggest game. Because of Fox’s college football commitments, the 12:30 p.m. ET kickoff on Nov. 9, a Saturday, was forced to lowly Fox Sports 2. Just 72,000 viewers tuned in, according to Nielsen.
At the same hour, the Leicester City-Arsenal Premier League game was on NBC’s broadcast channel, drawing 779,000 viewers. On Sunday, NBCSN drew 773,000 viewers for Liverpool-Manchester City, the two top title contenders (Telemundo drew a further 402,000 in Spanish), and the Seattle-Toronto MLS Cup final drew 1.2 million viewers across ABC (823,000) and Univision (447,000).
FS1 had three games over the weekend, including two with American players. None drew more than 51,000 viewers to the channel. Spanish-language figures on Fox Deportes and Univision’s TUDN were even smaller.
No wonder Bundesliga CEO Christian Seifert recently told SportBusiness.com that he’s “a little bit disappointed from Fox as a partner.”
So the league will try something different when the Fox deal ends after this season: a six-year deal with ESPN that will put almost all games exclusively online through subscription platform ESPN+. The network has agreed to air at least four games per season on linear TV, but that’s barely a drop in the bucket.
Losing linear TV exposure matters, even in an era of cord-cutting. But since TV ratings weren’t great to start with — and since ESPN+ will increase exposure to the rest of the league’s games — is this a net win, or not?
“If I would have to make a guess where the relevant audience for us can be found in the next six years, I definitely would go for ESPN, even though it would mean that yes, there aren’t [many] games on TV,” Heyden said. “Our guess is that ESPN is going to be attractive to the right audience.”
The Bundesliga also will keep up the things it has gotten right, starting with a satellite office in New York to lead the marketing push here. Many clubs have dramatically increased their English-language social-media content, with a specific eye on U.S. fans who want to follow American players.
“It’s easy to do some Halloween social-media post as a one off, which is funny. But to have this embedded in a local strategy, it’s a different cup of tea," Heyden said. "The Americas, with two languages, are one of our top markets in our approach.”
Most importantly, the Bundesliga wants to remain a major port of call for American players. England will likely always have the biggest allure, but Germany is often where prospects go abroad first. The cachet of being home to the next star works across all American sports, not just soccer.
“One of our bets is that a majority of American players in the World Cup in 2026 will have experience in the Bundesliga," Heyden said. “At a certain point in time, some players decide to move on, which is normal in football life. But many of them have an impressive footprint or have left an impressive footprint in the league, with [Christian] Pulisic the top the top guy there.”
Every Bundesliga club would love to have its own Pulisic, the Hershey native who became a star at Borussia Dortmund then moved to Chelsea this past summer. Five current U.S. national team starters play on Bundesliga clubs: Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen), Weston McKennie (Schalke 04), Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig), John Brooks (VfL Wolfsburg) and Coatesville native Zack Steffen (Fortuna Düsseldorf, on loan from Manchester City).
And there’s a new crop coming, led by 16-year-old Gio Reyna (Dortmund), son of U.S. legend Claudio Reyna; 18-year-old Ulysses Llanez (Wolfsburg); and 19-year-old Chris Richards (Bayern).