Late last month, Spanish blogger Roberto Bayón published a fascinating chart. Sourced with the best available data—official statements and credible estimates—he compared the total television revenue, per club, in the five biggest European soccer leagues. It didn't take long for his findings to wind up on Reddit, where one commenter summed things up nicely: "Only Barca, Real and Juve earn more [in TV revenue] than QPR… That's sick!"
Yes, Queens Park Rangers, last season's worst Premier League club, is one of Europe's most lucrative teams, based on TV revenue. It made almost twice as much in TV revenue as German champions Bayern Munich (90.8 million Euros to 50.6 million Euros, respectively).
The question, How do we remain competitive? has become particularly vexing in Germany. Last season, the Premier League grossed about five times as much in television revenue—foreign and domestic—as the Bundesliga. Today, it's a tossup as to which league is the world's best, but with such a wide revenue gap, it won't be for long. Strategies for Germany to remain competitive could challenge the very foundation of how the Bundesliga operates.
Unfortunately for the Germans, the problem will get worse before it gets better. In 2016, the Premier League's new £5.136 billion pound, 3-year TV deal will come into effect. It represents a 71% increase over the league's current deal.
The idea that the Bundesliga can strike a similar deal is out of the question. "If you look at the German TV market, it will not be possible any time soon for the Bundesliga to sell its rights for that much money," Bundesliga CEO Christian Seifert told BILD, when the deal was announced.
The Bundesliga lags behind the Premier League because, for one, the English got a big jump on the rest of Europe's leagues when it came to overseas marketing, which it began in earnest when the EPL was formed in 1992. Growing a foreign fanbase has become a priority for the Bundesliga—the Germans recently opened a marketing office in the United States—but the league is at best a decade behind.
Language is another issue. There are an estimated 1.5 billion English speakers in the world, compared to about 185 million people who speak German. The ubiquity of English makes the Premier League a whole lot more accessible to global audiences.
But culture and history are the biggest hurdles. The Bundesliga is well known for its full stadia and its low matchday prices. On a whole, the league offer's Europe's most fan-friendly matchday experience. Tickets are inexpensive: in 2014, you could get a standing room ticket to Bayer Leverkusen for just 10 Euros. Teams don't gouge fans inside the stadium either. In Bundesliga stadiums, a half-liter of beer costs less than five Euros. (Imagine that at an NFL game!)
This is in stark contrast to the Premier League, where, despite the pile of money teams earn from television revenue, traditional fans have been "priced out" for some time.
Nevertheless, the Bundesliga has steadily moved toward more commercialization by further sanitizing the game-day experience, making it more corporate and family friendly.
What's holding the Bundesliga back from adopting the even more commercialized—and lucrative—English model, or something like it? The biggest obstacle is the famous 50+1 rule, which guarantees German clubs remain majority owned by club members rather than single entities and corporations. But as historian and columnist Uli Hesse wrote last December, the 50+1 rule is under threat. At VICE Sports, we've already written a couple of stories about Red Bull's method of circumventing the rule, which it's done successfully with RB Leipzig, a team currently in the 2nd Bundesliga. (With Red Bull's backing, RB Leipzig won't be in the lower division for long.) Hoffenheim has also been heavily criticized for working loopholes in the rule. Hesse speculates other teams might soon follow suit.
What's interesting is how little the Bundesliga has done to check Red Bull or Hoffenheim. What's to check? From the perspective of league administrators, more money is a good thing. Following that line of thinking, the 50+1 rule has become perhaps the most prominent factor standing in the way of the Bundesliga fully leveraging its commercial muscle.
"We need to have an honest discussion about [league revenue]," Seifert said late last year. "Are we prepared to head towards unpopular options in order to make sure that we can still attract the world's best players to the Bundesliga?"
The most unpopular option would be ditching the 50+1 rule. But there are other things the league can do to try and make up the revenue gap. There is talk of moving broadcast times to maximize viewership. And Bundesliga teams are already selling their players to the Premier League for inflated prices. But, barring a TV deal in the billions, the single quickest way the Bundesliga can reduce the revenue gap is to open the league to private investors.
Ditching 50+1 would be catastrophic from a fan's perspective, and changing the rule would so anger fans that it's probably not a realistic option. But with the money flooding the Premier League, don't expect Bundesliga officials to stand with the fans on the side of tradition. Tradition is important, but in a market as cutthroat and capitalist as that of world soccer, nothing's as important as money.