×

How Germany's biggest soccer team hopes to expand in the US

One of the world's most famous soccer teams — FC Bayern Munich — wants to be a much bigger deal in the U.S.

Despite having some of the world's top players — including seven members of Germany's World Cup champion team — it faces a marketing challenge: American fans expect their favorite athletes to have a huge social media presence, something German teams aren't used to.

"We can learn a lot from other U.S. sports how they are doing their job in digital or in media," said Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, CEO of Bayern Munich. "We are not so arrogant [to] believe that we, our way is the one is the most successful. ... We have to respect the culture of the market. The culture is different in America than Germany."

The football club, which was valued at 2.153 billion Euros (or $2.41 billion) by KPMG in May, needs to enter two of the biggest markets, the U.S. and China, in order to expand, Rummenigge said.

There's plenty of opportunity. An estimated 24.5 million people play soccer in the U.S., according to FIFA World Football Big Count. This season will be the second time Germany's soccer league — Bundesliga — will be broadcast stateside as part of a multiyear deal with Fox.

But with young digital natives making up many potential fans, Rummenigge said Bayern Munich has to also embrace the digital world.

"I believe the younger generation is following our club differently than 10, 20 years ago, and we have to care about that fact," he said. "We have to follow the world. The world doesn't follow Bayern Munich. We have to do what the younger generation is requesting from the market."

In early August, Bayern Munich brought its official team presentation online by live-streaming the event on Facebook Live. It also expanded the focus outside of soccer, including lifestyle and entertainment branded segments that allowed fans to learn more about the team through other topics like e-gaming or fashion.

A few days earlier, the team announced a partnership with EA Sports to create more cross-marketing and co-branded content for "EA SPORTS FIFA 17." The deal will including gaming pods in Munich's home stadium, Allianz Arena, and fan and player videos for digital platforms.

The news followed Bayern Munich's participation in the U.S.-based Audi Summer Tour 2016, where the team took part in International Champions Cup exhibition matches. Bayern Munich played in Chicago, Charlotte, North Carolina, and East Rutherford, New Jersey, against international teams AC Milan, Inter Milan and Real Madrid, respectively.

"If you want to be at the pinnacle of world soccer — top three — to stay there is tough competition," said Joerg Wacker, executive board member for internalization for FC Bayern Munich. "You need the financial background to care about the players on the page.This is why we have the international strategy to optimize our revenue streams as well. Of course, getting connecting with our fans, building our fan base and building our brand [is important]. At the end, it's a circle where the strong brand has a positive influence on your revenue streams."

Jerome Boateng, Bayern Munich's star defender, said he applauded his Bayern Munich's move toward digital. In July 2015, Boateng became the first soccer player to sign to Roc Nation Sports, further exploring his expansion to the U.S. He said he's considering the possibility of playing in the U.S. in the future.

"It's an interesting market," he said. "The U.S. is a big country, and Germany is a small country. [Soccer] is really popular in Germany, and here it is just growing up."

Boateng said social media has made it easier for him to talk to fans. He was doing a signing session in his hometown of Berlin for JBL that hadn't been widely promoted. He decided to tweet about it to let his fans know, remembering what it was like as a kid and meet his favorite athletes.

"It's a small way to connect my fans with my life," he said.

But, moving to a more digital focus hasn't been a completely smooth transition for Bayern Munich. The team recognizes that while both German and American fans love soccer, what they expect from teams is completely different.

In February, the Munich soccer team's official U.S. Twitter account caused a minor controversy online. After finding out that the team would face off against rival Werder Bremen during the annual DFB-Pokal, otherwise known as the German Cup, it tweeted a gif of Beyonce doing a "bring it" hand sign along with the words "So, Bremen in the semifinals …"

Though it may be typical, lighthearted online behavior for U.S. sports teams, German fans were incensed at the gif. News reports claimed that Munich was "arrogant." Eventually Bayern Munich had to apologize.

"It's a culture thing in Germany," said Rudolf Vidal, managing director of Bayern Munich and head of U.S. operations. "Obviously we have offended some fans from other teams."

Boateng admitted that social media could sometimes get a bit much, especially with fans expecting access to him at all times. He also said there are things that he personally felt should be kept private, such as pictures of his kids. Negative comments could get caustic at times.

"I think everyone has his own opinion, but at some point, it's too much for me," he said. "If you post every hour, it's too much. I can't speak for everyone else, but for me, it's too much. You'd be on your phone the whole time."

Wacker described going to a Chicago White Sox-Cubs game and being surprised at the fact that although people were at the game, they were engrossed in other activities like drinking beer or watching other on-screen entertainment. At the stadium in Charlotte, Wacker noted the giant screens to show highlights. People were focusing on that instead of the actual field.

"If you watch a soccer game in Germany, you're focused on the game," he said. "You don't want to miss one second of what is going on there. ... We tried to learn and see what's better, what the people are doing here. Maybe we need to build a little more entertainment."

While these new lessons may be more pertinent to American fans, Wacker isn't ruling out bringing back some of these lessons to Munich.

"It's a new part of the business," Wacker said.