Bratwurst and Beer
German Football Struggles to Keep Up with Premier League Glitz
There is a football that, figuratively speaking, is worth 59 million euros. For the past several years, the marketers of the Premier League have been selling a sporting goods manufacturer the rights to provide the official "match ball" for the English league's games. For quite some time, that contract has gone to Nike. And in September 2017, the company offered 59 million euros -- that's not a typo -- for the right to have Manchester, Liverpool, FC Chelsea and the others to use a Nike ball until 2025.
If you add to that the value of some of the feet that will be kicking the "match ball" in the Premier League, you start to get an idea of the vast amount of money that is involved in the upper echelons of English football. They include Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba, whose transfer fee is 105 million euros and earns an annual salary of 17.2 million euros. Or Liverpool FC center-back Virgil van Dijk: transfer fee 78.8 million, annual salary 9.8 million. And Kevin De Bruyne of Manchester City: transfer fee 76 million, salary 19 million.
The list goes on and on.
Over the next few weeks, teams from Germany's top league, the Bundesliga, will be competing against top Premier League clubs in the Champions League Round of 16. FC Bayern are set to play against FC Liverpool and Schalke 04 are up against Manchester City. On Wednesday, Tottenham defeated Dortmund in the first leg of their match 3:0. Are they still battles among equals?
The Premier League is the most dazzling product in international soccer -- perfectly staged and marketed globally. Manchester United play friendlies in the United States in front of 100,000 spectators, while Arsenal promotes tourism to Rwanda on the sleeves of its jerseys. Four Premier League clubs have advertising with Chinese characters on their shirts.
Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba: a transfer fee of 105 million euros and an annual salary of 17.2 million euros
In no other place is as much money spent on the sport -- and nowhere else is the density of top players and coaches higher. There is no other league that plays as "intense," enthuses German national team player Antonio Rüdiger, who has been a defender at Chelsea FC since 2017. Almost every match is a spectacle. In Rüdiger's view, Germany's Bundesliga is no match.
Should Dortmund, Schalke and FC Bayern be eliminated by the English teams, which is in no way unlikely, experts will once again demand that professional football in Germany take its example from the Premier League in order to remain competitive internationally.
Team Rosters More Expensive than a New Hospital
But would that be the right direction to take? Clubs run by investors whose companies are registered in the Cayman Islands? Team rosters that are more expensive than a new hospital? Executives who don't even shy away from taking money from the children to escort the professional players onto the pitch before kickoff?
Yes, 11 Premier League clubs actually do that, as the BBC reported in January. FC Everton charges up to 799 euros per child, West Ham United 779 and Leicester City 668. Is that really the kind of thing Germany wants or needs?
It's a Friday in early February, and the streets in eastern Manchester are covered with frost. At the entrance to the Manchester City training center, which is covered by green privacy tarps, autograph hunters are already waiting for the players early in the morning. Brazilian player Fernandinho arrives in a dark Mercedes, Kevin de Bruyne in a Range Rover and German national-team player Leroy Sané in a white Bentley with a German license plate. The players stop in front of a gray gate. It opens, they drive through and it closes again. There's nothing more to see.
The grounds of large Premier League clubs are restricted areas for fans and the media. There are none of the kind of public training sessions that are standard at German professional clubs. If you want to see the heroes, you'll have to buy a ticket to a match.
Good seats at Arsenal cost 111 euros, 109 at Tottenham, 99 at FC Chelsea and 66 at Manchester City. For its Champions League match against Schalke, Manchester City is charging between 80 and 300 euros for tickets.
Dietmar Hamann is sitting in a restaurant located across from Munich's opera house noshing on grilled bratwurst and sauerkraut. The former German national-team member transferred from FC Bayern Munich to the Premier League in 1998, going on to win the 2005 Champions League with FC Liverpool before playing for Manchester City from 2006 to 2009. After his career, the Bavarian stayed in Britain, saying that the people and the British humor were a good fit for him. The threat of Brexit prompted his decision to move back to Munich a year ago.
Hamann is a fan of Premier League football and admires the development of Manchester City, a club that was playing in the third league in 1998 but has now become a team with realistic aspirations of winning the Champions League. Hamann describes it as a "success story." At the same time, he is also amazed by the billions of pounds that have fueled the development.
Mountains of Money
English professional clubs draw their strength from the mountains of money at their disposal. The Premier League earns 6.9 billion euros on TV rights for a period of three years. By comparison, the Bundesliga receives 4.6 billion for a period of four years. Even a small club like Bournemouth, currently in 11th place, was able to invest 90 million euros in its team this season, three times more than FSV Mainz, which is 11th in the Bundesliga.
Professional players in England earn on average around 65,000 euros a week. Salary levels at Manchester City are even higher. Last season, the club received 171 million euros from the sale of TV rights, and if even that isn't enough to cover transfers and salaries, Manchester City can count on additional funding from its investors. In 2008, a sheikh from Abu Dhabi acquired the club in northern England and proceeded over the course of several years to regularly break UEFA rules aimed at limiting the amount of money investors could pump into their clubs. Ultimately, Abu Dhabi would invest more than 2 billion euros into his project.
Manchester City now has a team comprised almost entirely of world-class players, coached by Pep Guardiola, widely considered the best trainer in the sport. Its academy is bursting with top youth talent from around the world.
The club is really more of an entertainment company than a football club. It has franchises on five continents and a staff of directors developing ideas on how the club can earn even more with the Manchester City brand. The team has opened up a restaurant in the belly of its Etihad Stadium, not unlike a zoo, with guests able to look through a glass wall into the tunnel where players gather just before taking the field for a match. The place is packed.
Manchester City -- together with Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea FC and Liverpool FC -- are among the Top Six financially strongest clubs in the Premier League. Documents that are part of trove of data DER SPIEGEL obtained from the whistleblower platform Football Leaks show how the Top Six teams exchange information among each other and how they coordinate their votes on league issues. "Just to ensure we are all on same page," Manchester United CEO Ed Woodward wrote, for example, in a November 2015 message to his partners, "Plan A get vote pushed ... plan B vote against it as a block."
The Top Six operate like a cartel. "It would be misleading to claim that the most attractive thing about the Premier League is a competitive balance," City Managing Director Ferran Soriano is quoted as saying in meeting notes from 2017. "In fact, it may be that the most attractive aspects of any league are its ability to attract truly elite, world class players."
They're expensive, but the Top Six have got the money. Part of the total sum of the TV licensing revenues is distributed according to where a club is in the standings and its television presence. The Top Six teams usually collect the most.
Quite rightly, as one FC Liverpool negotiator notes in one set of minutes of the negotiating proceedings. Because the top teams create such high value for the Premier League, they should also earn a larger share of the money, he said, according to the minutes. A representative of FC Southampton replied: "Are the 'Top Six' clubs 'lucky' to be playing in a competitive League with the remaining 14 or are the remaining 14 'lucky' to be playing in a League with the 'Top Six' clubs?"
It's very difficult to conceive of Manchester City getting knocked out in the Round of 16 against Schalke 04. A few days ago, Schalke CEO Christian Heidel watched Manchester's 6:0 victory over FC Chelsea on television and says it almost made him dizzy.
From his office window, Heidel has a view out over a large construction site, where the club is currently rebuilding its training grounds. It will have nine pitches, along with new offices and a new training center for the players.
Schalke generates some of the most revenues of any club in the world. And thanks to its participation in the Champions League, the club has generated record revenues this year. "Even so, we don't even come close to playing in the same league as Manchester City," says Heidel.
In summer 2016, the English team bought Leroy Sané, groomed as a professional player at Schalke, for around 50 million euros. In January, Heidel signed 18-year-old striker Rabbi Matondo from Manchester's youth academy, who was never able to break through in Guardiola's system. If the young player develops well at Schalke, Manchester has an option to buy him back.
Such is the situation. From the perspective of Manchester City, FC Schalke 04 is little more than a talent supplier.
Schalke management is also focused on trying to earn as much money as possible with football. The club charges a premium for Champions League matches, it does all it can to market its mining-town image and its main sponsor is controversial Russian energy supplier Gazprom.
What Can Football Offer to Society?
But the importance of football in Germany is not only measured by how many European Cup matches the professional clubs win or how high the Bundesliga's ratings are in Asia. It's also measured by what the highly professionalized sport still has to offer to society.
Players at the football corporation known as FC Bayern, which generates more revenues than Manchester City, are required to visit fan clubs once a year. Spectators in wheelchairs are provided with front-row access to Bayern Munich's public training sessions. During the holiday periods, as many as 2,000 spectators turn out to watch the pros at Schalke as they train. The players sometimes need up to half-an-hour just to work their way through the crowd of autograph collectors on their way to the locker room.
The fans are the bedrock of football in Germany. Every year, 10,000 people stream into the stadium for the annual membership meeting of Schalke 04. Heidel says that people are devoted to the club because it offers them a kind of home and says that he can't just jack tickets up to astronomical prices because people would storm club headquarters. "People see this club as a community. It belongs to everyone."
In England, too, football remains a sport for the everyman, but they can no longer be found in the stadium watching their club play. Rather, they watch from the confines of their favorite pub, assuming the proprietor can afford the expensive Pay TV subscription.
The live audiences at Premier League matches have been quietly replaced in recent years. There is no longer any standing room in the stadiums and the stands tend to be full of well-off fans who are able to afford the expensive tickets -- along with tourists from Asia, the U.S. and the Middle East, who view an Arsenal home match as a must-see tourist sight not unlike a visit to Buckingham Palace.
The view of football in England has been romanticized in a way that has little to do with the day-to-day reality. The legendary atmosphere in the stadiums in Liverpool or Manchester can only really be experienced anymore during top matches. Otherwise, it is rather "dull," says Dieter Hamann.
There are several pubs surrounding the FC Liverpool stadium on Anfield Road. Just before a match against Crystal Palace, the windows of The Albert are completely fogged up and the chants can be heard from out on the street: "Oh, when the Reds go marching in!" But during the match, it is sometimes so quiet inside the stadium that you can hear the players shouting and Liverpool trainer Jürgen Klopp yelling instructions from the sideline all the way up in the stands.
A mural of Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp: "I turned around and I felt pretty alone at this moment."
Following his first defeat as the coach of Liverpool, Klopp complained that many fans had left the stadium 10 minutes before the final whistle. "I turned around and I felt pretty alone at this moment," he said after the match. Since then, more fans have tended to stay until the very end.
Alienated from the Community
Jay McKenna, head of the fan organization Spirit of Shankly, is sitting in a hall on the first floor of the Tia Hotel. On game days, it's a popular place for fans to meet up and it is just a five-minute walk from the stadium. "As Liverpool fans, we believe we are a bit closer to our club. It reflects the culture and values of our city. Just like our city, it had to go through some hard times. The club and the people of Liverpool keep together," McKenna says.
But he admits to a belief that the top teams in English football are increasingly becoming alienated from the "community." "Liverpool could do more too," he says. His season ticket costs around 800 pounds, a lot of money.
Three years ago, fans in Liverpool even held a demonstration to protest elevated ticket prices. During a match against AFC Sunderland, fans left the stadium while chanting: "You greedy bastards, enough is enough!"
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Then-Premier League Executive Chairman Richard Scudamore sought to negotiate with club representatives to put a 30-pound cap on ticket prices for away fans, which proved to be a difficult undertaking. In an email from the Football Leaks trove of data, Scudamore appealed to morality: "No amount of charity giving or the deployment of slick PR can make up for the reputation we have garnered, fairly or unfairly, in the court of public opinion, of being greedy bastards and not giving two hoots for the fans."
The head of Tottenham Hotspur, Daniel Levy, wrote to the "Top 6": "Happy to do a call with us 6 (...) I personally hate the idea."
Scudamore warned the clubs that many politicians supported the fans' desire for more affordable tickets. Parliamentarians, he said, had made clear to him that they expected him to do something "meaningful."
In 2016, UK communications regulator Ofcom analyzed the Premier League's television marketing model. Scudamore was apparently concerned that the audit could lead to disadvantageous results if the clubs did not make concessions to their fans.
Referring to the issue of ticket-price caps, he wrote that he could "certainly use it directly with government ministers who can directly influence Ofcom opinion." He went on: "I need to be careful what I put in an email but you understand."
The cap got introduced and, five months later, Ofcom closed its investigation. In response to a query from DER SPIEGEL, the regulator said that the investigation was not focused on ticket prices and that the agency is independent, impartial and free of political influence. The Premier League did not comment on questions posed by DER SPIEGEL.
The Stuff of Fans' Nightmares
In the strategic considerations of Premier League clubs, the fans only really play a role if they contribute in some way to commercial success. Two years ago, Manchester City carried out an analysis to determine how the league could market itself more successfully, and the resulting paper is packed full of the kinds of ideas that give traditional Bundesliga fans nightmares: scheduling matches at times that are more convenient for fans in Asia; playing matches in foreign countries; getting rid of relegation.
But the document also contained a surprise: the introduction of "safe standing," an idea meant to address the lack of atmosphere at many Premier League matches. It was a recognition that games played in quiet stadiums aren't good for the product. To illustrate the effect of standing room on the atmosphere in the stadium, the paper's authors included a photo of the packed stands on the "Yellow Wall" of the Borussia Dortmund stadium.
The German league has become a popular destination for fans from the UK. They come over on the weekends for games in Dortmund, Cologne and elsewhere for a bit of authentic football atmosphere complete with beer and bratwurst.
But the same is true in reverse: German fans love the Premier League for its myriad stars, up-tempo style and lively passing.
The brand of football played in the Bundesliga is inferior to that in the Premier League, says Mario Weber. The Swiss lawyer is the head of the agency that represents player Xherdan Shaqiri. The former FC Bayern player has plied his trade in the Premier League since 2015. In the Bundesliga, the brawny midfielder was famous for his drive, but in England, he first had to toughen up to be able to keep up with the rougher style of play, says Weber.
"Football in the Premier League is more attractive and faster," he adds. But Schalke CEO Heidel contests that assessment. When rich clubs like Liverpool and Manchester play against each other, he allows, an excellent match can be the result. But when lower-ranked teams like Fulham and West Ham meet up, Heidel says, the ball flies back and forth, nothing but "kick and rush."
A Matter of Taste
Ultimately, it is likely more of a matter of taste. Match data shows that top teams in England create slightly more shots on goal and possess the ball for longer. In the Bundesliga, though, more goals are scored per match than in the Premier League.
Former German professional player and trainer Dietmar Hamann works as a football commentator for the TV broadcaster Sky, and two years ago, he made quite a few enemies in England by saying that the Premier League was a Skoda that was being peddled as a Lamborghini. What he by meant that, is that the quality of the clubs in England fell far short of the hype surrounding the Premier League.
Over lunch at a restaurant in Munich, Hamann modifies that analysis. The Premier League, he says, is no longer a Skoda, "but neither is it a Lamborghini." He notes that many of the leading players in top English clubs come from outside the country. The reason, he believes, is that players from continental Europe receive better tactical training. For Hamann, the defensive midfielder position is key. "England hasn't had a top player there for decades."
Hamann says that current play in the Premier League resembles a vast "battle of attrition." The top teams employ a style of play, he insists, that reflects the expectations of fans, with lots of back-and-forth and action in front of the goal. He says that athleticism has increased. Interior defenders have the physique of American football players and tackle aggressively. Referees are likewise more reticent with their whistles, which promotes a rougher style of play.
The fact that football in the Premier League has improved in recent years also has to do with a gigantic transfer of know-how: Sixteen of the 20 top teams have a manager from outside of England. Whereas just over half of the players in the Bundesliga come from outside the country, in the Premier League it is two-thirds.
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Christian Heidel, Schalke's CEO, is standing in front of the window in his office preparing for the gathering storm. On Tuesday, Liverpool is playing Bayern Munich and the next day, his club is set to go up against the star cast from Manchester City. Heidel says the gap between the smaller clubs and the rich European teams that regularly play in the Champions League is likely to grow even larger in the coming years. He seems a bit despondent in the face of that development.
One option, he says, would be to take on investors. But then, he assumes, fans would ultimately be shut out of watching team practices just like they are elsewhere. "If we weren't a registered association," Heidel says, referring to the fact that the club is a members' association with no major outside investors, "the world would look quite a bit different."