WHAT U.S. SPORTS ARE MISSING TO WIN BIG IN GERMANY
Let me start by sharing a personal story.
We literally bled for our club to save it from bankruptcy, we built our stadium with our own bare hands, we own this stadium and the club itself. We are the members and fans of my hometown team Union Berlin, who went from playing in Germany’s 4th division 14 years ago to successfully competing in its first-ever Bundesliga season.
A club of historical anti-establishment, today standing against the modern highly commercialised football. Inside our stadium, we like to stand, wave our flags, shout, drink beer, eat Bratwurst (here are your German stereotypes confirmed). Sport and fans are our entertainment, we don’t need any externals.
Why am I telling this story? Because it's an extreme portrayal of the traditional, now changing, German standpoint towards pro sport, very different to the US. A sport fan that believes in values such as authenticity and integrity of a sport brand. From the people, for the people.
Especially amongst the younger audience is a growing acceptance towards commercialisation of Sports IPs. New clubs like RB Leipizig go in a very different commercial direction, and it can work too. The club grew by 59% across platforms (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram) last Bundesliga season, prior to their successful UCL campaign, more than any other German club.
A. THE OPPORTUNITY
Germans connect with sport as they do with their friendships; they only have a few that change rarely, and they are deep-rooted and stay for life. The same goes for sport, the Germans overall only know one sport, football. It dominates everything and is very different to England or the U.S. where people follow several sports regularly. This is changing amongst the German Generation of Y’s and Z’s, which become increasingly ‘sport fans’, opening their hearts and pockets for U.S. sport brands to conquer.
The U.S. sport audience in Germany is mainly found in Gen Y and Z and are defined by a much higher Americanisation mainly via the internet or going abroad than their predecessors. Combined with better language abilities, affection and exposure to the American market and one of its key entertainment products, sport, seems natural. In 2020, three of the big four American leagues (NBA, NFL, NHL) and challenger sports (i.e. UFC, DRL, etc.) are bullish to win over Germany, seizing the opportunity mainly via digital communication. This is shown for example by the increasing amount and quality of German-speaking content on NHL’s account, resulting in doubling video views and a 65% increase in engagement.
This is an opportunity for U.S. sport brands, especially with the recent uncertainties around the relationship between the U.S. and their #1 international market China. This puts Europe more in the spotlight for U.S. sport brands, especially Germany as Europe’s most populated country and the world’s 4th largest economy, along with big opportunities and desire for U.S. sports to win over fans in Europe’s giant.
U.S. sport in Germany is mainly a consumption rather than a participatory sport. People watch more than they actually play the likes of American Football, Ice Hockey, Baseball. Passive sport consumption is still a huge and growing market with a current annual revenue of 26B Euro, meaning that the average German spends 371€ per year on passive sport consumption (excluding under 16 year olds).
Leagues and teams will be able to offer more international media value for existing sponsors and potential new local ones (i.e. Mercedes investment in Atalanta). The market offers opportunity for additional broadcasting revenue for rights holders, given a total media and broadcasting expenditure of €4 Billion in Germany, being the country where sport has the second highest percentage contribution to the GDP in Europe.
The first IP that actively started unlocking this potential is the NFL through the past decade. It kicked-off via the Super Bowl XLVIII (2014) broadcast with an audience increase from the previous year of 42% (950,000 in 2013) to more than doubling in 2020 to 1.9M. The Super Bowl has become an increasingly mass phenomenon in the age group below 35. The regular season, with a growing core fanbase, really started with the broadcasting deal of the NFL with Prosieben in 2015, making the regular football season available on German Free-TV.
Regular season games on Prosieben have up to 10% market share in the target audience with over 600K people tuning in. Prosieben just extended a contract with the NFL. The real hook on how the NFL managed via its broadcast partner show ‘ran NFL’ to popularise a whole sport for a generation was mainly due to its innovative approach of community building, with now more than 1M followers across digital channels.
For the NHL, Ice Hockey offers many opportunities in Germany. It is the most deeply culturally rooted US sport of the three with an older but also wealthier target audience. Winter Sports is very popular in Germany, giving Ice Hockey a lot of attention, especially during the Winter Olympics. It also set the record for the most attended Ice Hockey match in history with over 77,000 people, later to be broken by the NHL Winter Classics. What Germans love about Ice Hockey, is that the stadium experience and vibe is the closest thing to football, as described earlier.
The NBA has historically had the most attention of the three leagues in Germany. After the Jordan hype in the 90’s, Dirk Nowitzki entered the league into every household of the country, as he became Germany’s Yao Ming. Dallas has therefore arguably the highest attention and followership in Germany to this day and has with Maxi Kleber already a potential German star lined up.
Dirk was sportsman of the year in Germany and represents like no other person in Germany an entire sport. He has helped build a core fan community in Germany that follows the NBA. Basketball feels for most Germans the most familiar, most have played it before somewhere, everyone understands the basic rules and appreciates the athleticism of the players.
The recent purchases of DAZN of the Champions League and Bundesliga rights in Germany will further elevate the chances of US Sports tapping into more casual sport fans, as the majority of NFL and NBA games are hosted on DAZN. The platform will see a significant increase in subscribers in the next two years, which will likely increase viewerships of second tier sports.
B. THE CHALLENGE
Despite the recent growth, all US sports can still be considered niche sports in Germany, even in the target group of male under 35 year olds. This has several of reasons:
Physical location: The most obvious and something that of course can’t be changed, but the leagues do go on Europe Trips. While the NBA and NHL visit Germany regularly and play against local teams, the NFL is still yet to play in Germany. The demand is certainly there with a rumoured 30% of fans at the London games travelling from Germany to the NFL planning Germany games for 2021. Due to this location problem, the physical and emotional connection has to be bridged via digital channels.
Time Difference: Kick-off times remain an issue. While the NFL manage to show their Sunday games on primetime of 7pm on one of the main German Free-TV channels, the NBA or NHL are still only seen on one free to air channel, Sport 1, limiting the potential reach for new fans.
Football (Soccer): In football, US Sport has an absolute giant to face in Germany. As mentioned earlier, there’s no heterogenous sport culture in Germany. Handball does attract nationwide attention during big tournaments and to a limited extent also Basketball and Ice Hockey, but this is just the national team every few years. Football dominates media coverage in Germany, other sports mainly local leagues (Handball, Basketball & Ice Hockey) are featured. The only one being able to break this for a while was Dallas Mavericks because of Dirk. Breaking this homogeneous sport culture organically is tough.
Conservative: This mindset goes in many parts of life, if it's a job decision (employee in big company vs Startups), adapting to innovations and new technology, spending behaviour, to only mention a few. Germans love to follow habits, things they have always loved and traditions. This is also a reason for the big sympathies towards historic football clubs vs the big dislike towards new clubs with new money. Most new things are first viewed sceptical, the same goes for sport. Changing this mindset and behaviour is tough.
Each of the three big sports that want to enter the market has its specific challenges:
NHL (Ice Hockey): While Ice Hockey is considered Germany’s 3rd most popular team sport, this mainly due to the popularity of the domestic league DEL, which is the 3rd most attended Ice Hockey league in the world with clubs like Eisbaären Berlin having an average attendance over over 13K, close to the NHL average. A key factor for success for the NHL will be the collaboration with these local teams and communities.
NFL (American Football): The newest of the three sports to Germans, but the fastest growing amongst the younger audience. Its main issues are that rules are very hard to understand, Germans are not used to a game play with so many breaks, but also an identification with players that have helmets on and are therefore harder to resonate with. While Germany has arguably the biggest domestic American football league in Europe, it is still very much a pure consumer rather than a participator sport.
NBA (Basketball): This is different for basketball, which most Germans will have played before. But similar to ice hockey, does German and European Basketball have a quite strong foothold in the communities. But the NBA is much more present in the fans minds, and basically every basketball fan does have its NBA team. One issue for the NBA is the view of Germans on the irrelevance of regular season games. As most are not too hard core stuck on one team (or usually follow one of the better ones), basketball fans are very focused on the playoff season. Telling relevant stories throughout the season remains a challenge.
In order to bridge cultural, time and regional gaps it is key for the organisations to tap into 1-on-one communication with the German fans, in order to spark their interest and engage the audience to grow its community, in order to achieve its commercial goals. Localised digital communication of the US Sport brands in Germany is still in its very early stages. Currently only 4 NFL teams, 0 NBA teams and 0 NHL teams have German accounts.
C. HOW TO SUCCEED
1. Be clear about your value proposition in the market. What’s your Story?
First of all, brands must of course identify the right strategy before entering the market and understand the people they want to win. The majority of the target audience of US Sport brands in Germany are male between the age of 16 - 35 (Gen Y and Z). This generation cares about values, a sense of belonging and integrity of brands that they consume and support. They want to be part of the journey of the brand and product. The brands they consume is what defines them. This is key to consider when thinking about what it takes to grow a community. For example:
PSG managed to win over more fans recently in Germany in the younger generation by being featured in a variety of hip hop videos and social media feeds. The push of PSG as a lifestyle brand and the unique trend of German rap being heavily inspired and influenced by French (especially Parisian) trap music, put the club in an unique position to win over a young, very diverse group of Germans. The club has since opened its own academy in Germany.
During Covid lockdown, Alba Berlin launched an education and sport crossover video series, gaining up to 1.7 Million views per video (compared to 2000 average views prior), targeting specifically parents by supporting them during difficult times. People see sport brands as an integral part of the community that are expected to give back.
Borussia Dortmund took a very different approach on winning fans over in China, where the fundamentals of generations and sport are similar as for US brands in Germany. By building a fan centric Mini Program (a light App form in WeChat), the club was able to provide a platform for the community where they can share their experiences, organise events and interact regularly live with legends and players. The clubs fans-first identity translates organically to other markets and builds the fundament for people to come together or get to know each other in a big country.
All of the above are reasonable approaches to go about an international market, with a very different target audience each. Germans have in majority no cultural, family related or regional connection to a US sport or team. In order to win over fans, brands have to understand the market's unique features, its people’s mindsets and how it fits to your own brand. Then double down on this angle and go all in on your target audience.
2. Choose your platforms right
The right choice of platform and strategic approach to it is key to success of digital communication.
Instagram is the fastest growing major social media platform in Germany, specifically in the US Sports target audience below 35. The NFL, 4 of its teams and the NHL recognised this already with dedicated German speaking accounts on the platform. If we’re looking at a fan funnel, Instagram would sit right on top, with the potential of not only engaging existing fans in their natural environment but also reaching potential new fans the most likely.
Twitter can be classified as a niche platform in Germany with an older audience compared to Instagram. On the other hand is the audience on the platform one that is more well educated and usually more internationally minded, making it interesting for US brands. Especially the existing core audience of the teams will be active here, to follow the English official news of the teams. It is not in their general behaviour to be active on this platform though. Twitter can work out well, but is not essential to the social set up of a Sports IP in Germany.
Facebook is still the social media platform with the most users in Germany, but in the target group below 35 the platform is only very rarely still actively used. What facebook growingly becomes for Sport IPs is a closed group community activator. Facebook groups now build the bottom of the fan funnel, prior to commercialising, home to the most dedicated community.
TikTok follows the global trend of a very quick emergence in the young audience. All three sports have big potential on the platform, due to its spectacular playing style and the emotional stories they are able to tell. To really succeed on the platform, its key to jump on to local challenges, music and trends. Hence, it’d make sense to think about a standalone German TikTok account and be first to innovate the industry.
Podcasts are a very untapped opportunity for US sport IPs in Germany. According to the latest numbers, every third German now listening to podcasts, for the audience 16 - 29 this figure is even at 40%, which is the US Sport key audience. Spotify Sport Podcast Top Charts: 6 American Football related podcasts in the Top 30 in the sport category on Spotify. Right target audience. Podcast ad revenue doubled in the past two years. What about a German speaking podcast by the league or individual teams?
3. Original local content with local stories
Most American Sport fans are young, they have a very high level of English. If you want to resonate with them, it’s not about the language barrier only, but about the stories and content you tell. meaning, it should be less about just translating global content into the market, but rather original content from local German editors, that understand tone of voice, interests and trends in the market.
Local hero stories of Werner in the NFL, Nowitzki in the NBA and Draisaitl in the NHL are drivers of awareness to hook a potential audience for the sport. After the initial gain of interest, it's about how to convert this into a regular audience?
This is reached via regular engagement. This communication has to be, as mentioned, hyperlocal to work and resonate.
For example, the top-performing post on the Minnesota Vikings Deutsch Twitter last season was player Stephen Weatherly trying to speak German shouting out the German fans. What’s more, all five of the account’s top performing posts from last season were either German subtitled videos or featured German language specific graphics. You need a local team and expertise to support you.
4. Activate and grow your community
Similar to what football is in China, is the US Sport for young Germans. It’s a platform and community to stand out from the parent generation and other people in their network, which are mainly football or non-sport fans. Fans of US sport build fast a sense of belonging when being able to discuss with someone else details of the sport, as it’s still a more niche environment, creating an in depth relationship to the community. This is a key motivator for a generation that is often lacking this community feeling, on- and offline.
This community feeling can be translated to digital. The success story of the NFL shows very well that community work should be the most integral part of a strategy in Germany. Ran NFL actively integrates their twitter feed and fans into the live show. This is why for the NFL the platform twitter works so well.
Even more effective turnout Facebook groups. As mentioned, they are the integral part of a core community action now. Involving fans in global moments and creating a community - for last season’s NFL playoffs the global Minnesota Vikings account ran a campaign called '#GoGetIt' - which Vikings Deutschland localised by asking for photos of German fans to show their support in the Facebook Group and then used them to create a photo collage spelling #GoGetIt across their Instagram, Twitter and Facebook Group channels. This is the team’s 3rd all time most engaging Instagram post.
The NBA has further doubled down on the approach of giving back and forming an on-the-ground community by opening up its first Jr. NBA branch in Hamburg in 2020.
5. Build a membership scheme
German spend annually 1.3 Billion Euros on club memberships and donations. The concept of ‘membership’ is deeply rooted into the German club system (eingetragener Verein/ e.V.) and is something that strongly appeals to fans. 5 of the top 7 sport teams with the most members are German. Bayern Munich is the sports team with the most members in the world, approx. 300,000.
Sport IPs will have to start to think how they can build international membership schemes and provide value to these members, as they most likely won’t be able to (ever) join a game of their favorite team. This can be for example exclusive content, exclusive membership product, fan events, etc.
This membership product could be fed via different hyper local Facebook groups, where you could even think about local groups for specific cities or regions, as German people’s mindset for pride can rather be described as regional rather than national pride, leading to eventually a higher resonance and followership. From here. a digital international product like an App could be set up, where users can chat in the forums about the latest news, organise viewing parties and watch exclusive fan focused content.
Lastly, be patient and consistent. We Germans always take long to adapt to anything new. But when we do, we go all in. The opportunity is big, the challenge too.
This article originally featured in SportsPro, find it here.