The Bundesliga is the best-attended football league in the world. Its clubs are extraordinarily healthy both in terms of community involvement and economic practice, and on a competitive level, the league consistently performs well in European competition. None of these facts, however, changes the international perception of the Bundesliga as less a league of interest than the Premier League, La Liga, or Serie A.
This does not stop many, many football fans from applauding the Bundesliga's various clubs and their logistical brilliance in ensuring one of the best league-wide gameday atmospheres in the world, or how the famous "51%" rule creates an unmatched level of community power and trust in clubs, or how the famously low ticket prices prove beyond a shadow of the doubt that the clubs want to support fans just as much as fans want to support clubs. The idiosyncrasies of the German system are met with a curious fascination and wonderment by most of the world, and the applause for such measures is usually enthusiastic. As much is on display in Bundesliga CEO Christian Seifert's panel from the Men In Blazer's "BlazerCon," which the jacketed pair posted online in podcast form on Thursday:
As great as the response to Seifert's talk was, and in general, how well received the Bundesliga's treatment of fans and clubs is, the Bundesliga is often treated more as a novelty than a model when the major world leagues are discussed. It is the little league that could, a collection of communities succeeding almost in spite of themselves on the world stage when compared to the vast cash reserves and cutthroat competition of England, the two biggest suns in the galaxy plying their trade in Spain, or the nostalgia, romance, and passion reserved for Italy's top squads. The Bundesliga, by comparison, have two globally recognized club teams, and one of them poses for pictures in lederhosen every year. It's not exactly the sexiest competition in the world.
The actual play of the Bundesliga at its highest is marked by the same ruthless efficiency that much of the world expects from Germany in economics, geopolitics, or automobiles. While Douglas has proven to be endlessly entertaining for Bayern this season, our answers to intangible interest-makers like Messi's brilliance, Ronaldo's confidence, and Neymar's ridiculously unnecessary and breathtakingly beautiful flourishes have consistently been Aubameyang's goal count, Lewandowski's goal count, and Thomas Müller's goal count. We have players that score goals in ridiculously high bunches, but not nearly as many moments immortalized in Vine or as many characters lusted over by advertisement companies and boys and girls on Instagram. There's just not the same level of interest driven by the Bundesliga, either the league as a whole or its individual players, as there is in other leagues internationally.
I mean, I get it. Why put Thomas Müller's face on something when Cristiano Ronaldo's perfectly-tanned tribute to symmetry can be put on display? But despite all that, Müller is the player who has scored ten World Cup goals at only age 26, not Ronaldo. At some point, the Bundesliga must become concerned with how to capitalize on the overwhelming success of its league and its players, or else they run the risk of losing the international football arms race. Here's the point: England, Spain, and Italy have all made an insane amount of money by focusing their attention outward from their country of origin. England is the best example here, as their sell of the Premier League as the most competitive top football league in the world has earned them more money than they seem to know what to do with. At the individual club level, teams like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Roma, and Juventus have seen success with this tactic as well, taking many opportunities to travel internationally and connect with foreign contacts in a way that sets them up for more and more economic windfall. If these leagues and teams continue to dominate the international market, they will also continue to dominate the football world economically, and money has proven to be the one somewhat reliable indicator of how strong a club or a league is in world football.
The flipside to this footballing rat race, of course, is the economic discrepancies many clubs operate under at the very top level. Manchester United, Real Madrid, and Barcelona's tremendous amount of collective debt is well known, as the clubs continue to spend insane money on players year in and year out, at a rate which their income cannot keep pace.
The Bundesliga must strike the correct balance between keeping the things that have made their league so strong domestically and economically while also looking to expand their brand on the international scene in order to tap into the pool of money offered up from people searching for a top footballing experience. The strength of the Bundesliga lies in its connection to its home fans, and that connection can never be sacrificed. In England, entire teams are fielded with no connection to the city they are playing in, and it's not uncommon to see ticket prices edges toward the $100 mark. As Seifert says in his interview, Dortmund pack 80,000 people into Signal Iduna park on a weekly basis, but end up losing millions of dollars every year when compared to the ticket prices elsewhere on the continent. The Bundesliga can compensate for this by making a bigger push internationally, both at the league and club level, for brand recognition. The television deal with Fox Sports goes a long way towards contributing to this.
Obviously, other things must be taken into account when accounting for the popularity level of the Bundesliga. Bayern's recent dominance (BVB 2011 and 2012 titles notwithstanding) has rendered the competition of the league almost routine: the Bavarians have won the Meisterschale ten of the last fifteen years. Also, the Bundesliga doesn't feature nearly the same display of international superstars as other leagues, as the biggest stars in Germany tend to be German. But ultimately, the Bundesliga will become the most famous league in the world by pushing its brand globally with the formula that has worked so well in Germany. The key is not necessarily money, and the key is not necessarily even quality (because if we're being honest, England's teams have sunk and sunk in quality as more and more money has poured into their league. If you don't believe me, look at their European performance in the last few years. Despite that, they bring in a massive international fanbase). The key is availability. The ability to find the Bundesliga without having to look particularly hard for it. The ability to easily see the league and become familiar with it and its players. As the Bundesliga becomes more and more available, its star will inevitably grow. And as other clubs sink into the mire of the financial coffins they build for themselves, the Bundesliga will be there to step on their shoulders, hands firmly clasped with its supporters, and take its place on top.