I get it. Tradition is important. Without a shared historical and cultural identity, the Bundesliga would not be what it is today. Many Bundesliga fans around the world love the league because of its very traditionalist culture of fan support and ownership. Clubs like Kaiserslautern, 1860 Muenchen, and FC Nürnberg are heralded as true models of German football, while corporate “shells” like Hoffenheim, Leipzig, even Leverkusen are mocked. It’s a league where the “old way” is the “best way”, where the past is treasured and revered. It’s beautiful.
If you’re a Bundesliga fan, and you’re content with the Status Quo, fine. That’s your preference, and I’m not going to change it. But if you want the Bundesliga to keep up with the rest of Europe’s leagues in terms of Global following, then something has to change.
The Bundesliga has a popularity problem. Even though its domestic prominence is as high as ever, the league’s international reputation pales in comparison to those of the EPL, La Liga, or even Serie A. Why?
Because it’s boring.
Not the football... in my opinion Bundesliga football is the most exciting to watch in the world. Rather, it’s boring because there is no competition for the league title. It’s the Bayernliga.
While many people will watch any soccer match for entertainment, leagues truly don’t grow unless individual clubs have fan bases. In order to have fan bases, a league generally needs a realistic chance of multiple teams succeeding. The Bundesliga does not have this. When foreign fans look at the Bundesliga, they see one team (Bayern Münich) dominating the rest, while the other nameless clubs languish behind.
For example: if you’re a New York soccer fan, who is in no way connected to Germany, and who has television access to the excitement of the Premier League, Serie A, or La Liga, why would you even bother with the Bundesliga? What’s the rationale behind an American who has no connection to Germany rooting for anybody other than Bayern Münich or maybe Borussia Dortmund, when they can watch a 5-way title race in England, or an el Classico title race in Spain? There is none!
To emphasize this, let’s compare the Bundesliga to the Premier League. Last Season, Leicester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, and even Manchester City were in the title race until around April. Meanwhile, in the Bundesliga, Bayern Münich pretty much had the title cemented by January. Sure, BVB put in a good push, but even we had a small chance of winning the title. The other clubs? You can forget them. It was Bayern’s championship to win, and they did. All those clubs listed above have growing followings in the US: there are probably more City fans in Manhattan than there are in Manchester.
Why don’t the likes of Wolfsburg, Leverkusen, or Gladbach, who are active in Europe and should in theory be pushing the two front runners, get any fans at all? Part of the reason may have to do with history, and the fact that its easier to be exposed to an english language league than a foreign language league. I’d argue that the single biggest reason is that there is simply no reason to root for them! They have zero chance at a title, so why would anybody willingly submit themselves to fruitless endeavours towards a fifth place finish, when they can just as easily pick a frontrunner?
It’s no wonder that the Premier League regularly curb-stomps the Bundesliga in terms of TV ratings.
You’ll probably notice that I haven’t mentioned the playoffs at all yet, because I want to illustrate in full view the problems that the Bundesliga faces abroad. This is a one club league. Its international reputation is poor. There is very little incentive to be a fan of any club besides BVB or FCB if you’re not from Germany, or of German heritage.
The Playoffs will change this. Individual matches allow for greater chances at upsets: one could easily see someone like Hertha or Leverkusen nabbing a title from the likes of Bayern, and yes, Borussia Dortmund. If these clubs suddenly have legitimate title chances, then it’s reasonable to think that, with increased television exposure, they’d start to gather legitimate fan bases overseas. With increased fanbases will come increased rivalries, which will encourage even more growth. I believe that this will help the growth of the Bundesliga’s globalization movement immensely.
Some will argue that this takes away from the “integrity” of the league, by manner of being more random and allowing for luck to triumph over actual skill. Some will say that the regular season is the only way to ensure that the best team wins the title. To this I say... that’s 100% correct.
Here’s the thing: Bayern Münich is the best club in the Bundesliga, and will likely be so for the foreseeable future. It’s not really up for debate. So... what’s the point of having a bunch of league competitions that merely reaffirm this fact? If your competition always produces a victor that is the league’s undisputed best club, and the league’s undisputed best club is always the same club, then you’re never going to have any variety! And if you don’t have any variety, then what’s the point in being invested in the league at all?
Sure, playoffs allow for fluky wins. People point out the 2007 superbowl, and how the 9-7 New York Giants were able to defeat the 16-0 New England Patriots. (Side note: it’s interesting that this match would be used as an argument against playoffs, because it produced one of the greatest moments in the history of sports.) Of course the Patriots were the better team. But the Giants were able to rise to the occasion, and were able to produce one of the most magical moments in American Football history, which was broadcast to the entire country. It was the type of thing that those who watched will remember for the rest of their lives. In the end, nobody cares that the Patriots were able to rail on the Dolphins, Jets, etc. The Playoffs aren’t meant to reaffirm regular season success: they’re about which side can say, “No matter what happened during the season, we’re here NOW, and we’re not losing this game. They might be the better team on most nights, but not tonight.”
At least in the United States, these are the moments that sports are all about. They form memories that last forever, like the above mentioned 1980 Miracle on Ice. If the US had played the Soviets in a league competition, of course they would have been mopped. Instead, they were able to fight out a single victory, and created the greatest moment in American Sports history.
That may be an extreme example, but is there anything even remotely exciting about Bayern beating Werder Bremen 6-0 will four weeks still to play to clinch the Bundesliga title? No, you can’t, because those moments are so anticlimactic that they come and go without anybody noticing. The Bundesliga Championship ceremony has become an afterthought.
An introduction of the playoffs will allow for those moments of greatness: imagine a last minute Aubameyang goal to win the league against Bayern, and the worldwide explosion of excitement that it would cause. Imagine Chicharito scoring for Leverkusen in extra time: picture thousands of fans in Zócalo Square in Mexico City, waving flags and jumping for joy that their national hero has pulled off an upset. Imagine Bars in New York, Tokyo, Sydney, and London packed to watch a Der Klassiker “Bundesliga Final.” THAT is what is going to entice people to watch the Bundesliga, not some meaningless Bayern thrashing against Eintracht Frankfurt with four weeks left to go, leaving the league to sputter out into the summer.
I understand the general apprehension towards the idea of Playoffs, that it will inhibit the integrity of the league, that it’s a sign of Americanization (as an American, I’ll choose not to take abhorrence towards pretty much everything we do as an insult), or that it will ruin what is a very tradition-oriented league. If tradition is your preference, fine. Maybe, as someone who doesn’t live in Germany, I underestimate the importance of history and tradition to the league. However, as someone who truly enjoys the Bundesliga and wants to see it grow throughout the world, I can’t help but believe that something has to change; something needs to be done to break the stranglehold that Bayern has on the league. Maybe... just maybe... playoffs might be the answer.