More of an economic necessity than a clear triumph for public morale, or for the country’s management of the virus, Germany’s top two leagues are back playing in front of ghostly stadiums – but will football in the social-distance era be worth it?
First of all, getting the leagues back on track on the day they would have ended has meant guaranteeing around €300 million payment from broadcasters, according to reporting by the Financial Times, which finds that as a result the top tier Bundesliga will ensure the receipt of the “vast majority” of TV revenues.
In service of that goal, the weekend’s most anticipated game, the Revierderby between Borussia Dortmund and Schalke, kicked off on Saturday before an entirely absent yellow wall.
Hygiene protocols were strict: celebratory hugs were banned (though high-contact corner defences were permitted, confusingly).
For many clubs – especially those further down the league table, resuming play will mean “economic survival” said Cristian Seifert, Bundesliga CEO at a press conference, pointing to the depth of livelihoods that stand behind the very public face of modern football clubs.
"The league's media partnerships have certainly exerted some pressure because the sale of broadcasting and marketing rights are a fundamental part of professional football's business model," said Henning Vöpel, director of the Hamburg Institute for the World Economy (HWWI), in comments to DW.com.
Despite the widespread assumption that bored people stuck at home are clamouring for football, the reality turns out to be less clear. From the clubs’ perspective, it is only really for the bigger clubs that rights deals bring in significant sums. For lower-league clubs, where tickets make up the bulk of revenues, that equation falls down.
That’s not to say the big clubs aren’t immune from that either. So much of football is the atmosphere, the place, fans, and stakes coming together in the shape of a spectacle. A crowd-free neutrality has drawn questions about both player commitment to competing at the full extent of their abilities for a hollow stand, and about newly remote fans’ interest in a much quieter game.
Initial ratings suggest that there is still strong appetite, with the weekend’s action bringing in a total of five million viewers on Sky Deutschland, according to SportsPro Media.
“The outstanding ratings show that our program concept worked out perfectly and that the viewers inquired about the special TV experience on Sky with fan comments, additional feeds and audio options. The most important thing was that safety was paramount for everyone involved,” said Jacques Raynaud, head of sports and marketing at Sky Deutschland in a statement.
But this is only the first week, with the return of football something of a novelty. Questions remain about whether the loss of the stadium crowd – or indeed all the hundreds of bars and pubs around the country and the world that provide a surrogate atmosphere – won’t prove to be a turn-off.
As with other lockdown exit strategy measures in which Germany has taken an early lead, the Bundesliga’s return will be closely monitored by Premier League officials looking to secure the completion of the season – and therefore rights obligations.
Players, meanwhile, are less sure about rushing into a resumption of the season. In his Sunday Times column, Wayne Rooney, now of Derby County, noted how he, like others, is “desperate to train and play again but it feels like football in England is being pushed to return too soon.”
Meanwhile, in Germany, the financial impact of the crisis has the potential to go uncomfortably deep, even as far as to spur the abandonment of the 50+1 fan ownership rule that means commercial interests can only own a minority of the club. The coming months will ask big questions about one of Europe’s more democratic football leagues, and what it is that we’re supporting in the first place.
Sourced from the Financial Times, DW.com, Sports Pro Media, Sunday Times; additional content by WARC staff