The European offseason saw Bundesliga big beasts trekking across the USA in continuing attempts to break through to the American market says Uli Hesse
How will you explain to the Americans what Borussia Dortmund is about?“ the German journalist wanted to know. Dortmund’s new coach Lucien Favre, a Swiss, gave the question some thought.
He was sitting in the surprisingly small press room at Heinz Field, home of the six-time Super Bowl winners, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Finally, Favre said in German: “I will tell them that Borussia are one of the best teams in Europe and that we have many fans and many members.” At which point an interpreter addressed the non-German members of the press pack to inform them that the coach had replied: “Borussia Dortmund is the best team in Europe.“
When Favre later learned of the translation error, he took it lightly jokingly referring to it as a slight exaggeration.” However, he should have been a bit more indignant, because his key message hadn’t been translated at all, not even wrongly. The point of his answer had been the second part – the line about fans and members. Because this is indeed how Borussia Dortmund are selling themselves to an American audience that doesn’t know too much about football to begin with.
Especially about German football. That despite the fact the German game has a rich heritage in the the United States. A long-lived competition called the German-American Soccer League sprang up in New York as early as 1923 and many German clubs toured the country after the war, starting with Hamburg in 1950 and Eintracht Frankfurt the year after that.
— Eintracht Frankfurt (@eintracht_eng) July 13, 2018
Also, many Americans of a certain age got hooked on football in the first place through a PBS show called “Soccer Made in Germany,“ which ran from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s and was hosted by Toby Charles, a Welshman living in West Germany. Still, for many decades, German clubs were not too interested in tapping the huge but difficult American market.
Unlike teams from England, Spain, Italy or even Portugal, they made only sporadic forays into the United States. This gradually changed in 2013, when 21st Century Fox acquired the Bundesliga television rights. The following summer, Bayern Munich made their first trip to North America in eight years. In 2016, the Munich giants even opened an office in New York City that has been spectacularly successful.
— FC Bayern US (@FCBayernUS) August 5, 2018
(In those two years, the number of Bayern supporters’ club in the USA has risen from 8 to 136, more than any other European team can boast.) But this pre-season has been the first during which a sizable contingent of German clubs crossed the Atlantic. Eintracht Frankfurt went to Salt Lake City and Philadelphia. Dortmund played in Los Angeles, Chicago, Charlotte and Pittsburgh. Bayern graced Miami and Michigan with their presence.
Even St. Pauli FC, a club from the second division, travelled to the USA to meet Detroit and Portland. Apart from Bayern, the teams all faced the same problem: how do we crack a country where most people have never heard of us? Actually, even mighty Bayern probably have to give this a thought, as countless Bundesliga titles and an almost perennial slot in the Champions League semi-finals count for little in a country where Bastian Schweinsteiger was asked during his presentation as a Chicago Fire player if he was hoping to win the World Cup with his new team.
Dortmund enjoy a head start because they have young Christian Pulisic, nicknamed ‘Captain America’ by the US media. When he scored two goals and created the third in Dortmund’s 3-1 win over Liverpool in Chicago, the crowd chanted “USA! USA!“
Despite his impressive performance, Pulisic couldn’t be voted ‘Man of the Match’. The award is sponsored by Heineken and the 19-year-old winger is not yet of legal drinking age in his home country. But Dortmund are aware that Pulisic won’t be playing for them forever. They need him to get a foot in the door, but once they are inside, they have to tell a story which will grab an American’s imagination. And this story is that Dortmund “have many fans and many members“.
The first bit – about the fans – is also a central element of St. Pauli’s marketing campaign. Just have a look at the documentary-cum-sportswear-ad which the club’s supplier Under Armour produced about St. Pauli’s American adventure
It is all about the players’ interaction with their flares-wielding, rainbow-flag-waving supporters. The second part, the reference to members, is even more important. German clubs are aware that they lack the glamour of their competitors from England, Spain or Italy because they don’t have celebrity star players.
So they have decided to promote themselves by explaining why they don’t have them. “We are not owned by a rich individual or an investment firm,” Dortmund’s Head of Marketing Carsten Cramer told his American hosts. “We belong to the people.“ It’s an alien concept for sports fans in the United States, who are used to clubs being franchises that can be bought and sold like any other commodity in the entertainment industry.
But judging from the reception the German clubs enjoyed on their tours, there are more than just a few Americans who seem to like the idea of a club not owned by sheiks or oligarchs but by the fans themselves. Of course the irony of it all was that Dortmund went to the USA to participate in the extravaganza known as the International Champions Cup. It was started five years ago by the billionaire Stephen M. Ross. He is the owner of the Miami Dolphins. Still, maybe you can beat the system by infiltrating it?