Has the Bundesliga overtaken the Premiership?

Bundesliga - German football leagueQueens Park Rangers and Norwich City have been promoted to the Premier League this week and a certain struggle against relegation awaits the two clubs next season in Europe’s richest and most watched league competition. But is the Premiership as good as its hype? No English team reached further than the quarter-final of the Champions’ League last term and several world-class talents have departed these shores to achieve their goals abroad, notably Xabi Alonso and Cristiano Ronaldo, in recent seasons.

Last summer, Germany displayed their precious quality on the international stage at the World Cup in South Africa, which was a result of years of financial and technical development at club level. Now, many observers are beginning to see a shifting of power away from England and towards the German Bundesliga, especially considering UEFA’s financial fair play rules are to be implemented imminently, so could it be argued that the Bundesliga is overtaking the Premiership as the best league on the continent?

The most important difference between the two is that in Germany, the fans are priority. The Bundesliga has the lowest ticket prices and the highest average attendance of Europe’s five major leagues. Borussia Dortmund, who last month secured the league title, boast a stand at their Westfalenstadion home which holds 26,000, the biggest stand at any football stadium in Europe, and costs little more than £10 for admission on match-days. Clubs limit the number of season tickets to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to attend games, and the away team always retains the right to 10% of the available capacity. What’s more, match tickets also double as free rail passes which guarantees supporters at least one easy transport route to games, and the perception of travelling fans is as far removed from the hooligan culture in England as possible.

The Bundesliga is possibly Europe’s only major domestic league whose clubs collectively make a profit, but no German team has won the Champions League for ten years, if we assume Schalke will fail to defeat Manchester United in Wednesday’s semi-final second leg. That said, Bayern Munich reached last years final and Schalke’s presence at this late stage indicates an encouraging future for German sides in Europe’s premier club competition. “The Bundesliga as a brand, a competition, is in good shape. We have a very, very interesting competition, a stable and sustainable business model that relies on three revenue sources,” explains Bundesliga chief executive, Christian Seifert. These three features of German football’s development are match-day revenue, sponsorships and broadcast income, amounting to a turnover of 1.7billion Euros last season.

These figures couldn’t contrast the state of English sport any more, where week after week a different football league club is placed in to administration and where top teams like Manchester United and Liverpool build on their mountains of debt. In Spain, club debts are just as high, in France, Ligue 1 clubs spend more of their income on wages than any other league, and in Italy, stadiums are regularly half-filled. Germany’s success is based on putting supporters first, which, despite the Bundesliga taking home around 350million Euros less than the Premier League in match-day revenues each year, has seen attendances surpass every other major domestic league in Europe.

Two seasons ago, La Liga recorded average attendances of 28,478 fans, the French Ligue 1 21,034, Serie A 25,304 and the Premier League 35,592, but these figures were smashed by the Bundesliga’s average of 41,904. A significant factor contributing to the Bundesliga’s success is that its clubs pay less than 50% of their revenue on players’ wages – the lowest in Europe – and substantially less than the 62% Premier League clubs spent in the 2007-08 season, which is now even higher following Manchester City’s extravagant spending over the three campaigns since these figures were released.

The most extraordinary aspect of Germany’s financial management is that it has been achieved despite the Bundesliga’s television income being a modest 600million Euros compared with the Premier League’s lucrative return of over £2billion. Seifert rationalizes this discrepancy: “When pay-TV was introduced in 1991, the average household already received 34 channels for free. Therefore we had the most competitive free TV market in the world, so this influenced the growth of pay-TV very much. We were forced to show all of the 612 games of the Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2 live on pay-TV. So we have to carry the production costs of this.”

Seifert, however, refuses to use the small return from television rights as justification for German teams’ recent failings in European competition: “Bayern Munich is ranked in the first four clubs of Europe, and bear in mind even Chelsea, which spent a hell of a lot of money in the last years, didn’t win it. Sometimes you could have the feeling that the ability to win the Champions League goes in line with your willingness to burn a hell of a lot of money. For that reason I think Uefa is on very good track with their financial fair play idea.”

I tend to agree with him on this point because money has never been the defining factor in Champions’ League success, as of course Porto and Monaco proved by reaching the final in 2004. The trend is more often than not a cyclical process, evidenced by German football’s dominance at the end of the last century when two Bundesliga clubs won the Champions’ League and a further two reached the final between 1997 and 2002, but European tournaments are also not always justification for the strength of a country’s domestic competition. As we all know, Bayern Munich are traditionally, and currently, the best club representative from the Bundesliga, but the title has been shared between four different sides in the past five seasons, a refreshing divergence from Manchester United’s Premiership dominance, spanning the past three decades. Surely this level of competition offers spectators the most exciting and unpredictable league in Europe, particularly when compared to La Liga, where just two teams compete for dominance year after year.

Each observer will have a different set of criteria for what constitutes the best league, but the Bundesliga, since its post-2006 World Cup transformation, appears to triumph in every department. The issues which persistently trouble English fans are managed with typical German efficiency, including the aforementioned ticket prices, transport, club finances, home-grown talent, national side and league competition. The entertainment factor is, and always will be, up for debate, but the Bundesliga is beginning to cast the Premiership in to the shadows.

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