For sports fans, German soccer is the best – and only – game on TV.

Why We Wrote This

Professional sports is one of the industries most affected by the coronavirus pandemic. So the recent restart of the Bundesliga, Germany’s top soccer league, is being watched closely by fans and professionals alike.

Martin Meissner/Reuters
Union Berlin plays Borussia Mönchengladbach as play in the Bundesliga, Germany's top soccer league, resumes without fans (though with cardboard cutouts) following the coronavirus pandemic on May 31, 2020, in Mönchengladbach, Germany.

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Germany’s top soccer league, the Bundesliga, was the first premier sports league in the world to resume competition, on May 16. It had been a tough decision, made by executives seeking to balance the players’ health and the optics of pursuing sport during a global pandemic, with the millions in television revenues and the viability of some of the weaker clubs on the line.

Three weeks into this grand experiment, the Bundesliga has completed about three dozen games, and television viewership has skyrocketed to historic levels. The first weekend’s games drew nearly four million viewers: three times the normal audience.

Peter Ford, a television sports producer in London, says the Bundesliga got an international boost because it was the first league back. “Many friends are suddenly watching because it’s the only live football on,” says Mr. Ford. “They’re picking favorites. They never would have watched before.”

That has trickled down to individual clubs, with some teams suddenly getting prime time in a market that might have ignored them in normal times. “Hertha Berlin versus Union Berlin,” says Mr. Ford. “No one would normally care about it.” But this time, it got Friday night prime time in Britain.

When journalist Kit Holden reported to work for the first weekend of games in Germany’s restarted top-flight soccer league, the Bundesliga, he noticed a new sound: The birds in the trees.

Union Berlin plays in what’s informally dubbed Germany’s loudest stadium, with 22,000 rowdy fans drowning out the surrounding woods. But these are pandemic times. With fans banned during live games, Mr. Holden could hear the birds chirping in the forest, the players talking on the field, the coaches yelling. Other than a few dozen media and club staff, the stadium was empty.

“It’s a completely different event,” says Mr. Holden, who covers Union Berlin for the German daily Tagesspiegel. “Less clutter, less conversation. It’s an emergency situation.”

This is German soccer during a global pandemic.

With the confidence that comes from Germany’s robust health care system and the country’s relatively low infection rates, the Bundesliga was the first premier sports league in the world to resume competition, on May 16. It had been a tough decision, made by executives seeking to balance the players’ health and the optics of pursuing sport during a global pandemic, with the millions in television revenues and the viability of some of the weaker clubs on the line.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Three weeks into this grand experiment, the Bundesliga has completed about three dozen games, and television viewership has skyrocketed to historic levels. But it remains to be seen whether the health and safety precautions will keep players healthy – and keep fans engaged.

“To be viable, football clubs have to play football just like airlines have to fly,” says Christian Arbeit, the media director for Union Berlin. “But football lives from the connection between the players and the people surrounding them. With no fans in the stadium, the whole thing is half as fun, if it’s fun at all.”

A careful relaunch

The 18 football clubs of the Bundesliga started back with a seven-day training camp in early May, after two months off due to the COVID-19 shutdown.

Much was at stake, particularly after the league’s record showing in the 2018-19 season, with a total $4 billion euros in revenues. The largest chunk of that, 40%, came from media and television rights, with less than half as much coming from ticket sales and merchandising. That was a crucial factor in the decision to return. The English Premier League is paid upfront, but the Bundesliga’s television rights payments are parsed out over the course of the season.

“The Bundesliga wouldn’t have gotten the final installment of €300 million unless they played the games,” says Peter Ford, a television sports producer based in London.

Some clubs have healthy reserves, or the backing of corporate sponsors such as Red Bull or Volkswagen, but others would find long shutdowns unsustainable. The league employs 56,000 people, directly and indirectly. Union Berlin, for one, had already preemptively cut the pay of its 35 players and roughly 200 club staff, says the club's Mr. Arbeit.

Hygiene measures for clubs were carefully laid out by league officials, in a protocol that other European sports leagues have asked to see, says Mr. Arbeit. No fans are allowed during games. Sports arenas are to be divided into three zones – playing field, grandstand for media and staff, and outer edges of the stadium – and the hosting club must ensure no more than 100 are in each zone at any given time.

Players must be tested for coronavirus before games and during training – amounting to about twice a week – and the league has contracted with several laboratories for quick turnaround. Some clubs are going above and beyond, by testing twice weekly or requiring players to quarantine outside of training and games.

“Everyone was very focused on it,” says Mr. Arbeit. “The protocol was checked, rechecked many times. I don’t know how we could have done it any quicker.”

“It’s so quiet”

For journalists like Mr. Holden, the rules of covering a match used to be a known quantity: What they have access to, how questions are handled, and even how to interview the players. But all that’s changed. For example, typically after a game, Mr. Holden would stand near the entry to the locker room, and chat up the players. Now that opportunity’s gone.

Into that vacuum has rushed a new phalanx of information; Mr. Holden can now hear players and the coaches speak on the field. “At half time, the Union Berlin coach was shouting at the opposing team’s coaches: ‘Influence! You’re influencing the ref! Influence!’” says Mr. Holden. “Normally you’d only see that he was shouting, and can only guess what he’s saying. Now we hear why he’s annoyed.”

It’s different for the spectators too. A lifelong Freiburg fan, Dmitri Reichenbach fell asleep watching the team’s first game back on television.

“I was surprised, that’s never happened to me before,” says Mr. Reichenbach. “But it’s so quiet, and it’s sad. It’s completely lacking in emotion.” The experience has reminded him of how football became a billion-dollar business. “Because it started with thousands of fans euphorically cheering on their teams, and at some point there got to be so many they had to put games on television so everyone can watch.”

“Football got big because of the fans,” says Mr. Reichenbach, who nevertheless says it’s a net positive the league’s back in play.

Wilhelm Bloch, head of sports medicine at the German Institute of Cardiovascular Research and Sport Medicine, is concerned mainly about how contracting COVID-19 might affect the long-term health of the players. “If a player gets heart or lung damage they can’t play again. This can be fatal to an athlete’s career.”

The best – and only – game in town

Despite some lingering concerns, the Bundesliga’s return has largely been a success. The league has completed about three dozen games with no new infections, and television viewership has skyrocketed, with the first weekend’s games drawing nearly four million viewers, according to news and analysis company Meedia. That’s three times the normal audience.

The television numbers were important, says Mr. Holden, the journalist. “Politically it was huge. If there was no appetite to watch the games on television, it would have felt pretty cheeky to do this at all.”

Mr. Ford, who plays football and also writes about it from London, says the Bundesliga also got an international boost because it was the first league back. “Many friends are suddenly watching because it’s the only live football on,” says Mr. Ford. “They’re picking favorites. They never would have watched before.”

That has trickled down to individual clubs, with some teams suddenly getting prime time in a market that might have ignored them in normal times. “Hertha Berlin versus Union Berlin,” says Mr. Ford. “No one would normally care about it. It wouldn’t even get newspaper inches or BBC coverage.” This time, it got Friday night prime time in Britain.

If players stay healthy, the league will produce a winner by the season’s end in late June. “That’s good news. Who will go onto the Champions League? Nobody wants to let lawyers decide all of this afterward,” says Union Berlin’s Mr. Arbeit. With other European football leagues soon to restart, including the English Premier League on June 16, sporting officials are now sorting out the next step: European club competitions. One proposal is to fly all the teams to one location in France or Turkey, quarantine for two weeks at different hotels, and then play games back to back, says Mr. Ford.

Overall, he says, the league’s reopening was not only a big boost for fans but it also “signaled to the wider public that things are returning toward normal.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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