The eyes of the football world will focus on events in Germany this weekend as top-flight football finally returns. But their enviable position will inevitably prove to be an opportunity lost. With a captive global audience, the Bundesliga has the chance to showcase its unique appeal.
But the fans that are fundamental to the product on offer will be looking in from the outside just like everyone else.
The culture of the domestic game in Germany is built upon the solid foundations of the relationship between each club and its fans. And the long-term strategy to develop these relationships has been pivotal in establishing the unique spirit that defines the brilliant fan-culture in the country.
The scale of the COVID-19 crisis has continued to affect every aspect of daily life around the world. The decimation of the sporting calendar as a result of the pandemic has taken away another recreational distraction from the stresses and strains of modern times.
But the first tentative steps towards normality are being taken. And the success of the Bundesliga’s return this weekend will provide a reference point for other major leagues around the world. A dynamic and forward-thinking league, this is a glorious opportunity to project their game to a whole new audience.
However, the very essence of the Bundesliga’s success will be missing. With matches set to be played behind closed doors, there will inevitably be an eerie atmosphere to the proceedings. And it will be in stark contrast to the passionate noise and colour that provides such a defining image of the league.
The Ruhr derby
The weekend's action opens with the Revierderby between Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04. The derby fixture is one of the most eagerly anticipated games in the Bundesliga, and it usually takes centre stage as an occasion to promote the league to the rest of the world.
The rivalry between the two teams from the Ruhr region is a focal point of the season. The Signal Iduna Park would usually welcome over 80,000 passionate fans for this fixture from both sides of the divide. Instead, it will be empty, and it will intriguing to see how the silence of the terraces affects the intensity of this usually highly-charged derby match.
Passionate support is not unique to the Revierderby or the Bundesliga. But there is a culture behind the atmosphere created that makes the domestic game in Germany so special, and it deserves more recognition. The fan movement in Germany is different, and the relationship between clubs and supporters has developed a tight bond that is mutually beneficial for both parties.
As a business, maximising income is key for clubs, but supporters have evolved into customers for many leading clubs around the world. Supply and demand is the general rule for establishing ticket prices across Europe’s biggest and best stadiums. But there is a different approach in Germany. While tickets remain scarce, the prices remain low.
This ensures that the stadiums are consistently full, and a broad spectrum of the local community is represented on the terraces to experience the highs and lows. Young fans are seen as the future, and pricing them out of experiencing such an atmosphere during their formative years is considered counter-productive for the long-term strategy.
Over the years, the concerning evolution of the football tourist has become a point of debate. The English Premier League clubs, in particular, have led the way in encouraging a different status of supporter through inflated ticket prices. Now largely inaccessible to the average family group, there is a long-term danger for the future of the traditional football fan.
In contrast, German champions Bayern Munich recognise the significant income they can make through sponsorship, television rights and other corporate channels, without exploiting their fans. While financial success can lead to increased greed, there remains admirable respect from the Bundesliga clubs towards their fans.
Football without fans is nothing
Match ticket and season ticket prices in the Bundesliga are roughly on a par with the fifth or sixth tier of the English game. This shows that there is clearly a difference in approach between the two countries.
The status of Bayern Munich in the world game means that the Bavarian giants could charge much, much more for tickets and continue to sell-out the Allianz Arena. But they do not see their fans as part of their financial strategy.
In return, a different culture exists and experiencing what the Bundesliga has to offer first-hand provides a real lesson in fan engagement. There is still work to do, and giving fans more power does lead to occasional conflict. But mutual respect ensures that solutions can be found. Passing on the responsibility to the fans ensures that their club becomes a source of personal pride.
Sadly, this weekend the football world will not get to see the real Bundesliga, even though the television audience will reach unprecedented numbers. It will be for the individuals on the pitch to produce and set a positive first impression for many curious onlookers. But regardless of the quality of football on show, there will be a nagging frustration that the package was not complete.
Leading clubs from across Europe can learn a lot from the Bundesliga's model, and how the 50+1 ownership rule has been the cornerstone for the relationship between the supporters and the club. We may not see the usual stadium images across Germany this weekend, but the world is slowly returning to a more familiar state. And the real Bundesliga will return one day too.