Matt Scott: Bundesliga battle to haul back English TV gap looks a lost cause

“If you look at the German TV market, it will not be possible any time soon for the Bundesliga to sell its rights for that much money.” Christian Seifert, Bundesliga chief executive

Investors looking for safe havens for their money in these troubled times have stampeded into German sovereign debt. The rationale is that the strongest economy in Europe will never default on its borrowings and so there is no risk to the investor’s capital. These bonds are so highly valued that in order to lend money to the German treasury the creditor has to pay for the privilege – 0.24% each year for a two-year Bund. There can be no better measure of the strength of the German economy.

And there can be no better measure of the strength of German football than that the nation are champions of the world. The bulk of the national-team squad play in the Bundesliga at Bayern, Borussia Dortmund, Werder Bremen, Schalke, Hoffenheim or Hanover, big names in the football world. And ten months ago, when contesting their Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid, Bayern Munich did so as reigning European champions. Every week Bundesliga stadiums are full, with some of the best fans in the world creating a fabulous football atmosphere.

Yet despite all these many strengths, financially the German game stands in the shadow of the English league, which this month announced a record £5.136 billion (€7.05bn, $7.9bn), three-year deal for its domestic live rights alone. This perplexes the Bundesliga,, whose current global deal earns clubs €2.5 billion (£1.8bn, $2.8bn) Indeed, on the day of that announcement, its chief executive, Christian Seifert, offered an interview with Bild to dampen expectations around the value of his own league’s rights.

There are some 35 million households in Germany with at least one TV set, and Germans spent about three-and-a-half hours a day watching it, but the values of domestic TV rights do not reflect the size and economic dominance of the nation. So, why is it? Seifert told the Leaders Sport Business Summit: “[For] the media revenues Germany has a not-so-easy media infrastructure compared to England. We have to deal with the circumstances we have. We cannot go with our league in another country or whatever. We have to deal with the stuff that’s there.

“We have very good partners. We are very happy for instance with Sky Deutschland and all our other partners and we work hard to stay where we are. The biggest chances to grow are in media rights nationally and internationally.”

Seifert was more correct when saying that the media infrastructure just is not there to develop valuable TV rights for the Bundesliga than saying there is a good growth opportunity in domestic media rights. This is because there is next to no competition in the market. There are plenty of channels, but nearly all of them are free to air and belong to only two media conglomerates. RTL, Vox and n-tv belong to Bertelsmann while ProSiebenSAT.1 owns Sat 1, Pro 7, Kabel 1, 9Liver and N24. The only pay-tv network is Sky Deutschland.

And here’s the rub: far from presaging inflation for the Bundesliga rights model, the latest Premier League rights deal could very well represent a future subsidy from the German league in favour of England. Although it operates both in Italy and Germany through its Sky Italia and Deutschland brands, Sky’s core operation is undoubtedly the UK. This has created a situation where all available lifeblood cash has been drawn in to the core to keep the heart pumping.

When the current Sky Deutschland deal expires at the end of 2016-17, the UK Sky operation will be one season through its new deal, which has seen inflation of around 80%. The chances of Sky, which has no other pay-tv network bidding against them, paying anything more than it already does is at best slim.

So what hope does the Bundesliga have? Well, there is perhaps some succour to be drawn from the English media model. The arrival of BT, a telecoms company, to the market in the current rights cycle, surprised everyone. But it is BT’s search for “quad play” subscribers who buy broadband internet, premium-content tv, mobile and fixed-line telephone services in a single bundle that has driven the value in Premier League rights.

As the number of subscribers in Sky Deutschland continues to grow fast, with 4 million households taking up the service last year, up from 2.14 million in 2009, there could be some incentive for Deutsche Telekom to make the same play. Its T-Home brand offers a similar bundle to BT’s offering. In the previous rights cycle it had broadcast Bundesliga matches live across the internet but has been shut out of the football market since losing that package to Sky.

How stung Deutsche Telekom has been by that will determine whether it wants to bid fiercely in the next auction, but there is no question that the spoils for the winner are anything like as valuable as they are in the UK. Sky Deutschland subscription revenues were €394 million (£287.1m, $442.6m) in the most recent quarter, or about €1.58 billion (£1.15bn, $1.77bn) a year compared to more than £6 billion from households in England.

Still, Seifert wants to close the tv-rights gap with England and is prepared to take a look at scheduling to do so ahead of launching its tender process next year. Currently there are five different TV slots, compared with up to seven in England. But at the moment, all suggestions for creative scheduling are meeting stiff resistance from fans who object to the introduction of more staggered kick-off times as in England. Indeed, viewers have also in the past given the thumbs down: Saturday-night matches achieved poor ratings and were abandoned.

Then there is the question of the winter break. When German football hibernates, its audience switches over to watch Premier League games, which is precisely why the English competition’s chief executive, Richard Scudamore, has fought so hard to protect those fixtures around the 2022 World Cup.

So the issues facing the German league are many and varied: weak current revenues, a lack of competition and subscription revenue in pay-tv, a need for the Bundesliga’s current broadcast partner to keep overall-group costs in check to pay for its enormous UK investment and audience resistance to creative scheduling.

But there is one, faint hope for the Bundesliga. Sky has now built a business with 25 million subscribers across Europe. Its reach in the football market is very strong indeed. That gives it tremendous political clout in the game. If a broadcaster with deep pockets and a desire to wield that political influence for other purposes – one like the Qatari state-owned BeInSports, for instance – were to step in and purchase Sky altogether, it might lead to rights-value inflation in all the key leagues. That was certainly the case in France when BeIn bought the Ligue 1 rights from Canal Plus.

It is, though, a faint hope, as purchasing Sky outright would cost perhaps £25 billion (€34.3bn, $38.5bn), enough to make even the gas-rich ruling sheikhs wince. The broader German economy might be going strong but it seems it will be a long while yet before anyone pays to lend to Bundesliga clubs.

Journalist and broadcaster Matt Scott wrote the Digger column for The Guardian newspaper for five years and is now a columnist for Insideworldfootball. Contact him at oc.ll1566628556abtoo1566628556fdlro1566628556wedis1566628556ni@tt1566628556ocs.t1566628556tam1566628556m.