The numbers really do seem to run together whenever a major international soccer competition takes centre stage. Television ratings, franchise values, sponsorship agreements – at times their sheer weight becomes overwhelming.
And that will be the case Saturday when for the first time two German club teams, Bayern Munich and Borussia-Dortmund, meet at London’s Wembley Stadium in the final of the UEFA Champions League. Last year’s final, in which Chelsea beat Bayern 4-3 on penalties in Munich, pulled in a world-wide peak viewing audience of 300 million.
This year, the teams that took part in the competition leading up to the final – which started in July with knock-out stage competition to select 10 club teams from the various European domestic leagues to join 22 seeded teams in the group stage – are expected to divvy up $1.17-billion (U.S.)
But the operative number for today’s final, the number that explains why this meeting between the lordly traditional rulers of German soccer – Bayern Munich – and their trendy underdog opponents is ‘two.’ As in €2-million – roughly, $2.3-million (U.S.) – which is the size of the loan that Bayern extended Dortmund in 2003 when the latter club teetered on the edge of bankruptcy and couldn’t meet its obligations.
Dortmund, which two years earlier made the ill-advised decision to make itself a publicly-traded company, would find itself in crisis again in 2005 and survived largely when its players agreed to a 20-per-cent pay cut. With a strong academy that has formed the underpinning of the team’s revival and some shrewd purchases on the open player market, Dortmund has won two of the past three Bundesliga titles and in that time has more than doubled its sponsorship revenue to the point where it is now the 13th highest-valued soccer franchise in the world.
How good has Dortmund become? So good that it is a 20-year-old midfielder named Mario Goetze, who was in Dortmund’s academy when he was 8, who recently set the transfer record for a German-born player – when Bayern paid $48-million (U.S.) to activate a clause in Goetze’s agreement with Dortmund. That, plus the fact that several of Bayern’s executives have a background with Dortmund, is one reason that Saturday’s game will be chock-full of emotion, even though Goetze’s injured hamstring will keep him out of action.
“This is a massive rivalry,” said Paul Stalteri, the Toronto-born defender who holds the record for appearances in the Canadian national men’s team (84 caps) and who played in the Bundesliga from 1998-2005 with Werder Bremen and returned to play for Borussia-Moenchengladbach in 2009-11. “These groups of fans would like nothing better than to have something to hold over the other.”
It is only the fourth time that the Champions League final will be played between teams from the same country and even though many of the key players on the pitch will be from outside Germany (Dortmund’s talismanic striker Robert Lewandowski is Polish, while Dutchman Arjen Robben, the Frenchman Franck Ribéry and Spaniard Javi Martinez will have a significant say in Bayern’s success) it will be taken to be another sign of the ascendancy of German soccer.
The current crop of German players has yet to win anything of major significance internationally, but the depth of top-level talent is breathtaking and the multiethnic composition of the German national team is seen as a statement of the new German state.
More to the point, club soccer in Germany has become a trendy talking point internationally, with effective financial-management guidelines in place including a 50-plus-one rule that guarantees fans’ representatives a majority representation on each club’s board and mitigates against one businessman or company running the club.
That doesn’t mean that major corporations can’t exercise influence through partnerships or sponsorships – Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen had corporate ownership grandfathered when they joined the Bundesliga, and Bayern Munich’s sponsorship list is a ‘who’s who’ of German financial and political life – but it has kept ticket prices remarkably cheap. You can see Bayern play for a little over $20 (U.S.).
Whether it’s sustainable is debatable at a time when the English Premier League, for example, will make more than $1.29-billion (U.S.) more from television revenues than the Bundesliga and is putting 67 per cent of revenue generated into player salaries compared to the Bundesliga’s 37 per cent, but for now German soccer is the envy of Europe.
“This is a chance to show the world that German club football is alive, that it has caught up with the competition,” Bayern honorary president Franz Beckenbauer, one of the greatest German soccer players in history, said to the Munchner Merkur newspaper.
“They say Dortmund received 250,000 requests for tickets,” said Stalteri, who on several occasions as an opponent played in Dortmund’s 80,720-seat Westfalenstadion – officially called Signal Iduna Park – and stared into the craw of the 25,000-strong Yellow Wall, a standing-only area in the south end of the stadium. Actually, the figure was 502,567 applications for 24,000 available tickets, meaning the club, which plays to 97-per-cent capacity and has 50,000 season-ticket holders – used a lottery system to distribute tickets.