CORONAVIRUS

Bundesliga: Football’s return breaks TV record but leaves some fans turned off

After a crucial weekend in football’s response to COVID-19 there were mixed feelings about the sport’s ‘new normal’.

Bundesliga: Football’s return breaks TV record but leaves some fans turned off
HANNIBAL HANSCHKE REUTERS

The Bundesliga’s return last weekend marked the first tentative steps in football’s journey back to normality after all major leagues were suspended due to the coronavirus outbreak. Understandably the spectacle that returned was not one that fans recognise with substitutes required to wear face masks; post-goal embraces discouraged and post-match interviews conducted from a distance.

But most obvious of all was the absence of supporters in a league that is often credited as having the best in-stadium atmosphere of any league. A study carried out by Forbes in 2019 found that the Bundesliga has the highest average attendance of any soccer league and Borussia Dortmund attract the largest average crowd of any football club in the world

Bundesliga Breaks German TV Record

With fixtures only allowed to resume with games played behind closed doors, domestic broadcaster Sky Germany reported record-breaking viewing figures for the Saturday fixtures. The first game was the hotly-anticipated Revierderby between Borussia Dortmund and Schalke, helping to draw an audience of over six million in Germany alone. That is over double the usual viewing figures for a typical Saturday round of fixtures.

The big boost in audience was helped by the fact that the Bundesliga faced little competition from other leagues, and by the decision to broadcast the Saturday games on a free-to-air Sky News channel in what was called a ‘Konferenz’ format. All five Saturday afternoon fixtures were broadcast simultaneously and may have given a first look at the UK government’s proposed plan to make Premier League fixtures available on terrestrial television.

Despite the enormous viewing figures not all in Germany were so enthused by the Bundesliga’s return with a number of ‘Ultra’ groups arguing that games should not be held unless fans can attend. Fans of FC Köln placed a sofa outside their stadium with the words “Stadium instead of sofa! Against ghost games!” spray-painted on. The term ‘Gegen Geisterspiele’, meaning ‘Against Ghost Games’, was widely used by supporters angry at the decision to play behind closed doors.

Bundesliga offers a blueprint

Across the game there seems to be an acceptance that, initially, football will make its return in empty stadiums and after months with no action many fans were just pleased to see the sport return.

Former Bolton Wanderer midfielder Fabrice Muamba tweeted his support of the decision to protect the fans but admitted that it brings new challenges for players.

After a weekend in which the top two, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, strolled to comfortable victories it has been suggested that clubs or broadcasters could add artificial crowd noise to add to the spectacle. It would be an extremely controversial move and journalist James Nalton argued that it would be wrong to try to simulate the atmosphere that supporters produce.

There will probably be some tweaks made in the coming weeks as German football authorities work out how best to conduct the fixtures in this unfamiliar scenario but the signs from the first weekend were generally positive. The Bundesliga enjoyed the global attention that it would not usually receive and was broadcast live in 70 countries across the world.

It seems likely that once the threat to public health is reduced in other countries we may start to see similar decisions made for Europe’s other elite leagues. Schalke sporting director Jochen Schneider revealed that he was aware of interest from other top clubs as they look to restart their domestic competitions:

"We got calls and emails from big clubs in Spain and England and I know they really hope that we manage this situation so that other leagues can restart as well”, he said. "We know how important it is to restart and finish the season”.