What North American Sports Can Learn from the German Bundesliga
On May 16, Germany’s top professional soccer league, the Bundesliga, became the Western Hemisphere’s first major team sports league to resume play following a COVID-19 suspension. “Project Restart” would go on to stage the competition’s final 81 matches over a six-week period, with all matches played behind closed doors. On June 27, the season came to a successful conclusion and Bayern Munich was again crowned as league champion.
In completing the full 2019-20 season, German soccer dodged a financial bullet. Although Germany managed the human costs of COVID-19 efficiently, the pandemic still threatened the existence of several professional soccer clubs. ESPN reported that German clubs would have lost $350 million in broadcast revenue if the season had been abandoned in March. According to Transfermarkt, 12 of the 36 teams in Germany’s top two leagues had pledged their final broadcast rights payment to creditors, leaving fears of insolvency and unemployment. The focus was not only on saving the season, but on saving the system.
As we look back on the last two months, North American professional leagues can learn several valuable lessons from their German colleagues.
Meticulous planning and testing
The league developed a return-to-play protocol, which included extensive COVID-19 testing and meticulous planning. League officials were able to show that their testing plans would not take away from the level of COVID-19 testing required by local communities. Importantly, the league never contemplated resuming without broad political support. Two weeks before play resumed, the return-to-play protocol was approved by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the heads of each of Germany’s sixteen state governments.
Players were eased back into no-contact small group training, before gradually increasing the number of players and intensity of training sessions. In the week prior to the restart, teams were isolated in hotels near their training facilities. The protocol specified how many people could be in any one area of the stadium on matchday, separating necessary on-field personnel from other team, league and broadcasting officials. Teams were required to socially distance at the stadium by using additional locker rooms and seating substitutes in the stands. Pre-match formalities, handshakes and traditional goal celebrations were banned. Teams faced penalties if their fans gathered outside the stadium for watch parties.
Realizing that playing a condensed schedule in warmer months could have a negative effect on player safety and performance, especially after months away from action, the Bundesliga implemented several changes to their operational regulations and rules of competition. Teams were encouraged to increase their squad/roster size with prospects from the reserve and youth teams, in case there were injuries or players isolated due to positive COVID-19 tests. With permission from soccer’s governing bodies, the league also increased the number of substitutes allowed per match from three to five, to keep players fresh and account for injuries.
Home field disadvantage
The lack of a crowd had a meaningful impact on the atmosphere in the stadium and negated any home-field advantage. The Bundesliga, long known for full stadiums and loud fans, trailed only the NFL in average attendance per game for men’s professional sports leagues around the world. In a normal year, this translated into a consistent home field advantage, with home teams winning 14%-22% more matches than they lost:
Home Win Home Loss Difference Ties
2018-19 45% 31% +14% 24%
2017-18 45% 27% +18% 28%
2016-17 49% 27% +22% 24%
Playing behind closed doors, home teams lost 12.5% more matches than they won. In fact, in the first six matchdays after the restart, home teams won only 20% — and lost 50% — of their matches. Although home teams rebounded in the final three weeks of the season, home teams won only 32% of post-restart matches — and lost 44.5% — creating a home field disadvantage.
The sounds of silence
Playing matches without fans, called Ghost Matches or “Geisterspiele” in German, not only negated the home field advantage, it also made for uncomfortable television. The shouts of players and coaches echoed off the concrete walls of empty stadiums. Domestic broadcaster Sky Germany quickly adapted and offered an optional audio feed with recorded fan noise. Using sounds from prior matches between the same teams, broadcasters simulated the sounds of a full stadium. Viewers could hear the crowd encourage an attack, celebrate a goal and whistle a bad call, just as they would during a normal match.
Teams also tried to provide a better visual atmosphere inside their stadiums. Gladbach’s supporters came up with a plan to fill their stadium with cardboard cutouts of actual fans. Over 20,000 fans paid 19€ each (about $21) to have their cardboard replicas installed all around Borussia-Park, with proceeds supporting local charities. Other teams covered empty seats with fans’ jerseys or tarps thanking local health care workers.
Robert J. Caldwell is Counsel in Fox Rothschild’s Las Vegas office, where he concentrates his practice on business litigation and transactional matters, including sports, entertainment, employment and international law issues. Caldwell is the only American to graduate from UEFA’s Football Law Academy, an advanced certification on the rules and regulations governing world soccer.