How the DFL is keeping the Bundesliga one step ahead in the technology arms race

The fan experience has always been at the heart of German soccer.

Euphoric stadium atmospheres, affordable ticket prices and fan ownership of clubs are just a handful of factors that have solidified the Bundesliga’s reputation as one of the world’s most fan-friendly sports leagues.

The fan experience also inspires innovation within the German Football League (DFL), the organising body responsible for the top two tiers of German soccer. The DFL subsidiary, DFL Digital Sports, creates and supplies its own in-house media content for the DFL through its ‘glass to glass’ strategy, ensuring the Bundesliga remains at the forefront of sport’s pursuit of technological advancement. Latest innovations include the incorporation of next-generation statistics during broadcast coverage of the Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2, the newly launched Bundesliga Next app, and augmented reality (AR) experiences.

For Andreas Heyden, chief executive of DFL Digital Sports and executive vice president of digital innovation at the DFL, the unit’s goal is to reach younger audiences by creating innovative content experiences that cater to the modern soccer fan.

“If you don’t offer them something that is new and different, that feels like an enrichment of their fan experience, you’re going to have lots of challenges,” he explains. “By just showing great football and lively stadiums, that’s not enough for this generation.”

Offering some insight on modern fan behaviour, and how changing tastes have influenced the DFL’s new products, Heyden adds: “Fan behaviour is a highly complex construct; for example, the average football fan is interested in four clubs. We believe if we are not engaging the younger target group with our content, then in the world of aggregation platforms and pure digital players, our competition is only one click away. Once these kids have decided [on] a club, and later a league, not just a player, then it’s too late. So we have to start early.”

Part of Andreas Heyden’s brief as DFL Digital Sports CEO is helping the Bundesliga reach younger audiences

At this year’s DFL Supercup match between rivals FC Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund on 17th August, the traditional fan experience was in full view. Signal Iduna Park welcomed back 25,000 fans, a reduced capacity in line with Germany’s current Covid regulations, for the latest instalment of Der Klassiker.

For the tech-savvy fan in selected regions around the world, there was also a new way of experiencing the game on show, as the match streamed in a vertical-screen format. The bespoke broadcast was made possible by a dedicated editorial team using 9:16 camera lenses to show the match, which Bayern won 3-1.

The DFL first trialled the vertical streaming format in December 2019, during a Bundesliga match between VFL Wolfsburg and SV Werder Bremen. For August’s Supercup, two of the Bundesliga’s broadcast partners, German network RanSport and digital platform OneFootball, both shared live coverage of the game on their TikTok channels, while UK pay-TV broadcaster Sky Sports also aired the fixture in vertical via its mobile app. The results were encouraging across the board for both the DFL and its partners; RanSport recorded over 450,000 unique users, while OneFootball reached over 500,000 unique users on TikTok, gaining 54,000 additional followers in the process.

“In 2019, pre-Covid, we came across an interesting data point,” recalls Heyden, explaining the thinking behind this new concept. “Already at that time, over 50 per cent of our video usage was done in the vertical format – so scrolling through an Instagram feed or a Facebook feed at that time on your mobile app or on the mobile browser. From the analytics we could see how much of that is vertical.

“What we have seen is that in a world which gets more and more star-focused, more and more [people] want to see the heroes. When [Robert] Lewandowski runs towards you, it looks very different in vertical.

“So in roughly September/October 2019 we did our proof of concept. We took plastic cameras with horizontal, wide-length lenses, tilted them vertically, we did the whole editing suite, and trained a director to manage the broadcast of a football match in this way.”

This latest technology is emblematic of the DFL’s ‘glass to glass’ content strategy, a model which consists of three subsidiary divisions. The first of these, Sportcast, provides the TV base signal for all Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2 matches, and is responsible for the international distribution of the live TV signal across over 200 countries around the world. The DFL Digital Sports subsidiary oversees the Bundesliga’s content production across the league’s online and social media platforms, in addition to the app. Meanwhile, the third division, Sportec Solutions, generates data and statistics in real-time, which are integrated into live match coverage.

Through this strategy, the DFL delivers a unique viewing experience directly to the consumer – from the glass of the camera lens, to the glass of the viewer’s screen. Since the Bundesliga became the first soccer league to experiment with the 9:16 vertical-screen format, Heyden is optimistic that the DFL’s production will offer a new perspective for the consumer.

“Yes, football is a horizontal game – you want to see the width of the whole game and the set up of the game play,” notes Heyden. “But if customers show a dedicated behaviour of an individual player where they want to consume content in a different way – that created the idea for us, that we should look to be doing something different.”
Heyden believes the DFL’s in-house production is one of its main advantages when it comes to capitalising on the popularity of a platform like TikTok. Owning “the whole production media value chain” enables the league “to have a very well defined, and even better executed, content strategy which caters to the needs of the specific platform at the specific point of time,” he says.

Initial results indicate that the DFL’s experiments with vertical video formats to date have proved successful. As Heyden notes: “Everyone can see the numbers, but 1.1 million people tuned in on TikTok, on the vertical video, within 90 minutes, which has blown us away.”

In a similar fashion, the newly launched Bundesliga Next app aims to capture the imagination of younger demographics. The new app offers a customised experience for its users, providing live updates from the Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2, in-depth statistics, and daily highlight videos from the Bundesliga’s star players.

“We took our own Bundesliga app, which I think is a very well built, service-driven and stable product,” explains Heyden. “You find the information with the fewest amount of clicks you need, you have the fastest push notification service, you have engaging and entertaining animation, you have Bundesliga Match Facts Powered by AWS providing relevant and in-depth match analytics. On the Monday after the matchday you have highlights. So it’s a very well built app that services the engaged fan.”

Encouraged by engagement with the new app, Heyden adds: “At the moment, the ratio of unique user to video view is 40 times higher in the Bundesliga Next app than the Bundesliga app, which shows that we’re moving towards the right direction.”

The German language can cause us some limitation on engagement, so we have to find a competitive edge which overcomes this.

Andreas Heyden, Chief Executive, DFL Digital Sports

With offices in New York, Beijing and Singapore, the DFL is looking to build on its existing broadcast partnerships around the world to create localised content for different international markets. Heyden believes that the Bundesliga is already “well set up” to create similar apps to Bundesliga Live in the near future.

Indeed, the foundations for the Bundesliga’s content strategy were first set ten years ago. It was then that Christian Seifert, chief executive of the DFL, set out to develop a product that would have global appeal; a product which would be driven by digital innovation, while honouring the fan-oriented roots of German soccer.

“The German language can cause us some limitation on engagement, so we have to find a competitive edge which overcomes this. In this regard, we embrace the special way we as a league treat our fans and treat our clubs, and how the clubs are structured as focal points of their communities,” reflects Heyden.

“When you can’t spend the biggest [amount of] money on the star names, you have to develop more competitive edges. The first one was competence – competence to produce a media product by ourselves. Only when we act like a media company [can] we fully understand media companies, and provide the best product to them.”

Bundesliga interactive feed lets broadcast partners offer personalised streams

The DFL’s interactive feed product has been rolled to its international broadcast partners

Also at the Supercup, the DFL demonstrated its “Interactive Feed”, putting the viewer in complete control of their broadcast experience. As well as viewing customised highlights from different matches throughout the afternoon, users can choose to see live Bundesliga Match Facts, with the relevant content overlaid on screen during the match.

Users can then also personalise this content to suit their needs. Already, Japanese broadcaster SPTV plans to incorporate this into its own Bundesliga Live App, drawing on the league’s popularity in Japan. “You can see, with one click of a button, replays of all Japanese players from the matchday,” Heyden says. “You can get faster results, you get faster replays, you get new ways to enjoy the game. This differentiates us from other leagues and it creates value towards the broadcaster.”

Looking ahead, the DFL sees numerous avenues for innovation in the future. Heyden identifies two main priorities for any new projects, the first being the Bundesliga’s ownership of its own production, and the second being whether the league’s partners are satisfied.

Meanwhile, after a two-year delay due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the DFL has set the date for its SportsInnovation event, which will take place in Düsseldorf on 11th and 12th May 2022. Originally planned for March 2020, the trade fair will showcase myriad technologies from across the global sports and technology sectors, allowing those in attendance to see some of the new innovations in action.

Despite his disappointment when SportsInnovation was originally postponed, Heyden is optimistic about the event.

“What the league has built up in this event, it’s one of a kind,” he says. “What we offer to our visitors is a trade fair, where the latest and greatest companies explore their sports technology. Technology itself doesn’t sell, it’s always the application of technology. So we’re adding four innovation games, where we have teams playing against each other, it’s happening in the stadium.

“Every exhibitor gets access to the data feeds, the media feeds and the audio feeds, and can showcase their technology at their booth or at the event itself. And thirdly, now we have a conference added to it, where on the second day we have amazing speakers from all around the world, which adds a sports business part, and we try to bring innovation and business together.”

Asked how significant SportsInnovation 2022 will be for the DFL and those companies who will be showcasing their technologies, Heyden responds: “The Americans have this wonderful saying: ‘Put your money where your mouth is’. And I would say put your innovation where it belongs.”

Heyden goes on to outline the format of the highly anticipated event, and what separates the DFL from sports leagues pursuing similar initiatives. He believes that the event offers a unique experience for the visitor, who will be able to see innovative technologies first-hand: “Being in the stadium, you’re in the stands or in a box and you take a look at the technology and you look over there to the pitch and you see it’s happening in real time.”

Heyden is so confident in DFL Digital Sports’ work, in fact, that he has no issue extending invitations to other sports leagues around the world.

“We are open if La Liga wants to come, if the Premier League wants to come, or representatives from other sports leagues – everybody’s invited,” he says. “We are not afraid of sharing the outcome. Because we believe in the race for innovation, we are one step ahead.”