- Both the DFL and ESPN are keen to extend their relationship for the long-term
- The Bundesliga is keen for more clubs to be more active in the US
- Bunnell emphasises importance of owning both the English and Spanish coverage rights to the league
The German Football League (DFL) and ESPN have indicated strong interest in extending their media rights partnership, with both parties reaffirming their long-term commitment to marketing the Bundesliga in the US.
The Disney-owned broadcaster acquired the US rights to Germany’s top soccer league in 2019, with a six-year deal set to expire at the end of the 2025/26 season. Its partnership began with the Covid-affected 2020/21 campaign, which forced both partners to amend initial marketing plans for the competition.
Speaking at a media visit in Germany earlier this month, ahead of Borussia Dortmund’s home clash with Bayern Munich, Tim Bunnell, ESPN senior vice president for programming said: “We are in this for the long term. We haven’t engaged in renewal talks but I expect to. There’s a lot to look forward to in our future.
“We have two years to go, we have a lot of development to do still. We got a late start with Covid, and we had to pause out of the gate.
“Contracts began and end, but we’re looking at this as a much longer term relationship and we’re just getting started.”
“We one hundred per cent agree and we would like to ask the clubs to even do more in the US, and to be more active and to come more often, so that we can build upon this and grow together in the US as much as we can,” added Peer Naubert, chief marketing officer of Bundesliga International.
Since replacing Fox as the US broadcaster of the Bundesliga, ESPN has worked closely with the DFL to ensure widespread coverage, and the league remains one of the network’s biggest soccer properties within its portfolio.
“Certainly when we look at the Bundesliga relationship, one of the high watermarks for us is the quality and the innovation on the production side,” said Bunnell. “It’s a big selling point for us.
“We deal with a lot of European [soccer] leagues. And we’ve always felt from where we sit, that we get tremendous support from the Bundesliga, almost more than we do from any other league. So the relationship starts on a very positive tone.”
Bunnell also acknowledged the DFL’s support in embracing the transition from linear programming to streaming. The majority of Bundesliga games are shown on the network’s direct-to-consumer (DTC) platform ESPN+, with a select number of games shown on ESPN’s linear channels.
“It’s all 306 matches in one place on ESPN+, it’s a clean, coherent environment,” he continued. “It’s not confusing to the fan. It’s a long term deal, we offer coverage in English and Spanish, which may sound like a small thing, but a lot of soccer rights are sold in the US divided along those lines, which for us is not ideal.
“We would rather own the whole thing and make sure that we’re serving the Hispanic community – we know that 28 per cent of Bundesliga fans are Hispanics. And so to be able to have the entire offering within our portfolio, is a critical piece from a programming standpoint.”
Disney has subsequently confirmed it plans to launch a DTC streaming version of ESPN in 2025, with the company in talks to find strategic partners for the new service. Bunnell said there were no plans to increase the number of games chosen for linear coverage, with the Bundesliga considered a cornerstone of ESPN’s DTC strategy.
“Our business at ESPN is undergoing a pretty significant transformation,” Bunnell explained. “The most important thing for us, is how we navigate from what was a pay-TV, linear television model, to this DTC world.
“The Bundesliga is at the center of that transition for us. It’s the most important initiative we have at the company, and it’s contingent upon content that’s going to drive consumer subscription. When we started working with the Bundesliga a few years ago, we were at three million subscribers.
“The Bundesliga was one of the first of our programming partners to say, ‘we buy into this DTC, digital-first vision’. We’re now at 26 million subscribers, so it’s grown quite a bit in a couple of years. There’s not a more important thing that we’re doing in our universe than direct-to-consumer.
“We often get the question, ‘if you’re growing the Bundesliga, then why aren’t all the matches on ABC? Or why aren’t there more of them on ESPN?’ We do a certain number of linear matches a year, but the goal really is to make the consumer understand that ESPN+ is the home for the Bundesliga.
“That’s what we mean by digital first. There are a number of properties that have worked well for us. UFC is a big one, PGA Tour golf, and in the [soccer] space, it’s the Bundesliga. Those are the properties that really help drive our direct-to-consumer base.”
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