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ESPN ready to hit ground running as Bundesliga partnership in US kicks off

ESPN is making a major effort to promote its new long-term media-rights deal with the Bundesliga in the United States, which kicks off on September 18 with the 2020-21 season opener between title-holders Bayern Munich and Schalke 04.


However, ESPN executives are also conscious of the need to maintain and build momentum throughout the course of the six-season deal, which runs from 2020-21 to 2025-26, to sustain growth.


Last September, Bundesliga International, the league’s international rights sales arm, secured a deal worth about $30m (€27.1m) per season with ESPN. This is over four times the amount Fox Sports allocated for the US in its previous deal, from 2015-16 to 2019-20, which was thought to be worth in the region of $7m per season.


Under the terms of the deal, ESPN+, the sports media giant’s direct-to-consumer sports streaming service, will feature all 306 Bundesliga matches live and an on-demand replay, in both English and Spanish. The inventory also comprises the DFL-Supercup, relegation play-off matches, the second-tier 2. Bundesliga, and on-demand shoulder programmings such as highlights and magazine shows.


There will be at least four matches shown on linear television – on ESPN or ESPN2 – each season, while highlights will be available in various ESPN programs and on the ESPN App and ESPN.com.


As such, the ESPN deal marks a sharp reduction in the amount of linear exposure compared to its predecessor. But the Bundesliga is satisfied with this arrangement, according to Arne Rees, Bundesliga International’s executive vice-president of strategy for the Americas, “because ESPN+ is the fastest-growing platform [and] will attract a more dedicated audience for soccer than basic cable”.


There has already been extensive content across ESPN platforms in the build-up to the 2020-21 Bundesliga season, most notably an SC Featured profile of American player Giovanni Reyna, who is a rising star at Borussia Dortmund.


The partnership officially kicks off with the Bayern-Schalke game, which is being simulcast on ESPN, the Spanish-language ESPN Deportes, and streaming service ESPN+. There will also be widespread shoulder programming throughout ESPN’s portfolio of properties, including Bundesliga Countdown Live across digital platforms and ESPN FC Live shows both before and after the game.



The season opener is especially a big deal for Bayern Munich, which has a major presence in the United States, having opened an office in New York in 2014.


“Together with the Bundesliga, we have been working closely with ESPN for the last few months to ensure we are delivering access to the club as well as working together to create content and unique storytelling,” said Bayern’s president of the Americas Rudolf Vidal. “The Covid-19 pandemic has altered the way our fans would usually consume the team they love, they can no longer get together in the hundreds to watch their team. This makes additional content and storytelling around the games more important than ever, keeping fans close to the team they love.”


Among wider content plans for ESPN, it has been announced that 50 classic Bundesliga matches will be available on ESPN+, which will also house a series of episodes of Soccer Made in Germany, a West German Football Association highlights show which previously aired on PBS networks from 1976-1988.


Meanwhile, ESPN Deportes will provide comprehensive Spanish-language coverage across SportsCenterJorge Ramos y Su Banda, and Ahora o Nunca throughout the season. In addition, European soccer show Fuera de Juego will preview the 2020-2021 season with a special edition streaming live on September 17 on ESPN+.


ESPN is also investing in top talent in its Bundesliga coverage, with veteran commentator, Derek Rae appointed the lead Bundesliga play-by-play voice for linear TV games, while former Norway striker Jan Aage Fjørtoft has been hired as a studio analyst and German soccer journalist Archie Rhind-Tutt as a reporter.


SportBusiness spoke to Russell Wolff, the ESPN+ executive vice president, and general manager, about ESPN’s plans for the Bundesliga in both the short and long term.


To what extent has Bayern Munich’s triumph in the Champions League heightened ESPN’s excitement in covering the Bundesliga?


It certainly doesn’t hurt! To me, it reflects the level of talent and excitement that the Bundesliga brings. But honestly, our excitement was really high before all that, it’s just been heightened. We closed the deal about a year ago and it’s a long-term deal – the excitement of the high-scoring nature of the Bundesliga and the excitement on the pitch, plus young, really vibrant, exciting players and the great connection to American fans, we think it’s going to be great. We feel like Bundesliga to ESPN+ is going to be a central part of what we believe will be the most comprehensive and most compelling offer to soccer fans.


How extensively will the Bundesliga be promoted across ESPN platforms this week for the big launch?


I think certainly we and others get caught up on ‘launch’ – launch is one weekend but for us, it’s about the launch and the sustaining of it. We’re going to be aggressive in our marketing, we have both a Bundesliga-specific campaign and a campaign that shows the comprehensive soccer offering on ESPN+ with the Bundesliga as the major part of that. Both of those campaigns feature a combination of the brand but also [initiatives] meant to drive subscription. It will be across our on-channel assets and off-channel.


This is just the first weekend so it will be a big push but it will continue to evolve and grow throughout the season around key matches, moments, and milestones. We will be refreshing creative at various points as we go through the season to avoid any fatigue and hopefully highlighting the biggest storylines as they evolve. We’ll also be looking to launch dedicated creative content around historic rivalries and derbies taking place, whether it’s Der Klassiker (Bayern Munich v Borussia Dortmund) or the Revierderby (FC Schalke 04 v Borussia Dortmund).


We think about it as both a big launch but also the beginning of something which we’ll be doing on a regular cadence. And there are lots of opportunities to expose the Bundesliga across all parts of ESPN platforms, whether that’s storytelling or with the use of clips and highlights across digital and social platforms and in SportsCenter.


How closely have you worked with Bundesliga International staff to shape your broadcast and marketing plans?


The company has had a good relationship with the Bundesliga for years, given we’ve known them for a long time and worked with them in various [international] markets previously. It’s fantastic to be expanding that relationship with ESPN+ in the US. Our folks have worked closely with headquarters [in Frankfurt] and the Americas office, they have been really great collaborators. We feel really good about the relationship on multiple levels and across geographies.


Do you know yet how many games will be aired on linear television this season? It was originally going to be between four and eight games…


We have nothing to share on that front. Whether it’s four or a few more [on linear television], this is primarily an ESPN+ property.


How will your additional shoulder programming look like across platforms?


We’re storytellers at heart at ESPN, whether that’s classic stories or long-running stories or stories at the moment, we’re going to tell those stories about the Bundesliga, whether that’s on SportsCenter, on ESPN linear television, the ESPN FC show sitting on ESPN+ or on features that we create to sit on our platforms or off our platforms. We’re always looking for great stories to tell in all of our formats, ranging from 10-second highlights to multipart Oscar-award-winning documentaries.


We’re excited to be digging into the Bundesliga and the combination of historical footage and historical shows such as Soccer Made in Germany, let us do a good look-back and we’ve got the platform particularly on ESPN FC to tell those stories at the moment when they happen.


There was some talk when the deal was announced that there could be a 30 for 30 documentary about a Bundesliga story, is that on the cards at all?


Given the long-term nature of the agreement and our commitment to surrounding matches and leagues, we cover with a variety of storytelling coverage that it’s on the list of things we can and will explore. But there is nothing currently planned.


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