Commentary

David Nathanson Interview: Bundesliga, soccer's sea change and its growing relevance

By Paul Kennedy
(@pkedit)

Soccer has come a long way on American television over the last 40 years.

In the pre-cable days, Soccer Made in Germany, which debuted on PBS in 1976, was groundbreaking: a one-hour package of week-old Bundesliga highlights. Beginning this season, Fox Sports is carrying all nine Bundesliga games each week live on television or other platforms.

In an extensive interview with Soccer America, David Nathanson, Head of Business Operation for Fox Sports, talked about the Bundesliga deal, which he described as groundbreaking in its own way, as well as how Fox Sports plans to promote its coverage of Bundesliga, where soccer fits in on Fox Sports and how soccer is, as he put it, "part of the zeitgeist of what sports fans care about" and followed and supported by Americans on a scale and relevance the equal of soccer fans in just about every other country in the world.

Nathanson emphasized that Fox Sports is essentially starting from scratch with the Bundesliga, which aired in recent years on Gol TV with limited and declining distribution. He said the ratings are meeting Fox Sports' expectations -- Fox Sports 1 is averaging 75,000 total viewers per game for the first three weeks -- and the expectations are they will grow significantly. To promote its Bundesliga coverage to a wider audience, Fox will air a replay of Saturday's Bayern Munich-Augsburg game on Sunday before or after its regional coverage of the opening day of the NFL season.

The Bundesliga deal is one of many soccer deals Fox Sports has as it has built up a vast inventory of programming for its two Fox Sports networks that debuted in 2013, but it's unique in that it is part of a five-year global broadcasting agreement between the Bundesliga and 21st Century Fox, signed in October 2013, to increase exposure for the German league around the world in face of competition from the all-powerful English Premier League and the appeal of Spanish clubs Barcelona and Real Madrid.

"We were always interested in the Bundesliga," said Nathanson. "We always explored and participated in the bidding process for the rights domestically. But the opportunity came to participate in these rights as part of a multi-territory deal, which not only is completely unique in the sense that most deals we do are done on a territory-by-territory basis. Rarely have we been able to showcase the strength and reach of the various 21st Century Fox sports networks globally. But what also made this deal unique is that most European deals are done in three-year cycles. This was the first deal in the territory of any significance that was offered beyond a three-year cycle -- for five years. That opened the doors for other leagues recently, the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A, to explore and do longer-term deals outside of Europe."

Fox Sports carried the Bundesliga on the old Fox Sports World but could not promote it or the other leagues it then carried, such as the Premier League, like it can today on Fox Sports 1, Fox Sports 2, Fox Deportes, Fox Soccer Plus, plus FoxSportsGo and FoxSoccer2Go for those online or with smartphones or tablets.

"Those are all tools and assets we didn't have access to a few years back," Nathanson said. "So to be able to build a league from scratch with the quality and significance of the Bundesliga is not only a unique opportunity for us, it is an investment that we think is going to pay huge dividends for us."

While few American viewers have been able to watch the Bundesliga in recent years, that doesn't mean they weren't familiar with the Bundesliga clubs like Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04, regulars on the UEFA Champions League circuit.

"That not only showcases the power of those teams and the identity of those teams," said Nathanson, "but it showcases the power of the league in general compared to the other top leagues in Europe."

Bayern Munich is by far the most popular German club in the United States and growing even more since it set up New York offices to promote itself in the U.S. market, but Nathanson said Fox Sports' launch of Bundesliga coverage has triggered interest in other teams and the Bundesliga generally as well.

"That grassroots culture is growing and palatable," he said, "even though we have only been showcasing the rights on television for three weeks, and we're already seeing significant positive feedback and growth."

Nathanson said the primary focus of its Bundesliga coverage has been to be authentic.

"We've hired specific talent -- Ian Joy, who played in the Bundesliga, Eric Wynalda, who played in the Bundesliga, and others -- to not only provide a perspective on the league from an American point of view and German point of view," he said. "but also in our coverage, we've made it a point, especially in our first year on Fox Sports 1 and when we cover it on Big Fox, that we spend time talking about the history of the league, tradition of the teams and league and culture of German football in general because it's an important part of the league. We believe it will help grow our fan base and help people identify a team they want to connect to."

Nathanson said metrics Fox Sports has gathered on communication among fans on social media and participation in EA Sports' FIFA game show interest around the Bundesliga being greater in the last three weeks in the United States than it was in the entire past season.

The global deal allows Fox Sports to tap into the access, expertise and get the technical support of German rights-holder Sky Deutschland. It also allows Fox Sports to team up with its sister channels and pool their resources. Said Nathanson, "We can invest in significant promotional and creative tools, whether it be on-air graphics or promos, or print and outdoor creative materials because we have the ability to utilize all of these various territories that are participating in this deal and create efficiencies for us."

Fox Sports' coverage of the 2015 Women's World Cup, the first major event in its now 12-year rights deal with FIFA, and its recent launch of the Bundesliga are its latest play in soccer.

"No one has made a bigger investment in soccer in this country than Fox Sports," he said. "You can look at our historical investment or you can look just at our investment with the rights we have today: our portfolio rights from FIFA to MLS to the U.S. men's and women's national teams, to the FA Cup and Concacaf, to the Bundesliga, to Champions League, to Europa League, to UEFA qualifiers and World Cup qualifiers. They are unmatched in this territory. So clearly not only is soccer a priority for us, we are putting our money where our mouth is in terms of making it a priority for us and acquiring a portfolio of rights that showcases what we believe is the best soccer in the world. Period."

Fox Sports' investment in the sport comes as viewing interest has exploded.

"It's changed exponentially," Nathanson said, "and it is something we are proud to have been a part of. We think that there are many significant reasons why you see this sea change and support for the sport. You've had great broadcast partners who have made a significant investment, from ESPN to NBC, who have done a fantastic job with their coverage of the sport. We believe we have been an important part of that as well.

"You've seen the growth and participation in games like the FIFA game, which is the No. 2 sports game in the United States and has been for the past five years. Which means that young players know the rules of the game but they also know the key teams and key players. They become household names.

"You have growth and the impact of social media, where soccer clubs and and soccer players are some of the most dominant and followed social-media personalities in sports, which makes them part of a global conversation.

"You see it in the sale of kits with young kids walking around in Real Madrid jerseys or Bayern Munich jerseys and a Chelsea jersey. It's changed so dramatically in the past few years. For the first time, you're really reaching the second generation of soccer fans in this country."

Things have changed for that first-generation soccer fan whose only viewing options were programs like Soccer Made in Germany or Novantesimo Minuto, the Serie A highlight show distributed by RAI USA.

"Today there is more soccer on television than has ever existed before," said Nathanson. "You can watch more high-quality leagues on major networks than ever before. That is translating to the sport being part of the zeitgeist of what sports fans care about."

Last Friday's USA-Peru friendly on Fox Sports 1 was the 200th live soccer game Fox Sports aired this summer.

"It's been tremendous seller of programming for us," said Nathanson of the summer of soccer series. "And to see the ratings growth that we've seen just this summer has been exponential compared to our coverage of the sport in prior summers. That investment, that participation and being part of the global conversation that you're seeing fans embrace and finding their teams and supporting their country and local teams via MLS, those are all things that we think combined are helping to grow the sport in this country and put soccer in the same scale and the same relevance as the sport is, frankly, in almost every other country around the globe. And we think the sport only has upsides from here. We think the sport is only going to grow from here, and that's why we've made the investment we have."

3 comments about "David Nathanson Interview: Bundesliga, soccer's sea change and its growing relevance".
  1. ROBERT BOND, September 10, 2015 at 2:03 p.m.

    more folks with some German ancestry than just about anything else....

  2. aaron dutch, September 10, 2015 at 9:58 p.m.

    this is great they are broadcasting the Bundesliga. they need to do more to promote it on social media, they could put banners on all the soccer websites & mobile apps in the US and push it in all the soccer stores, bars. They also need more pregame& post game, having UFC between matches is lame. But its a great start to have it mainstream TV.

  3. Molly Wilsbacher, September 10, 2015 at 11:42 p.m.

    Love the Bundesliga!! So happy to be able to watch our favorite players from the German National Team with their club teams! We've been DVR'ing many of the matches when our schedule prevents watching them live. Thank you FOX!!

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