Two weeks ago, I spent several days in Germany for World Soccer Talk. Included in the trip was a look ahead to January’s Florida Cup which will be held in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale. FC Schalke 04 and Bayer Leverkusen 04 both make the journey to the Sunshine State during the one month German Bundesliga winter break. The two clubs both in North Rhine-Westphalia share a common year of founding – 1904, but have very different structures.
Schalke 04 from Gelsenkirchen is a club owned by its fans or “members” much like the Green Bay Packers in American sports. This model is common in German Football and Schalke 04 is by most metrics the third best supported club in the country behind the team’s big rival Borussia Dortmund and global powerhouse Bayern Munich ( Bayern Munich is far and away the most recognizable German club around the world, but Dortmund probably has the most support within Germany).
Bayer Leverkusen, on the other hand as indicated by its name is a corporate run club – a division of the massive Bayer pharmaceutical company. The company is headquartered in the sleepy town of Leverkusen which is not far from Köln or Düsseldorf and right off the autobahn that links the two massive cities. The football club started as an athletic pursuit for employees and while over a century later this has led to many in Germany viewing the club as a well-funded “plastic” one, Leverkusen operates like any other division of the Bayer Corporation and is left to fend for itself in the global soccer marketplace. The expertise and professionalism of the corporation helps fund and run the club but in this era of massive spending in football, Leverkusen despite on-field success has basically become a selling club because again as a part of a larger corporation they cannot lose money the way other top football clubs in Europe do. The club has deeper ties to the United States in terms of player history than any other European club save Fulham (now sponsored by Visit Florida) but yet understands what is required to penetrate the growing market in the states.
The growth of soccer and the success of the English Premier League in exploiting the US market has created a situation where German football is well behind. The English game already in pole position in the United States thanks to a common language, the number of celebrity fans from the entertainment world (where Anglo-American culture is essentially one) and a robust TV package with NBC Sports. The German Bundesliga on the other hand has little in the way of written coverage/material in English, few linguistic or celebrity/entertainment ties to the US and a deal with FOX Sports that is in year one after spending the last decade on the niche’ Miami-based soccer channel GOL TV.
The opportunity to play high level games in Florida and build an audience appeals to both Schalke and Bayer Leverksuen as well as to the Bundesliga. The Florida Cup will provide an opportunity for both clubs to grow its US presence and in the case of Schalke, a game in Orlando against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers will provide the side with an outing against a local club.
Schalke’s community-oriented model and Leverkusen’s corporate backing both are appealing in different ways to the types of fans soccer attracts in this country. Schalke’s massive support is seen as organic, as well as the club’s massive campus and stadium facilities which were largely funded by fans. Leverkusen’s model of buying/selling players from the Americas is among the most robust of any football club in Europe, and the level of professionalism and structure the club offers is remarkable even for a soccer writer like myself that has spent time with the front office staffs of dozens of clubs in North America and Europe.
But if the Bundesliga is ever going to begin penetrating the US market, the league must leverage its FOX TV deal and have clubs begin showing up in the country, something English clubs have done with regularity over the past decade. The Florida Cup is a good start for both efforts.