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What happened to the Bundesliga?

Photo: rayand

Photo: rayand

To quote Duke Ellington, things ain’t what they used to be over in Germany’s top soccer league. For starters, not a single player from last season’s Bundesliga was on the podium at the Ballon d’Ata awards. Okay, maybe that doesn’t seem so important, but also:

  • no Champions League finalists after 2012-13
  • no Europa League finalists after 2008-09
  • dropped from second to fourth place in UEFA rankings since 2017-18
  • sliding Elo ratings may rank the league fourth by the end of 2019-20
  • mostly Bundesliga-based squad lost twice in 2018 World Cup group stage
  • executives and players of flagship club seem out of touch with social issues

These are not promising signs for a league that has often been touted as the second-best in the world, after a rotating cast of Serie A, the Premier League, and La Liga. But what’s behind the Bundesliga’s decline?

I’ve seen plenty of arguments that the lack of competitive balance is to blame. Bayern Munich dominated the league for years up through last season, regularly picking off the best players from the teams that hoped to challenge it for the crown, notably Borussia Dortmund. But the absence of another contender – or at least more contenders – made their players soft, and they got older and complacent. Even Pep Guardiola couldn’t take them to the Champions League final. And the foregone conclusion of Bayern winning the title made selling Bundesliga media rights a losing proposition. So the story went.

There’s probably some truth to the story, at least to the final point. The Bundesliga may finally have cracked the billion-euro-per-season ceiling for a domestic rights deal in 2016, but even then it was only half of what the Premier League earned. More importantly, the value of the Premier League’s foreign rights may soon eclipse the value of its domestic rights, and there’s no similar prospect for the Bundesliga. But the Bundesliga doesn’t trail the rest of Europe’s Top 5 leagues – La Liga, Serie A, and Ligue 1 – by such huge amounts. Certainly its clubs and players should be able to compete with theirs.

Yet in recent times, they haven’t. And the cause may be a subtler dynamic playing out in the transfer market.

Not too long ago, and for a period of several seasons, the Bundesliga received the smallest total fees from the other Top 5 leagues. Either the league wasn’t producing top players – a notion belied by Germany’s success at the 2014 World Cup, won by a squad with 16 of 23 players from the Bundesliga – or the league simply wasn’t selling its best players. That changed starting in 2015-16, as the chart below shows:

fees out of top five

From under €100m per season in fees, the Bundesliga was suddenly receiving €250m or more from the other Top 5 leagues. (These data are from transfermarkt; they have a few issues but probably give a decent indication of the overall situation, especially for such high-profile leagues.) Part of this was the rising tide of broadcast rights lifting all boats, but the change was especially dramatic for the Bundesliga. It meant that good players – the kinds of players the other Top 5 leagues would pay for – were leaving the Bundesliga in numbers for the first time in quite a while.

Of course, players leaving is no big deal as long as replacements of the same quality arrive. Yet whatever the Bundesliga clubs did with all the extra money, they didn’t spend it on players. This season, for the first time ever, the Bundesliga is running a net inflow of more than €200m in transfer fees from the rest of the Top 5:

net fees paid by top five

Ligue 1 and La Liga are pocketing a lot of cash, too, but they also received far more than any other leagues across the past two seasons (see the first chart again). Meanwhile, Serie A is running a positive net spend with the rest of the Top 5 for the first time in the past ten seasons.  The Premier League, buoyed by its pricier broadcast rights, stands alone with an astronomical net spend on transfer fees.

It’s unlikely that another league will catch up to the Premier League’s spending anytime soon (something I suggested a while back), but the Bundesliga risks falling further behind. Indeed, the lack of competitive balance may be the reason why the top clubs in Germany don’t feel they have to buy from the other Top 5 leagues. If this is true, the Bundesliga could even enter a death spiral: the league’s quality erodes, the broadcast rights lose value, spending falls, quality erodes even further, etc.

For some observers, there have been more hopeful signs – and signings – this season. Teenager Jadon Sancho arrived in Dortmund from Manchester City and has been lighting up the league, helping his club to go seven points clear at the top of the table. Bayern Munich now finds itself mired in a pack of three clubs, perhaps four with Eintracht Frankfurt, chasing the leaders. Competitive balance may finally have returned.

Yet these events don’t prove that the Bundesliga is getting better again. There’s plenty of competitive balance in some broadly inferior leagues. Also, I wouldn’t normally say that outstanding performances by a teenager – even a very talented teenager – were a good indicator for the quality of the league as a whole. Let’s wait to see how the Bundesliga’s clubs perform in the European competitions. And then, win or lose, we’ll see if they splash out in the summer.