The Bundesliga abroad: Kevin Sim on how German soccer’s top flight is tackling Asia

SportsPro caught up with Kevin Sim, Bundesliga International’s new head of Asia Pacific, to discuss how German soccer’s top flight is establishing a foothold in the Asian market.

The Bundesliga abroad: Kevin Sim on how German soccer’s top flight is tackling Asia

Earlier this year, Kevin Sim (below, right) replaced Peter Leible as Bundesliga International’s head of Asia Pacific following a stint as the director of global media rights at mixed martial arts promoter ONE Championship.

Renowned for its fan-friendly approach, German soccer’s top flight is one of the most watched leagues in the world, and in 2012 tapped into that popularity by becoming the first European division to launch an operation in Asia.  

SportsPro travelled to Sim’s new office in Singapore to discuss his recent move to Bundesliga International, to find out why Asia is such an important target market for the league, and to learn how the organisation plans on growing its fanbase in the region.

What was behind your decision to join the Bundesliga?

I am a football fan first and foremost, so this was a very natural move. The Bundesliga is on a clear upward trajectory; there is an excellent infrastructure in the league itself and it’s clearly growing in terms of popularity in Asia.

I think for me to come in – with my knowledge of the Asian media market - is going to help the league grow this reputation even further, so this is a very exciting challenge.

What’s the story behind the Bundesliga’s restructure in Asia?

The Bundesliga was the first European league to establish an office in Asia as DFL Sports Enterprise in 2012. The intention of that was to focus on the sale of commercial rights in Asia.

In July of last year we restructured to become Bundesliga International, which reflects our new way of doing things and our new ways of thinking. Bundesliga International is focused on helping us grow globally, and particularly in Asia, where we have set up new offices. The office in China is going to help us better understand the Chinese market and the needs of the consumers, and for us in Asia, we’re going to take on a bigger responsibility in terms of playing more of a bridging role to bring together different stakeholders like clubs, partners, fans and other stakeholders in the footballing space.

What have you identified as the Bundesliga’s main target markets in Asia since joining the league?

The appetite for football in Asia as a whole is exceptionally high – it is the number one sport in most countries. Very few sports have the ability to capture the imagination, interest and passion of fans in so many markets in Asia.

The league itself is in a really good position; in terms of revenues we’re only second to the Premier League and the clubs are all in positive cash flow, but we have not sold football or lost our beliefs. 

The Bundesliga as a whole is very well equipped to grow in all of these markets across the board. All markets are equally important to us, but I think the most critical markets we will put our emphasis and focus on in the short-term are Japan and China, which are traditionally our strong markets, as well as Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and India.

There are a number of Bundesliga clubs with a presence in Asia. How closely do you work with them to grow the brand?

Exceptionally close. I think one of the unique USPs for the Bundesliga is that we have a very strong relationship with our clubs. The club structure means that they are shareholders within the DFL itself, so as a result we have a very close bond with them. Another unique USP as a result of this structure is that we have established a commission which will help them orchestrate the activities and the things we do. In fact, we recently worked closely on Dortmund’s plan to bring a current player [Roman Weidenfeller] to Singapore so we are coordinating closely with them on all aspects.

The Bundesliga works with its clubs to stage regular events in Asia to keep local fans engaged with the league

Asia’s obviously a massive target market for other European leagues. In comparison to those, how developed do you think the Bundesliga brand is?

The reason why the clubs and leagues are interested in Asia is because of the sheer size of the market. If you look at it, 60 per cent of the population is here; the interest in football is exceptionally high and is growing. In many countries the number one sport is football. So it’s only natural, but I think the Bundesliga is in an exceptional position to grow here.

First of all, the Bundesliga itself has a very strong standing, and we’ve recently announced that the league has crossed the €4 billion (US$4.62 billion) mark in terms of revenues. In terms of structure, 34 of the 36 clubs in the top two leagues are in positive balance, and on top of that 14 out of the 18 top-tier clubs have revenues exceeding €100 million (US$115.6 billion).

We are going to use technology to better engage our fans by telling our story on digital and social. If you look at the league itself, we have so many interesting stories. Each club have their own culture, and all of them are unique.

Additionally we have established a very strong digital relationship with the local fan. Our engagement per fan here in Asia is highest in comparison with our competitors. On Weibo in China we currently have almost 2.6 million followers. We have also won the RedCard award for “most engaged brand” four times in a row.

All in all, if you look on the development side, our focal point and investment in youth has created almost a constant flow of young players coming through and this has given opportunities for players – and particularly Asian players – to establish their career in Europe, so the Bundesliga is very established here yet still has tremendous room to grow.

The Bundesliga is well known in Europe for its fan-friendly approach. Is this something that you’re also trying to sell in Asia?

I really believe in our mantra: football as it’s meant to be. As I said, the league itself is in a really good position; in terms of revenues we’re only second to the Premier League and the clubs are all in positive cash flow, but we have not sold football or lost our beliefs. Most of the clubs are owned by fans themselves, which creates a very healthy environment where they make decisions for footballing reasons. We also have a great environment for the fans, and we have the highest attendances for any football league in the world, which is due to the low ticket prices, making football very accessible for all ages, males and females.

Borussia Dortmund have become one of the more popular clubs in Asia since setting up in the region in 2014

How do you interact with fans locally to keep them engaged?

We definitely want to create more physical interactions with our fans, which involves bringing more legend tours, players and clubs to Asia, which is something that we aim to do particularly with the new structure.

Beyond the physical interaction - we obviously don’t have the ability to bring out players and teams on a month-by-month basis – we are going to use technology to better engage our fans by telling our story on digital and social. If you look at the league itself, we have so many interesting stories. Each club have their own culture, and all of them are unique to each club. I think what we need to do is share those stories, make them more locally relevant and customise them for each market because each market is really different.

How important is digital when it comes to keeping your fans engaged?

I think digital is definitely very critical, and we see it as essential, which is why we’ve set up this new structure with new offices in China and the US. Both of those offices are going to help us better engage with our fans in each market, as well as develop a better understanding of cultural taste and their interests in terms of content.

The result of this is that over the last season we’ve grown our social media following by five million, and a lot of that growth is actually coming from Asia – 45 per cent of our Facebook fans actually come from Asia, and in that sense it’s not only pure reach. We have tripled our audience on Facebook, while we have also doubled in terms of engagement and video views in that sense. We don’t necessarily just look in terms of reach, but we’re also looking at creating meaningful content that actually helps us connect better with our fans, which the new structure will enable us to do.

What’s the ultimate end goal for the Bundesliga in Asia?

Football is a universal language understood and loved across different countries and cultures and we have a unique opportunity to bring people together. The end goal is really to bring our footballing culture to Asia and drive passion for the Bundesliga, always with our fan in mind. Football as it’s meant to be is not only a slogan, it’s a mantra. So for us, what we really want to do is bring various stakeholders together and grow the footballing ecosystem, and as a result that will provide more opportunities for growth.