German Soccer Clubs Are Desperate To Restart Televised Matches Despite Criticism

May 1, 2020
Originally published on May 1, 2020 5:51 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Germany's national soccer league is pushing to get back on the pitch that, after the season, like just about every other sports season, was cut short by coronavirus restrictions in March. The Bundesliga, as it's known, is in discussions with the German government now to reopen. NPR's Rob Schmitz joins me from Berlin to talk soccer. Or, Rob, I guess since you're in Europe, we should be talking football.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Football, Mary Louise (laughter).

KELLY: Football. All right, so how big of a hit has the coronavirus meant for the Bundesliga?

SCHMITZ: It's been a big one. You know, there are several football leagues in Europe on hold right now - the English Premier League, La Liga in Spain - but the Bundesliga has the highest average stadium attendance of all football leagues in the world. So when the season was cut short in mid-March, this was not only a blow to the teams and their bottom lines but also to fans. And these are fans that have been stuck at home for a while now, like everyone else and they'd like to resume watching their favorite teams, at least on television.

But, you know, the question here is, is it safe for these players to return to the pitch and play while they're in close contact with each other? You know, it's worth reminding folks here that authorities believe a Champions League match in Italy was what helped kick off that country's coronavirus epidemic, and it also led to the infection of more than a third of the opposing team, Valencia from Spain, in that match. Now, the Bundesliga wouldn't allow fans to come to their stadiums of course, just the players. But the other question is, what kind of message does that send to the rest of Germany, who are following social distancing rules?

KELLY: Which seems like a fair question. So what is the case that the league is making? Why is it so desperate to get back?

SCHMITZ: This is the case they're making - money. The league has two main revenue streams, ticket sales - obviously, that's gone for the foreseeable future - and TV licensing, which they could recoup if they can persuade the government to resume playing. And that's equal to 40% of the Bundesliga's revenue, and they need that revenue. The players in this league are some of the best in the world. They make millions. So the league is now bleeding money. And it says if it cannot come back this year, it will be financially ruined.

German football journalist Tim Juergens says if they comeback, at least they can recoup something, but he doesn't think it's a good idea. Here's what he said.

TIM JUERGENS: (Through interpreter) The league wants to continue because it still has a potential revenue stream, but to do so when we still know so little about this virus is wrong. What happens if a player isn't disciplined enough in his social distancing? It's too risky, and it sends the wrong message to the general public.

SCHMITZ: And he added here, Mary Louise, that German leagues for handball and ice hockey - both popular sports here - have not bothered trying to resume their seasons, and that's because they make most of their money from ticket sales, not from TV licensing like the Bundesliga does. So they're cutting their losses.

KELLY: Stay with the social distancing question, though, that we just heard Juergens raise there.

SCHMITZ: Right.

KELLY: Because it's true - soccer, you can't play it while socially distancing yourself from other players. Doesn't work.

SCHMITZ: (Laughter) No, this is a contact sport. You've got 50 to 100 people involved in a match, and 22 of them are playing and in close contact with each other. Now, the Bundesliga has drawn up plans to test each player regularly and to follow strict hygiene measures. But this has also been criticized for sending the wrong message because testing hundreds of players on perhaps a weekly basis seems unethical at a time when test kits are in short supply.

KELLY: Germany's government sounds at least open to discussing this though. Why? What's their thinking?

SCHMITZ: They do. Well, you know, some of the league's 18 teams are on the verge of bankruptcy due to lockdown. You know, the coronavirus is a real threat to the existence of some of these clubs. The other reason, I think, is psychological. Soccer, or football here, is not only a sport here in Germany, but it's a way of life. It's almost a religion. And to have the Bundesliga back, even if it's to empty stadiums, could help much of the country cope with this new grim reality that we're all living.

KELLY: So when might we get a decision?

SCHMITZ: Well, the federal government has been meeting with sports ministers, but they still haven't made a final decision. They may make one this coming week. The Bundesliga was asking to return on the 9 of May, but the government has said no to this. And they're hinting that if they do resume playing, it may happen in mid-to-late May.

KELLY: All right. We shall watch and see what happens. NPR's Rob Schmitz in Berlin. Thank you, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thanks, Mary Louise.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOCCER MOMMY'S "INSIDE OUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.