Bayer04 Leverkusen is not your average Bundesliga team.
One of the smallest supported soccer clubs in Germany, Leverkusen is actively attempting to expand its fan base in the unlikeliest of locations: America.
For the third winter in a row Bayer Leverkusen took part in the Florida Cup, a friendly tournament in the United States. They drew against Estudiantes de la Plata on January 8th and defeated Atletico Mineiro 1-0 in Orlando on Wednesday. The Cup has become one of the main events to raise the team’s profile in America.
“The Florida Cup gives us the chance to present Bayer04 in a very interesting market,” noted Leverkusen CEO Michael Schade.
Success in international competition
It is a testament to Leverkusen’s ownership that the club has been able to achieve success despites the club’s natural barriers and many league rivals in the North Rhine-Westphalia region of Germany.
Bayer04 is the second most successful Bundesliga team on international stage after Bayern Munch. Leverkusen won the UEFA Cup in 1988 and advanced to the 2002 Champions League final match against Real Madrid. The team lost by a single goal to Madrid’s Zinedine Zidane 2-1.
The past six seasons Leverkusen has qualified for the Champions League. This year Bayer04 advanced to the group stages of the tournament out of a tough group which included England’s Tottenham Hotspur and Monaco from France. They will play Atletico Madrid in the knockout phase next month.
Most Bundesliga teams closely identified with their community but Bayer04 was established by the employees of the pharmaceutical giant Bayer AG in 1907, and the company owns 100 percent of the club.
When you visit the Bayer04’s home stadium, the BayArena in the company town of Leverkusen, it becomes quickly apparent why the team needs to look at distant lands to increase its fans base.
Hemmed in by natural rivals Cologne just to the southwest and Dusseldorf to the north, Leverkusen is a rather non-descript town dominated by the corporation’s offices. Drive down a main street in the town you pass blocks and blocks of pharmaceuticals company’s buildings. Most of the club players do not live close to the stadium, but instead in the cosmopolitan city of Cologne, about 20-30 minutes away.
Bayer04 only makes up 15 percent of its revenue from ticket sales where most Bundesliga teams received over 40 percent of their income from ticket sales. To achieve growth, the team’s primary goal every season is not just to win the league title but to qualify for the Champions League and gain international prestige and the fans that follow.
Chicharito: The face of Bayer Leverkusen in America
The team has heavily invested in its social media marketing, setting up a Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat English account to connect with soccer fans in America. The club also found the perfect front man for its push into the Americas with Mexican striker Javier Hernandez, know simply as Chicharito. He is the most famous soccer player in Mexico and with Mexican-American’s in the United States.
“We didn’t buy Chicharito because he is an image player. We bought him because he is a good striker,” said Bayer04 CEO Michael Schade. “He is a PR icon,” Schade continued. “In the first four weeks [after Leverkusen signed him], we sold more than 12,000 jerseys in Mexico.”
Bayer04’s push into the USA market is also being encouraged by the Bundesliga’s attempt to grow in America as well. The league’s engaging style of the game (which average 2.8 goals per match) incorporates the tactics and skills of the Italian and Spanish leagues with the physicality of the English league. “We want to deliver soccer as it’s meant to be,” explained Bundesliga CEO Christian Seifert in an interview.
The Bundesliga signed a contract with Fox Sports in 2013 to have league games regularly played on their channels in the United States and occasionally on the FOX broadcast network as well.
“We have the second best media contract in Europe,” continued Seifert. “Some of the most promising players in the world play in the Bundesliga.”
Developing young players
Although the team broke the bank to bring in Chicharito, Bayer does not usually spend lavishly on big stars. The core of the team developed through its youth squad.
Leverkusen believes that its focus on its youth system and developing players has directly led to its success on the field. The team’s Academy identifies talented youth that lives nearby from the age of 8 or 9. “The difference to us with other academies is we have a long-term orientation of the players and start to focus very early on the best talent,” explained Bayer04 Sporting Manager Jonas Boldt
Boldt used the example of Benny Henrichs, who made his way up the Bayer youth system and now starts for the senior team. He has also recently appeared for the German National Team. “At Bayer Leverkusen, it is part of the philosophy, and we don’t have the money to pay for players,” said Boldt. “We spend a lot of money to the youth department and put money into scouting.”
“It’s a wish come true,” Henrichs remarked. “I used to walk in here as a ball kid, and now I hold the little kid’s hands.”
If Bayer04 doesn’t develop a position player in their youth leagues they will buy a promising young player to round out the roster. This past season they added the offensive power of Hoffenheim’s Kevin Volland, to complement Chicharito.
“Being at a smaller club there is a lot less media pressure, where at Leverkusen is a quieter environment,” Volland explained why he is pleased with the moved to Bayer04. “There are plusses and minuses, but right now it’s the perfect balance between too much and too little.”
Halfway through the season, Leverkusen has not yet found the right recipe for success. Bayer04 currently sit ninth place in the table, eight points behind fourth-place Eintracht Frankfurt.
Bayer04 will need to find the right combination of style, players and success on the field to continue growing. The team also hopes to attract fans in the United States by playing more friendly games in the future.
“We are very much interested in bringing more soccer to the United States,” concluded Schade.
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