Sports Marketing Pitching off the Pitch

With dizzying amounts of cash sloshing around professional soccer, traditional German advertising agencies have set up specialist sport divisions to get a piece of the marketing action.
It's not just about goals on the pitch anymore.

Hakan Çalhanoglu is a natural footballing talent, famed for his ability to score goals from free kicks and among the best soccer players in the world right now.

But the 21-year-old midfielder also polarizes people – he ditched Bundesliga club Hamburger SV for league rival Bayer Leverkusen only months after extending his contract to 2018. Hamburg fans were incensed.

Born and raised in Germany to a Turkish family, Mr. Çalhanoglu is acutely aware of his public image - and he's not the only one. This spring, posters of him appeared on advertising stands all over German cities with the slogan: “There will be haters.”

The campaign by sporting goods manufacturer Adidas certainly got people talking. It was handled by the sports division of German advertising agency Jung von Matt. Set up in mid-2013, the unit, managed by Raphael Brinkert alongside former soccer pros Christoph Metzelder and Katja Kraus, now has 40 creative employees.

But the agency is not alone in trying to tap into lucrative sports market: Rival FischerAppelt set up a special sports unit in an attempt to win new customers.

Classic ad agencies are poaching business in what was once the preserve of sporting rights giants Sportfive and Infront.

The market is worth billions of euros. According to Football Money League 2015, a survey by the consultancy Deloitte, the world’s top 20 soccer clubs broke the €6-billion ($6.6-billion) sales level for the first time in the 2013-14 season. That’s an increase of 14 percent from the previous season.

Top German club FC Bayern Munich took third place with a turnover of €487.5 million, behind European rivals Manchester United and Real Madrid. The Bavarian club generated some 60 percent of its sales from advertising. Merchandizing alone accounted for €105 million, increasing by 27 percent compared to a year earlier.

Sports marketing is an ideal way to build a connection to people through emotional stories. Frank Behrendt, Chairman, FischerAppelt ad agency

While companies continue to shrink their traditional advertising budgets, investment in sports sponsorship is growing. In Germany, it grew from €2.6 billion in 2011 to around €3 billion last year, according to an industry association.

Soccer remains king among sports, accounting for 71 percent of such sponsorship deals, whereas motor sports garnered 18 percent. Ice hockey, basketball and golf took two percent each and the rest was spread among other sports.

Market analysts Repucom estimate sports sponsorship funding in Germany will rise to €3.3 billion in 2015 and €3.5 billion in 2016. Mr. Metzelder, who played for Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, another big German club, wants a big piece of that growing pie. “Clubs and associations are becoming more aware,” he said. The biggest motivation, he added, was to grow as a brand internationally in order to tap new markets.

Mr. Metzelder has already managed to land accounts with the German Football League and the German Red Cross, which ran a blood donation campaign fronted by star players in Germany's top league, the Bundesliga.

His agency promoted Bundesliga club Schalke 04 by photographing its team in a mine – a nod to the gritty industrial region, the Ruhr Valley, that it calls home. Other clients include Schalke player Benedikt Höwedes, Bundesliga club FC Ingolstadt, Real Madrid’s training academy – and Germany’s professional table tennis league.

Hakan Çalhanoglu doing a little grassroots marketing.


Rival agency FischerAppelt has been aggressively courting clients since entering sports marketing eight months ago. It has won business from Bonn's professional basketball team and several firms connected to Bundesliga clubs through sponsorship or partnerships, for example the Arminia Bielefeld sponsor Schüco, which makes doors and windows.

“Especially for those companies that fail to spark much emotion as a brand, sports marketing is an ideal way to build a connection to people through emotional stories,” said agency chairman Frank Behrendt.

Business is booming, especially among the Bundesliga's star players.

“We do rhetoric training with them, prepare them for big interviews, but also develop what type of player they are, what they stand for,” said Mr. Behrendt, explaining that players need help developing their own brand.

In the past, soccer clubs would simply print a stadium magazine, but these days they have social media. Such tools are used to reach fans, for example, to vote on a new jersey design.

Yet most clubs and companies still think in terms of standard marketing avenues, said Dennis Ritter, who is responsible for sports at the agency Deepblue.

“Many sponsors book a group, a box, an autograph hour,” he said, adding that such static partnerships were out of date.

Video: Adidas's controversial "There will be haters" campaign.


Christian Wermke is a Handelsblatt reporter in Düsseldorf. To contact him: [email protected]