The Frauen-Bundesliga’s Battle For Visibility

The COVID-19 pandemic and the unpredictable winter weather have led to numerous postponements throughout German football in recent months. The Frauen-Bundesliga has been hit especially hard by these forced suspensions; at the beginning of the week, Frankfurt, for example, were still lagging behind the rest of the league and had two games in hand on most of the sides around them. On Wednesday, they took to the pitch again in a bid to catch up – their below-par form, injuries, and these pesky postponements had left them sitting considerably below where a team of their quality ought to be in terms of the standings. They faced a reeling Duisburg side rooted to the bottom of the table and came away with a convincing 3-0 win. There was a slight problem, however: they weren’t the only Frauen-Bundesliga club in action.

Wolfsburg’s crucially important Champions League fixture with Chelsea kicked off simultaneously, which left FBL fans who don’t have the luxury of watching two games concurrently (me) in quite a pickle. I obviously chose to watch the latter thinking that, since Frankfurt’s game with Duisburg was streamed on Youtube, I could just watch it later. So, after the Wolfsburg game had finished, I went to do exactly that. 15 minutes or so into the game, the screen suddenly turned black and a message popped up saying that the stream had been set to private. Gone was the chance of watching the match.

I wasn’t too bummed about it because the sad reality is that you eventually get used to not being able to watch games as an FBL fan. But this wasn’t even the first minor Bundesliga-related inconvenience I experienced: less than 24 hours earlier, a tweet of mine was removed and I received a DMCA notice in my inbox from the DFB because I committed the cardinal sin of posting a four-second GIF of Essen’s thrilling 92nd-minute winner against Hoffenheim. I essentially got reprimanded for trying to do the DFB’s job for them: spreading the word about how amazing the FBL is.

I’m not here to air my personal grievances, but after the Frankfurt incident, I began to ask myself: what are we doing? Like, what are we trying to achieve exactly, what’s the end goal here? Because it’s certainly not ‘growing the game’, to use an old, overused bromide. Despite the DFB’s hollow words about how they are committed to women’s football, it honestly feels like they are actively working against it. It’s infuriating, it really is. What’s more, my two little anecdotes from earlier are just scratching the surface of a long history of complete and utter disregard and neglect.

Earlier this season, the league came under massive fire when Eurosport, the broadcaster that is supposed to show all the Friday evening games, basically canned its usual FBL broadcast in favor of a tennis match. Both sides later claimed that their hands were tied with Eurosport insisting that they were forced to show the tennis due to contractual obligations. Evidently, nobody considered the very real possibility that the two could sometimes overlap while brokering the broadcast deal! Not to mention that quite often during halftime shows more airtime was given to the US Open than whichever Frauen-Bundesliga game was currently taking place. Good stuff!

Around this time last year, I expressed concerns that the FBL’s broadcast deal with subscription-based service Magenta TV, although good on paper since it brings in a bit of television money, won’t actually change much and could perhaps even prove detrimental. I couldn’t locate any empirical data to show whether viewership has changed – because, after all, we’re talking about women’s football here, and trying to find data for women’s football is like searching for a needle in a haystack – but even if these kinds of statistics were available, they would be massively skewed due to the pandemic.

Either way, it’s fair to say that people aren’t happy about broadcasting, and understandably so. Magenta shows every Bayern game – Telekom, its parent company, is one of the Bavarians’ main sponsors – but beyond that, next to nothing. If you’re lucky, you might get one more match (as a treat!), but usually, it’s just the one. Would you pay money for that? I know I wouldn’t! So, if we add the Friday evening game on Eurosport to the equation, it means that, in total, you can literally only watch two or three games tops on any given matchday. It’s mind-boggling.

A few weeks ago, a rescheduled match took place midweek. Since there was more than enough time to find a potential broadcaster and since it was the only Frauen-Bundesliga game that day, supporters were surely able to tune in, right? Ha! Nope! Nobody even bothered to show the game. And it wasn’t an isolated incident either, this has been a recurring theme throughout this season. How can you shoot yourself in the foot like that over and over again? Thankfully, after this latest showcase of incensing apathy, the FBL announced that all of the remaining games would be aired for free. This is unquestionably a great turn of events, but let’s not kid ourselves here, it’s just another token gesture to soothe tempers for now – they did the same thing last year! – and everything will most likely revert to the usual buffoonery next season. And if you think this dumpster fire will end anytime soon, well, I got bad news for you: Magenta recently announced that it has triggered the option to extend its deal through 2022/23.

There’s more that we could get into – we could talk about how the Frauen-Bundesliga doesn’t even have its own Twitter account or website, how players struggle to make ends meet, or how last year’s DFB Pokal final broadcast suddenly switched over to the super important men’s final preshow before the trophy had even been given to the winners, and much, much more – but I’ll cut this short, and instead I’ll share two more things: another anecdote and some quotes.

At one point this season, Hoffenheim announced that they would be livestreaming one of their games on their website and Youtube channel. As it turned out, though, the stream was actually blocked on their website by, you guessed it, the DFB! The DFB’s insipid and prickly copyright policing literally struck down one of its own clubs! I’m genuinely rubbing my temples and sighing as I’m remembering this, it’s so incredibly dumb. There’s no other way to put it, it’s just so stupid.

The DFB has consistently hamstrung the league with their laughable ‘commitment’, but if you’re sick of hearing me complain about it, take it from someone whose voice holds a lot more weight than mine: Bayern’s sporting director Bianca Rech. She recently told Sport Bild that it’s perfectly reasonable to question whether the FBL would be better served if it were run by a different governing body. Rumors have abounded for quite a while that the DFL would be open to the possibility of taking charge of the FBL, but nothing concrete has materialized as of yet. Rech also floated the idea of a completely independent Frauen-Bundesliga.

Talking about professionalizing the German game, the 40-year-old stated: “Clubs are trying, but it would be easier if it were handled by the DFB. However, there has been a complete standstill.” Moreover, she declared that a minimum wage should be implemented while also offering the damning observation that “nothing is happening in Germany” on that front. “We still have to have discussions where and when we can play midweek games because players have to go to work or clubs don’t have floodlights.”

Last year, I was cautiously optimistic about the future of German women’s football, but this optimism is rapidly giving way to pessimism. There’s still plenty of talent around, games are still as exciting as ever, but what’s the point of it all when fans are continually alienated by the people in charge. Following the league is a chore, it’s a real pain in the ass, and anyone who is vaguely interested in the Frauen-Bundesliga can attest to that. Yes, coverage of the game, like the game itself, is making strides, but should we really applaud the media and broadcasters for doing the bare minimum? No, screw that. The players deserve better and so do the fans.

The interest is clearly there, last year’s DFB Pokal final pulled record viewership numbers despite only getting a smidgen of the promotion the men’s final got. People want to watch women’s football, so stop treating it like some sort of obscure sideshow that only serves to inspire little girls and actually put your money where your mouth is.

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