There really is no right answer to the question: which is the world’s best football league?” There are too many different measures and there’s too much subjectivity. But Germany’s Bundesliga has as good a claim as any.
It’s in a country that boasts the reigning world champions and its top clubs attract record numbers of fans.
True, there are question marks over its star power and commercial value, but after a whistle-stop tour — speaking to the Bundesliga’s biggest clubs, star players and rising teams — here are five reasons why you could put the competition above its rivals, including England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga and the rest.
Our recent CNN series “Inside the Bundesliga” took us to the champions Bayern Munich and one of this season’s surprise success stories TSG 1899 Hoffenheim.
But it started at Borussia Dortmund, where the club’s star striker, African footballer of the year Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, was one of many to tell me how fierce the competition was.
Aubameyang has played in France, Italy and Germany and currently leads the Golden Shoe ranking as the top scorer in Europe.
He admits that, during his time in France, the teams he played for were sometimes happy with a draw. Then he laughs while thinking how that would go down in the Bundesliga, saying, “No chance. Here, everybody wants to win.”
While players are inclined to talk up the league they’re competing in, European football’s governing body UEFA lists Germany as second only to Spain in its co-efficient which is the way it ranks leagues based on the results of the clubs in its competitions.
The Bundesliga also points to a study (conducted by what it refers to as an “independent research institute”) comparing data from 32,000 games from seven leagues over the last 15 years. In four of the last five seasons, the Bundesliga’s results were the most unpredictable, even though Bayern Munich has been champion four years running.
This season, Bayern only lead RB Leipzig on goal difference after 14 matches, with Hoffenheim, who are still unbeaten, in fourth. Across Europe’s “Big Five” leagues, Real Madrid is the only other unbeaten side.
2. Commercial Value
When I flew from Dortmund to Munich to speak to Xabi Alonso, Arjen Robben and Carlo Ancelotti at Bayern, I was surprised to find the practice facilities for Germany’s biggest and most famous club nestled in a leafy street close to the city center.
It perhaps doesn’t look as impressive as some of the training bases of other top European clubs. But this is not down to a lack of money — tradition is important to a side like Bayern which is proud to allow its fans to watch the squad be put through its paces.
Deloitte’s respected Annual Review of Football Finances lists the Bundesliga as second only to England’s Premier League in terms of gross revenue. Germany’s top clubs made more than $2.5 billion in the 2014/15 season compared to the $4.6 billion generated in the EPL.
However, Forbes estimates that the Bundesliga’s domestic television deal — at $690 million a year — is the lowest of Europe’s “Big Five” leagues and almost four times less than England’s.
Bundesliga CEO Christian Seifert told me this was more a reflection of the media landscape in each country than a true reflection of the value of each league, while also admitting that his competition is currently “undervalued” internationally.
It’s the one obvious area for improvement.
Germany’s Bundesliga has strict rules on club ownership and it has been argued that they restrict the amount of commercial investment the league could attract.
A stronger spotlight than ever has been shone on this debate with the rise of RB Leipzig to the top of the table this season.
Bought in 2009 by global drinks giant Red Bull, the “RB” stands for “RasenBallSport” or “Lawn Ball Sports” because they weren’t allowed to name the club after a corporation.
However, there is no disputing that Red Bull’s money has contributed to the team’s success — they went from Germany’s fifth division to the Bundesliga in just six seasons — along with the contributions of the two Ralphs — Director of Football Ralf Ragnick and coach Ralph Hasenhüttl.
The Bundesliga is adamant Red Bull’s investment is within the rules but if RB Leipzig continues its upwards rise, will league bosses be under pressure to encourage more of this sort of corporate backing?
4. Technology and Innovation
When Mario Gotze controlled the ball on his chest, pivoted and shot to score the winning goal at the 2014 World Cup Final, he helped Germany make history; the first European nation to win the sport’s biggest prize outside of its home continent.
And while the technique that Gotze showed off looked god-given, it was in fact honed with hours of practice, including using a multi-million-dollar piece of kit called the “Footbonaut.”
Gotze’s club Dortmund is one of only two using the Footbonaut in Europe’s “Big Five” Leagues. The other is Hoffenheim coached by Julian Nagelsmann, the youngest manager in Bundesliga history.
Nagelsmann spoke to me at the club’s very spacious and modern training base which sticks out because of its location — a small rural village of just a few thousand people.
Although he denies relying too much on the use of data and analytics — he insists he still listens to his gut instinct — Nagelsmann admits that he is keeping some of his methods to himself. They are so successful that many other clubs would love to hear the secret.
Hoffenheim’s tale is certainly not unique in a league that is developing a reputation for coaching innovation helped by cutting edge technology.
While in Dortmund, we visited the club’s ground Signal Iduna Park (formerly the Westfalenstadion) and stood on its famous south terrace.
This is the largest standing tier in European football and home to the famous “Yellow Wall.” It’s a bucket list destination for football fans, packed with almost 25,000 bouncing, singing supporters every game. There are even specially built platforms for cheer leaders to stand and use megaphones to whip up the crowd even more.
Certainly, the Bundesliga is the only European league to average more than 40,000 fans per game and is the closest to 100% attendance across the course of a season.
It’s perhaps no surprise that average ticket prices in Germany’s top division are lower than its rivals in Europe’s “Big Five.”
My three-day dash around Germany gave me no more than a snapshot of the Bundesliga right now, but I saw nothing to contradict the bullishness of those involved with it.
The competition is fierce and the standard high. There’s innovation in coaching and player development and there’s a huge and loyal fan base. Everything is in place for German football and its top division to continue to lead the world.