Digital transformation: Bundesliga scores a late win

19 Nov 2020

Digital transformation: Bundesliga scores a late win

Andreas Heyden, who spearheads the Bundesliga’s digital transformation, explains the sports industry’s ‘late mover advantage.’

While there have been many instances where professional sport has blazed a trail, it has been a little slower to embrace digital transformation – until now. The past few years have seen sports clubs, leagues and associations embrace digital in an effort to get closer to fans, tap into new revenue streams and leverage the competitive advantages of technologies like cloud.

“The last year has seen sports become a sandbox for world-leading tech companies to showcase their technologies. Clubs and leagues have grown their reach and engagement through digital channels,” says Andreas Heyden, CEO DFL Digital Sports and EVP Digital Innovations DFL Group – the company responsible for creating and distributing digital content for the Bundesliga football league in Germany.

Five years ago, the Bundesliga embarked on a digital transformation as part of its ‘glass-to-glass’ strategy. This encompasses every aspect of the digital experience, from the glass of the camera lens to the glass of the user’s TV or mobile device. The strategy is laser focused on customers – the licensees of the Bundesliga’s media rights – and the fans.

“Media and advertising licences are mostly sold in a four [year] cycle with a clearly defined scope. Our overarching goal as a league is to increase the value of those rights. Delivering a higher value to our customers and fans will lead to higher satisfaction and ultimately increase revenue,” says Heyden.

“Technology and digital services are playing a decisive role to achieve this, from artificial intelligence (AI) to augmented reality (AR), to 5G. As the Bundesliga we are actively shaping the future of sports to deliver the best product for our value chain, glass-to-glass.”

Disparate worlds

As with most digital transformation efforts, some of the biggest challenges Heyden and his team encountered were cultural as much as technological. How could they best merge the seemingly disparate worlds of emerging technology and professional football? It started with finding the right mix of people to lead the changes.

“Before we started to invest in technology and change systems, we built up a team of digital experts, not necessarily from the sports industry but who have a passion for great products and customer-centricity,” he says.

Getting the right team on board was challenging for Heyden – tech and product talents does aren’t normally attracted by the sports ecosystem, he explains.

“Applicants who reach out to us to become part of the team are often attracted mostly by the brand but do not have the necessary background or mindset. Staffing the first 30 percent of the team was tough as we needed to execute fast and decided to search for the perfect fit, rather than to accept compromises.”

This long-term HR strategy has proven to be a successful one – something that has been highlighted during this current COVID-19 pandemic.

“Culture, values are shaping positive behaviours,” says Heyden. “We believe that part of our success is the result of our everlasting effort to lead by example as management. Modern management demands from leaders that stand up for the right way to do something, not just delivering the right results in a P&L.”

Cloud native

Of course, once the right teams are in place, the other side of the coin is deploying the technology that will deliver that much-needed advantage in an increasingly competitive playing field. At the heart of the Bundesliga’s transformation plans was a shutdown of most of its legacy IT systems, and a move to a microservices cloud-based platform.

“Going cloud native with a full microservices architecture has enabled our tech and product team to continuously churn out innovation, and has increased employee as well as customer satisfaction,” says Heyden.

“The power of the cloud on team dynamics cannot be overestimated; throw off the shackles of legacy systems and teams will blossom.”

Never has it been more important to embrace digitalisation than now when football stadiums stand empty and fans’ only access to their believed teams is through a screen. As with other industries, COVID-19 has accelerated digital transformation within the sports industry, meaning leagues and teams are getting creative with how they engage with fans through different channels.

Describing himself as “a strategic optimist, and a tactical pessimist”, Heyden believes that technology will enable the Bundesliga to ultimately create better products, experiences and services. However, he notes that “the road to create real relevant innovation which leads to business value has lots of stones in its path. My goal is to lead team to find the right path and be successful.”

But being in various digital industries since the mid-90s, Heyden believes he has the experience to utilise the ‘late mover advantage’ of the sports industry. “To have learned from various mistakes in the years before gave me confidence to accelerate change and focus more on the team than trying to solve product or technical challenges for the first time.”

Importantly, Heyden is an example of overcoming the challenge of merging two very different worlds:

“Being a manager from outside the industry meant that it was easy to question the status quo with no strings attached.”

With a huge portfolio of digital services and content for fans to access, and advertisers to leverage, this appears to be a strategy that is paying off for the Bundesliga.