In April 2012, a UEFA Champions League semifinal match between Chelsea, an English club from London, and Barcelona, the defending Spanish champions, generated 13,684 tweets per second—a new record for the social-networking service (via Twitter UK Blog; Wall Street Journal MarketWatch).
The record surpassed the mark set the previous February by the Super Bowl, the championship game of American football, and easily outpaced the 32,000 tweets per minute generated the following month by the Champions League final (via BrandWatch).
Something seems incongruous about those numbers. The Champions League final is perhaps the world's most prestigious club football match that is held yearly. Interest in the match should, in theory, outweigh interest in any semifinal, especially in 2012.
That spring, Chelsea made an improbable run to the title with a string of dramatic wins, beating Barca in the semifinals and, in the final, Bayern Munich, the most historically successful and popular club in Germany. The final itself featured plenty of excitement. Chelsea scored an 88th-minute equalizer, Bayern missed a potential match-winning penalty in extra time and Chelsea claimed the title on penalty kicks.
Combined with the tense finale, Chelsea's dramatic run seemingly should have attracted high numbers of viewers and social-media users to the final. But that wasn't the case in 2012, especially in the U.S.
American television ratings for the 2012 final fell 28 percent from the 2011 event (per Yahoo! Sports, via the Associated Press), which featured Barca and Manchester United. The 2012 semifinal contested by Barca and Chelsea was the most-watched non-final in American history (press release via TV by the Numbers), and in 2013, a Champions League Round of 16 match between Manchester United and Real Madrid drew 1.1 million viewers on premium cable networks (via Soccer America).
When examining the ratings, a theme emerges. While clubs from England and Spain seemed to perform well in the ratings, Bayern Munich did not.
Explaining the popularity of English clubs is somewhat easy. According to the U.S. Census, 225.6 million Americans over age five spoke only English at home in 2007 (report here, page four). English-language coverage of the English Premier League is readily available in the U.S., and without a language barrier with which to contend, following English football is easy and convenient for Americans who speak English.
The growing prevalence of spoken Spanish (34.5 million speakers in 2007, according to the data) could help explain the popularity of Spanish clubs. According to the U.S. Census (report here, page three), Hispanics accounted for “(m)ore than half of the growth in the total population of the United States between 2000 and 2010." Americans of Hispanic descent numbered 50.5 million in 2010, accounting for 16 percent of the total population (via U.S. Census).
Their number grew by 43 percent in a decade, and the plurality of those are young. But the idea that Hispanic population growth has fueled the popularity of Spanish clubs in America is somewhat problematic. While it's possible that younger Hispanic Americans support Spanish-language teams, it's also important to remember that in Latin America, opinions about Spain can be complicated owing to the legacy of Spanish colonialism.
That leaves Bayern Munich, a highly successful club that has won 22 German league titles, 15 German Cups (both records) and four European titles. According to club statistics, Bayern count 185,000 club members worldwide, or 15,000 more than Barcelona.
Why, then, do Bayern seem to trail Barcelona, Real Madrid and English clubs in the American market? Are the Bundesliga giants falling behind? Are demographics to blame (or credit)? Or is this merely a case of the drawing power of superstars and the reality of what's on TV?
Quantifying European clubs' support in the U.S. is difficult because the data is largely not present. Bayern, as I noted above, claim 185,000 fans worldwide, but the club did not break down that number by geographical divisions.
Bayern's official website lists eight official fan clubs in the U.S., and by e-mail the club told me that those clubs comprise 223 members. Real Madrid list only four fan clubs in the U.S., but two in Miami alone. Barcelona, meanwhile, simply list 92 fan clubs for the "rest of the world" outside Catalonia and Spain.
For an indirect comparison, consider Arsenal, an English club from London. The Gunners have never won the European title, but Arsenal America, a fan club with official links to the club, boasts more than 30 branches and more than 1,500 members. The latter equates to about seven times the number of official Bayern supporters in the U.S.
Another potential method of measuring European clubs' popularity is through jersey sales. According to data released to Sporting Intelligence in 2010 (cited by SoccerBible.com), Barcelona and Real Madrid (as well as Manchester United) both rank well ahead of Bayern Munich. But these numbers reflect worldwide sales, not those in the U.S.
Considering these problems, the television ratings cited above seem to be the best method we have for estimating the popularity in America of clubs like Barca, Real and Bayern.
Immigrants, cultural markers and the American dream
Germans are—and have been for some time—the largest ancestral group in the famously diverse melting pot of the United States. In the 2000 census, 42.8 million Americans, or 15.2 percent of the entire population, reported German ancestry (report here, page three). Their number rose to 49.8 million in 2010, according to Bloomberg, which reported that "(m)ore than half of the nation’s 3,143 counties contain a plurality of people who describe themselves as German-American."
German immigration to the U.S. reached a high point in the 1880s when 1.5 million Germans crossed the Atlantic, according to the Library of Congress. In 1882 alone, an estimated 250,000 Germans arrived.
According to the Bloomberg report, Germans have formed the United States' largest ethnic group since at least the 1980 census. However, the report notes that German immigrants have only recently begun to emphasize their cultural identity.
The report quotes J. Gregory Redding, a professor of modern languages and literature at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind., as saying: "The increased identification with German culture contrasts with earlier eras in U.S. history—during both world wars—when many kept those ties quiet."
In an e-mail, Redding told me that determining so-called German-American ethnic identity is difficult and that in his discipline, academics use "cultural markers" such as language, religion, holiday traditions and social customs. Germans emigrated to the U.S. from all parts of Germany, including Bavaria. But as Redding told me, why would an immigrant from Berlin support Bayern, a team from Bavaria?
Redding said he had not come upon sports as a cultural marker, but he added that if anything, German-Americans in the time following the busiest period of immigration would have been more likely to follow baseball than soccer:
During the golden age of German immigration to the U.S., they were more likely to take up baseball than anything else. If you look at German-language newspapers published in the U.S. at that time, they reported pretty consistently on baseball games. In fact, German immigrants were to baseball in that era what the Dominicans are now: think of Honus Wagner, Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, and so on. All were sons of German immigrants. There was no soccer culture and no opportunity to take up the sport. As the only real professional sport, baseball was a ticket to the American dream.
Germans immigrants have long played a leading role in American society, but either by choice or because of timing, they did not bring their sporting preferences with them.
The largest wave of German immigration to America occurred in the 1880s, when professional association football was still in its formative stages. Bayern Munich formed in 1900, by which time German-Americans were more interested in baseball. At that time, transatlantic communication was slow, making it nearly impossible to follow German sports in America.
Soccer, on the other hand, was generally unpopular in the U.S. at the time. What's more, not all German immigrants came to the U.S. from Bavaria, and thus not all would feel a connection to Bayern Munich, even if they could have followed a German soccer team. It's no surprise, then, that Bayern did not develop a traditional following in America.
But what about the current day?
Money machines and superstars
As we have seen, cultural identity and heritage can only explain so much. In today's multimedia-driven world, star power and media exposure might trump all.
Consider for a moment that the two most famous players in the world play in Spain. Lionel Messi, a 25-year-old Argentina forward who has won the last four Ballon d'Or awards, plays for Barcelona. In 2012, he set an all-time world record with 91 goals.
Cristiano Ronaldo, a 28-year-old Portuguese forward and 2008 FIFA World Player of the Year, plays for Real Madrid. In 2012, Forbes wondered aloud whether Ronaldo was the world's most marketable athlete. Not coincidentally, the Forbes report also mentioned Real Madrid's shirt deal with Adidas, which is reportedly worth $50 million per year. Ronaldo last year reached 50 million "likes" on Facebook (per The Independent), an unofficial yet telling measure of popularity.
For all of the quality of the German national team and the Bundesliga, neither has quite the same star power.
Bayern feature plenty of top-class players, including midfielders Bastian Schweinsteiger, Javi Martinez, Toni Kroos, Arjen Robben and Thomas Muller, goalkeeper Manuel Neuer and forwards Mario Mandzukic and Mario Gomez. The German national team, meanwhile, has young stars like Mesut Ozil (who plays at the club level for Real Madrid), Mario Gotze, Marco Reus and Lars and Sven Bender.
But as talented as those players are, they don't match up with Messi or Ronaldo.
As Michel Munger, editor of FC Bayern Central, offered me a Canadian perspective via e-mail:
People have a positive bias towards English, Spanish and Italian clubs and they don't even know the Bundesliga. They look up to Ronaldo, Messi and other names as the game's stars, although German football has amazing players and a high-quality brand.
I am based in Montreal, Canada. During a World Cup, most people will cheer for France, Spain, Brazil and Portugal before considering Germany. Only seasoned fans or Germanophiles see the Nationalelf as a top pick.
People are surprised when I tell them that the Bundesliga has the best package because you see goals instead of boring 1:0 games. They raise eyebrows when I remind them that Bayern has won many European titles.
EA Sports' FIFA video game series, a popular entry point into the sport for casual fans, regularly features players based in the English and Spanish leagues. Messi is the cover athlete for FIFA 13, and Wayne Rooney (Manchester United) and Ronaldinho (then with Barcelona) were regulars on the cover for much of the past decade. Bundesliga players have not been featured on the cover.
Blame or credit?
Perhaps, then, this is more about the success of the Spanish and English leagues and the Spanish national team, which is enjoying unprecedented success and popularity, having won two straight European titles and the 2010 World Cup. The Spanish national team, perhaps not coincidentally, is made up mostly of players from Barcelona and Real Madrid.
The English Premier League was founded as a breakaway from the old English league system ahead of the 1992-93 season. It has grown into the world's most lucrative soccer league, according to CNN Money, generating $3.3 billion annually, and Americans continue to figure prominently.
Americans own part or all of Premier League clubs Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Aston Villa. Last October, American broadcasting network NBC secured the Premier League's American television rights for the next three seasons for $250 million (via USA Today).
Real Madrid make regular trips to America. Last summer's visit was the 14th, according to the club. Barcelona visited in 2011 and will hold soccer camps across the U.S. this summer. Bayern do not make regular trips to the U.S., and Bundesliga matches are televised by GolTV, which claims to be available in only 13 million U.S. homes.
Former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola is set to take over at Bayern this summer. His arrival should raise the club's profile, both in Europe and in America, where fans are already familiar with Guardiola's work with Barca. Regardless, Bayern will most likely continue to fare well both on the pitch and in the so-called money league, where Deloitte ranked Bayern fourth in 2012.
Other explanations for Bayern's relative lack of popularity in the U.S. abound. It's worth mentioning that anything German was deeply unpopular in the U.S. after World War II, though the countries are now allies.
The German national team of today does not have a global superstar to compare to the legendary Franz Beckenbauer. No German club has won the Champions League since Bayern did so in 2001, and although the rivalry with Borussia Dortmund is growing in intensity and European importance, Bayern currently do not have a world-famous rival.
For now, though, despite a potentially huge base of German-American fans, Bayern lag behind Spanish and English clubs in popularity in the growing American soccer market. But rather than pointing to language or heritage, this probably has more to do with star power, like that wielded by Messi and Ronaldo, and the global profile of the English and Spanish leagues and the Spanish national team.
"I suspect that FC Bayern is less popular here because it has much less exposure than, say, Man U or Real Madrid," Redding, the professor at Wabash College, told me. "My nephews are able to watch the English Premier League on ESPN and so they are huge fans of Chelsea and Manchester City. I don’t think they have the same opportunity to watch German football on a regular basis."