Interview with Benjamin Wahl, Head of China, Borussia Dortmund

GREATER CHINA BUSINESS: In China, many people know BVB is a world class football club, could you tell us more about BVB in China and your role?

Benjamin Wahl:
BVB is since 2014 active in Asia, opened its first office abroad in Singapore. After the summer-tours of the team in 2016 and 2017 the feedback from the Chinese fanbase was overwhelming that the club decided to open an office in Shanghai as well.

80 million Chinese know the club BVB; We have 5 million followers in Chinese Social Media; Fanclubs all around the country.

Our China-office started with 2 employees in 2017, now in 2022 we are 10 colleagues – taking care of several business units:

  • Fans & Digital: Visiting and supporting fanclubs + taking care of 9 Social Media Channels from Weibo and Weibo to Douyin & TMALL
  • Business Development & Sales: We do sell commercial partnerships for picture rights, video- & image rights to brands
  • Sport & Youth football development: BVB is worldwide famous for its successful youth football approach. Becoming a top football nation is a big topic in China and therefore we have several coaches on ground and many sportive projects with clubs, cities, universities and provinces.

I am heading the Shanghai Office being responsible for the strategy and development of the China & Korea market.

GREATER CHINA BUSINESS: We can see that BVB’s brand awareness has been increased significantly in China, what efforts have you made to increase the influence of the “Black and Yellow” in China?

Benjamin Wahl:

We are aware that we can electrify the masses. BVB counts 240 million followers worldwide. Follower-numbers are one thing, high engagement is probably an even better indicator for a strong, highly committed fanbase.

We want to be authentic, stay close to football, “smell the grass” is a fitting phrase from the world of football. Therefore, besides social media, we are trying to be very close to our fanbase. We visit every other week our fanclubs in China.

We organize city events with them, see cultural sides, play football together and celebrate the game-day in the evening. We do offer tours to Dortmund, youth football training camps in Germany and we try to connect our fans via livestreams with current- and former players. Once a year all fanclub leaders from all around the world are invited to the Signal Iduna park. Currently we plan the BVB Fanclub Tournament in Asia.

GREATER CHINA BUSINESS: Many Chinese companies are expanding their business in Germany and throughout Europe. Sports marketing is no doubt a good option, if a Chinese company want to cooperate with BVB, how can they benefit from the cooperation with BVB?

Benjamin Wahl:

There are many football clubs in Europe, many opportunities of Sport Marketing. If you want to fully understand the power of our club, you might have to come to Dortmund once on a gameday. The whole city is vibrant. Entering the stadium with more than 80.000 enthusiastic fans, the highest attendance worldwide in football, the Yellow Wall, biggest standing tribune in the world, will give you goosebumps.

There are clubs who collect more titles, there are clubs who have bigger investors – no doubt. What we offer is a highly emotional environment, a young sportive squad, following our “challenger approach” – compete season by season with our young talented team in the Champions League and offer the young players to play on a very young age on the highest European level.

The football industry became a highly monetized and capitalized business sector. With all pro’s & con’s we are fighting to have a balance between the fan-culture and the competitive challenge especially with the other leagues on a sportive & financial level.

The 50+1 regulations are one prominent example for a sustainable and fan centric approach of the Bundesliga. Suitable KickOff dates-&times for fans another one. I.e.: Leaded by BVB supporters and several other fan organizations the Bundesliga abandoned the Monday games after a frist trial. This pays off in an unique away-fan-journey-culture in Germany: every weekend thousands of supporters travel with their team to away-games and create a fantastic atmosphere in almost all German Stadiums.

GREATER CHINA BUSINESS: Covid-19 has had a significant impact on people’ daily life around the world, what are the challenges and opportunities for BVB?

Benjamin Wahl:

Compared to the rest of the world, luckily, we were able to execute many offline events in China within 2020 & 2021 – while no audience was allowed in Europe. We are an authentic football club who does not want to do each and everything in an artificial way. The digital world gives tons of new opportunities, but the foundation remains to FEEL Borussia Dortmund and its energetic vibe. Either in Dortmund, in the stadium or in Asia: at Fan parties and Club events. Digital elements such as virtual stadium tour, a digital road to the stadium and BVB podcasts with club-inside views are great. But at the end we always try to combine those digital assets with an on ground event in Asia – such as Fan Tournaments, Viewing Parties and Livestream-Connects to players and to the training pitch.

GREATER CHINA BUSINESS: You know, people always disappointed about China ‘s men football team for their poor performance. China is now making great efforts to stimulate youth training and development. Can you talk a little bit about BVB’s football training business in China? And what do you think of the challenges and opportunities for foreign football clubs in this market?

Benjamin Wahl:

Chinese football has many facets.

The league has undergone many ups&downs within the last decades. It recently faced some throwbacks again. But still, there are sustainable new rules & efforts such as implementing a salary-cut and a strong focus on youth player presence. Rules which are implemented in die US-sport for a long time, and something we discuss in Europe as well – but not knowing yet, how to implement.

Additionally, I can see a strong enthusiasm for local clubs and a true football fan culture. Many Chinese fans support -besides their local team – a European club. But still, if you visit games of Shanghai Shenhua, Beijing Guan, Shandong Taishan,.. you will see thousands of fans marching to a stadium, singing songs, waiving flags,… and they raise their voice and have been heard: not long ago a new league rule banned company names out of official club-names. Overall, a good approach but clubs & their fans with a history of many decades like Shenhua or Guan went striking and have been heard: They are allowed to keep their traditional name.

The Chinese grass-roots-football is constantly developing. The heavy investment into pitches, academies, and re-structuring of the curriculum of young students helps a lot.

The numbers of the last governmental 5 year plan are well known: 55.000 new football pitches until 2025 – a solid foundation to bring football into society. A development which is ongoing roughly since 10 years. A rather short period of time in football-development.

Therefore, the Chinese football is by far not there yet where people expect it. The national team is -in this whole football-development-pyramid- the last final stone on top. Football development needs time. The curve is rising but it still needs several more years to fulfill the high expectations.

GREATER CHINA BUSINESS: Benjamin, we know you have been in China for many years, could you tell us your personal experience and feelings about living and traveling in this country?

Benjamin Wahl:

When I talk about China, I do talk about this beautiful country, about the people, the culture, the history. Sport is one part of this cultural aspect. China is an incredible huge country, with so many different facets. Imagine an equivalent covering-area in Europe from Cairo to Madrid, via London, Helsinki, St. Petersburg and back down south towards Athens – so many different regional specialties and differences . China is vivid, stunning, colorful, divers, and loud.

We are facing tough geo-political tensions in our globalized world.

My concern is that we fully lose the focus on cultural exchange between the nations. It’s more important than ever to listen to each other, to create an understanding of the others opinion, cultural background and their point of view.

Unfortunately, most of the news is completely dominated by geo-political topics. Placing a political grey filter on a country, their citizens, and their culture.

We must make sure not to lose the open-minded global citizens on both sides: in the east AND in the west.

Therefore, sport in general is one of the very few leftover connections to build those bridges.

For me still fascinating about China are the different mindsets: Besides the governmental 5 year plans the period of planning is way shorter than in the west. People & companies are more willing to try things, dare to do something new, discard a project and create a new one. The speed of new trends, products, platforms, and events is significantly higher.

The constant availability & accessibility of resources supports the speed of life: stores are mostly open 24/7; human resource is highly available, long-term scheduling is not needed to setup a project. A launch-event in China with stage, light, sound, branding, moderation, and external staff could be planned and setup within a few days.

There is no „NO“ in China. In general, and also in their use of language: everything is possible.

Overall, I perceive China as an extremely cheerfully country. People sing a lot, with colleagues, family, friends, its deep rooted in the society. Every evening dancing groups gather on public places all around the country. Music is played and a broad variety of dancing groups, from young to old perform for about an hour. The atmosphere in busses and subways is loud & hectic but feels colorful and cordial. I am glad and thankful to represent Borussia Dortmund in China.