It was only a few weeks ago that Bruno Labbadia lost his job as coach of VfB Stuttgart after only 120 days in office. Sebastian Hoeneß replaced him and got the Swabians back on course. VfB have been unbeaten in five competitive games and have a great chance on Wednesday evening to reach the final of the DFB Cup by beating Eintracht Frankfurt (8.45 p.m., ARD and in the live ticker on welt.de). Alexander Wehrle, the sports director of VfB, is in good spirits.
WORLD: Mr. Wehrle, what would be the significance of entering the cup final?
Alexander Wehrle: That would be an absolute highlight in what has been a difficult season so far. Sportively, financially and above all emotionally. Our fans in particular deserved to experience a cup final in Berlin.
WORLD: VfB’s form curve has been pointing upwards for weeks. What is the role of the new coach Sebastian Hoeneß?
Wehrle: The head coach is ultimately responsible for the team’s performance and results, so of course he has a big part in it. Sebastian managed to give the team self-confidence and courage, which also enabled us to regain the luck that we often lacked before.
WORLD: Fortuna Düsseldorf recently surprised with a marketing coup. With the help of the city and sponsors, the second division club wants to ensure free access to the stadium for three games in the coming season. There was talk of a ticket revolution.
Wehrle: Basically, I think it’s good to think about new approaches. But there are some open questions. Is something like this actually possible over 17 games and also in the premier league, why are business pitches still subject to a fee when it says “football for everyone” and what does it mean for the sports city of Düsseldorf if I can play football for free, but for other sports that depend on spectator revenue, such as ice hockey, have to pay. In Stuttgart we would really cause problems for handball or volleyball players with such an idea.
WORLD: What percentage do the ticket prices make up in a club’s budget?
Wehrle: Depending on the league, the size of the stadium and other income such as transfers, it should be between 10 and 20 percent. At Fortuna, however, there are currently between 20,000 and 25,000 seats available for many games. This is a different starting point compared to ours. We always have the arena full. Since we wanted to accommodate the fans after the Corona crisis, also to counter an alienation that sometimes existed, it is a good step for Fortuna to think about ticket prices. But I question whether it has to be free tickets.
WORLD: Now supporters from many other clubs are guaranteed to ask themselves whether this is also conceivable or possible for you. How is it at VfB?
Wehrle: A few years ago, we didn’t have a good experience at VfB with the general sale of tickets, so the stadium wasn’t fuller. You need a fair, understandable price structure. And as far as the realization of the Fortuna model is concerned: If you, as a first division club, have a very high occupancy rate like us and the advertising rights in the stadium – like perimeter boards – are largely sold out, it is difficult to implement. Because a sponsor who compensates ticket income wants to get marketing opportunities in return. Apparently Fortuna still has free advertising capacity, but we don’t have that much.
WORLD: Compared to other major European leagues, entry into Germany is relatively cheap.
Wehrle: That’s how it is compared to England. Nevertheless, in this country we are in competition with other major events, including cultural ones, which means that we shouldn’t turn the price spiral upwards indefinitely. We try to keep our prices as stable as possible, which is a challenge given the general rise in prices. The stadium experience must continue to be possible for everyone, for families or young people with little money as well as for hospitality customers with high demands.
WORLD: Hans-Joachim Watzke, the head of BVB and at the same time the head of the supervisory board of the DFL, said recently in the WamS: “Anyone who calls for stars like Haaland to be bought and kept must also know that the ticket prices would then inevitably have to rise. Of course it’s not possible to keep or buy top international stars and at the same time let the standing room ticket only cost eight euros.” How do you see that?
Wehrle: From BVB’s point of view, that’s completely understandable, since the top clubs competing in an international context have different requirements. On the other hand, one might even have to initiate a completely different discussion with regard to the capitalization process of the DFL. We could use part of the additional money that would be generated to accommodate viewers and keep ticket prices stable for the next few years or even lower them, bucking the inflationary trend.
WORLD: Watzke and Dirk Zingler, President of 1. FC Union, spoke out in a major interview in favor of an investor joining the DFL. Although it is said that the investor should not have a say, the resentment among fans nationwide is great.
Wehrle: It’s a field of tension. On the one hand, it is about the competitiveness of the top clubs, whose international competitors benefit from investors, significantly higher TV revenues and successful foreign marketing. But it’s also about the balance in the Bundesliga, because if the competition isn’t exciting, the attractiveness of the entire league suffers. In this respect, it is understandable to think about how additional capital can be invested in growth areas, for example in the development of OTT, i.e. a dedicated video platform in order to generate higher TV income internationally for all clubs. On the other hand, we must not forget one thing.
Wehrle: That we set up a task force during the Corona period that explicitly dealt with how we could position football closer to the fans, but also to society as a whole. The accusation of many fans is not without reason that we are about to overturn the spiral again. They fear that the money that comes in will go straight to players and agents. It must be communicated that this is not exclusively the case and that it is important to invest in growth areas, such as digitization, in the interest of all German football and thus also the fans. Just as it must be conveyed that everything is being done so that everyone can continue to afford football – and football remains the number one sport. But there is something else.
Wehrle: Many teenagers and young adults, the so-called Generation Z, deal with other topics. She is on Twitch or Tiktok with e-sports and other digital forms of pastime. Other sports are also attractive. Not to forget US sports, i.e. the NBA, the NFL or the NHL. We in football are required to find arguments for the younger generation to spend their free time with football. Otherwise it will be difficult.
WORLD: Are you concerned that the younger generation is no longer as interested in football as the previous ones were?
Wehrle: Let’s put it this way: As far as Generation Z is concerned, you can already see that they don’t have much desire or patience to get involved in something over a longer period of time when it comes to different formats. Highlight formats are short, concise and entertaining. Therefore, on the one hand, we have to consider which digital experiences are needed for a football game and for football as a whole. On the other hand, it’s about getting young people excited about visiting the stadium with its emotional atmosphere – and getting them into the clubs. That won’t be easy, because leisure time behavior has changed. Children and young people stay at home, gamble alone or interact with friends on various platforms around the world. Going out after school, meeting up and doing team sports is no longer a matter of course. And nowadays there are no longer any children waiting thirstily for the sports show on Saturday – like we used to.
WORLD: Mr. Wehrle, you are also the head of the supervisory board of DFB GmbH. How do you see developments since the World Cup debacle in Qatar?
Wehrle: I think the interaction between DFB President Bernd Neuendorf and Hans-Joachim Watzke is going well. That’s a good base. Filling the management of the national team with Rudi Völler was also a positive sign, especially with a view to Euro 2024.
WORLD: After Oliver Bierhoff left, Sami Khedira, who is currently still advising VfB, is traded as sports director. Would you let him move to the DFB?
Wehrle: A common question. (laughs)
WORLD: But it turns itself on.
Wehrle: First of all, I’m very happy that we were able to win Sami Khedira for VfB in a very difficult situation. I would regret it for VfB if he left because we had a plan in place with him for the years to come when he came to us. But it would be Sami’s decision and we would have to accept it.
WORLD: Do you think he is the right candidate?
Wehrle: Over the past seven months, I have got to know Sami Khedira as a very reflective, passionate and innovative team player with an outstanding international network. Therefore, I am firmly convinced that Sami Khedira has a great career ahead of him in the football industry.
WORLD: You originally wanted to travel to Qatar for the World Cup, which would have been special because you are known to be homosexual. In the end you haven’t traveled yet.
Wehrle: Yes, I was planning to travel to Qatar and set an example. But I had to set priorities in the difficult sporting situation that VfB was in. In my position as CEO, it was more important to be in Stuttgart.
WORLD: In Thomas Hitzlsperger, your predecessor at VfB, a first celebrity from the football industry came out in 2014 after the end of his career. Do you think it is possible that an active professional in this country would dare to come out or is the fear of homophobia, resentment in the stadium among active players still so great?
Wehrle: I think that’s possible and I’m also sure that someone will get the full support of their club. We are responsible for ensuring the conditions within the clubs and not only living out clear values in the office with the employees, but also bringing them closer to the players in the youth teams. Many clubs and the DFB have positioned themselves clearly. This is important. When someone takes this very personal step, they should not be pressured or forced into it. Because it is an individual decision, which also includes where someone comes from, what their environment is like and how they were socialized. But when someone is ready, they need to get maximum support. Germany and the Bundesliga are ready for this, without a doubt.
WORLD: How do you experience society? Hans-Joachim Watzke recently said that she had changed a lot in the past two or three years, also due to Corona. “She’s become more restless, less consensus- and compromise-oriented, and she’s also become a little more radical. Everything that is new here is initially under general suspicion,” he said.
Wehrle: I have the impression that many people have become more suspicious. I stand behind the political system of representative democracy and the opportunity for all citizens to demonstrate – even against the majority opinion. However, this means that the decisions taken in democratic processes are then also accepted. Without this acceptance, we can neither make decisions nor live together peacefully in a pluralistic society. At this point, I sometimes have the feeling that boundaries are shifting more and more. On the other hand, sometimes radicalizing measures are taken. I watch all of this with concern. We must not take free society for granted, but must be very vigilant.