Cologne’s quest to boost U.S. profile, deal with COVID-19 hardships and avoid relegation

Cologne fans are some of the most vociferous in the Bundesliga, but it remains to be seen when supporters will be allowed back in stadiums. Lars Baron/Bundesliga/Bundesliga Collection via Getty Images

ESPN’s lead Bundesliga commentator Derek Rae has been longing to explain the magic of FC Cologne (Effzeh, as they’re known) all season. They followed a dramatic draw against Borussia Dortmund — a vital point as they find themselves in a relegation scrap with Hertha Berlin, Mainz and Arminia Bielefeld — with a 1-0 defeat at VfL Wolfsburg. Up next? Another huge game as they host Mainz on Sunday (Noon ET, stream live on ESPN+).

During the March international break, Rae got his chance, sitting down with Cologne CEO Alexander Wehrle for a wide-ranging, one-on-one conversation.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Rae: I know the answer to this one, but I would love it if you would explain to new American Bundesliga fans why Cologne should be their team.

Wehrle: It’s a club rich in tradition based in the fourth-largest city in Germany. Special features are the Cologne cathedral and the annual Karneval. In normal times people will know, beginning with the anthem, which everyone sings and the special atmosphere, we stand out in comparison with many other clubs in Germany. So it’s about the people here and really a coming together of all these factors, and when an American fan takes an interest in Germany, it’s certainly worthwhile looking at us.

Rae: You’re the only club with a billy goat for a mascot and you market yourself as ”spurbar anders,” which translates to ”noticeably different.” What does that mean to you?

Wehrle: “Spurbar” relates to something you have to experience to understand. ”Anders” refers to the people in Cologne, who have their own personality compared to other parts of Germany. They’re very emotional, and the club, together with the cathedral and the Karneval, carries real meaning in this city. It’s not the same, for example, in Hamburg with HSV or Stuttgart with VfB.

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Rae: How has dealing with the difference affected how you operate as chief executive? You arrived at the club in 2013.

Wehrle: We had 48,000 members at the time, and I had a goal of raising that to at least 100,000. I had thought 30 to 35,000 would be from the city of Cologne, but the analysis showed it was only about 9,000. I didn’t understand that, but further analysis showed that people from Cologne believed they didn’t need memberships because their birth certificate also served as a membership ID; they thought they didn’t need to fill out a form.

Another difference is that in recent years, we’ve bounced between the top two divisions, but regardless, our stadium is always sold out. It doesn’t matter in the sense of sporting success, as the fans are a part of this club and they always come. Also different!

2 Related

There’s a more serious story, too. When the club was relegated in 2012, we had to borrow capital from outside. We had to raise money; we were in 17th place in the second tier after eight weeks, and €32 million in debt. Despite the tight financial situation, within six weeks we brought in €12.5m from the public; the people were prepared to part with their money. Again, noticeably different.

Rae: You mentioned the special feeling of the Cologne anthem. I’m curious as a Scot if you know the roots of the tune?

Wehrle: I only know that the Cologne band Hohner wrote the words, but it’s a melody from a Scottish song (“Loch Lomond”). I was an exchange student at 14 or 15 in Tullibody, between Glasgow and Edinburgh, and heard many Scottish tunes. Due to that, I knew the source of this one.

Rae: That anthem gives people goosebumps, and it impresses Scots whenever they hear it. But from Scotland, back to the USA. Are you aware that Cologne already has an active fan scene among Americans?

Wehrle: Yes, we have fan clubs in Indianapolis, Chicago and Nashville. I’m not sure how many members, but we are well-aware and would like to build on that. There is a constant exchange between our fan department and our fan clubs, and we’re delighted about that. What I don’t know is if it’s mostly Americans or Germans who live in the USA.

Rae: I’ve found it’s a mixture of new fans and Germans.

Wehrle: Yes, and we also know how important women’s football is. Our women’s team is in the running for promotion to the Frauen-Bundesliga too. We’ve made a few changes, and it’s a clear target of ours to establish our team in the top division and then, on the international front. Clearly women’s football is very popular in the USA.

Cologne CEO Alexander Wehrle sees the U.S. as an important audience for the Bundesliga. Rolf Vennenbernd/picture alliance via Getty Images

Rae: There are already partnerships between Bundesliga and MLS clubs. Could Cologne go down that road?

Wehrle: It can’t be ruled out. The USA is part of our target market with Japan and South Korea. We’ve already had a training camp in Florida. Many American players have emerged in the Bundesliga, like [Weston] McKennie, [Josh] Sargent, [Giovanni] Reyna. We were actually in talks with Reyna through his dad, who of course used to play in Germany, but in the end, he unfortunately decided in favour of Dortmund, where the financial offer was better. Sadly we couldn’t compete.

Right now, with the financial situation, it’s difficult to talk about a partnership or an academy. For that you need to invest and for now the first priority, due to the pandemic and the losses we’ve taken, is to keep the business going.

Rae: But do Bundesliga clubs have to keep a special eye on the American market from an economic angle?

Wehrle: MLS is getting stronger and stronger, although it’s certainly not at a European level compared to the top leagues. I can’t rule out working with more American partners like Ford, with whom we have a long-term relationship, or UPS. So a cooperation agreement with a club or building an academy and scouting emphasis could all be future elements of a strategy for that target market.

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Rae: You mentioned the financial situation. We’re in a pandemic and Effzeh finds itself in a relegation fight. How important is it for the club to stay in the Bundesliga?

Wehrle: Extremely important. Even without the coronavirus, the difference between the two divisions is around €30m and €35m. We have often said we’re looking at a total of 22 home games with no fans — that means a loss of €40m — and then you have the effect on marketing, merchandising, football schools, TV income. That’s a significantly higher figure than €40m in terms of overall loss of revenues, so you have to adopt mitigation measures.

Rae: And how about fans next season? How are you planning on that front?

Wehrle: It’s a good question. We can almost say our planning changes daily. If you had asked me eight weeks ago, we would have assumed by June or July, everyone in Germany would be eligible to be vaccinated. I would have said with masks, people in seats, they could experience football matches again.

In the meantime, unfortunately, we have to assume that we won’t be able to offer everyone a vaccine by July or August, and as long as that’s the case, I don’t believe we’ll be able to begin the season with normal spectator numbers. It will be a percentage, and whether that’s 50%, 60% or 70% or even less, I can’t tell you today. But looking ahead to August, our capacity is just over 50,000 including standing areas. Sadly, at the moment I don’t hold any hope that standing areas will be able to be used. Forty-six-thousand — our seating capacity — I’m hoping for 50% or more. But I just don’t know.

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Rae: There has been talk in your state about a pilot project involving a few hundred fans initially, and using rapid testing on site. Would Cologne be prepared for that?

Wehrle: Yes. We’ve been talking to our health office about this for a long time and the politicians know we would be willing. But it must match the spirit of the time and the mood of the moment, and when you’re in a lockdown period as we are, it’s difficult to consider.

Rae: Back to the relegation fight. As CEO, do you always have to have two plans: one for staying up and another for going down?

Wehrle: Always. We have to do this by March 15 every year. While Bayern Munich don’t have to do it as they always have more than 40 points by then, we very much do. It’s completely normal for us to plan on two fronts and it’s not an extra challenge but in fact, just a normal situation.

Rae: The 2. Bundesliga could be full of big, traditional clubs next season. Does that in a strange way make it a more valuable commodity?

Wehrle: It could be a special mix there next season, and we hope of course that we’re not involved. Naturally it’s good when the top division is full of strong sides. You would want that, but on the other hand, if smaller teams get promoted, then they are there on merit and they can be an enrichment. But clearly if we were to go down, and as of today, I’m not assuming at all that we’ll be relegated, but if you ended up with Schalke, Hamburg, perhaps Cologne, Dusseldorf, Nurnberg. That’s crazy!

These teams are rich in tradition. But only after matchday 34 or the relegation playoffs will we know where we’re all playing.

Rae: Last question. It’s often said “Cologne is a feeling.” I’ve always thought the community and stadium are a big part of that. But I’ve often heard it said that it should be bigger given the club’s needs. What are your thoughts?

Wehrle: You’ve described it well. We have a 50,000 capacity. We have 25,500 season ticket holders, and we have alone more than 14,000 of our members who are interested in applying for season tickets. That’s out of 113,000 members, and so from a financial and strategic angle, we have focused on increasing the capacity. The stadium technically could be expanded to 75,000.

From a planning perspective, it’s more difficult as it would be dependent on political decisions. The contract is in place until 2024 and nothing is doable until then due to the European Championship in 2024. Financially it’s a big challenge with an element of risk. But it’s an important subject that won’t be implemented in the short term.


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