Schalke's battle for visibility in football's crowded global fan base
GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany -- As he pulls his car into the parking lot, Peter Lecher points to an old restaurant on the other side of the street. "That's closed," he says. "Everything's closed round here. All that's left is this." The food park at the back of the Veltins Arena contains an Italian restaurant, an all-you-can-eat Mongolian and a franchise described as a "cosmopolitan hangout with Mediterranean, African, Caribbean, Southern States and Californian influences."
This is not the Caribbean and it's not California. This is Gelsenkirchen's north, the home of one of Germany's biggest football clubs: FC Schalke 04.
"I thought about leaving, but like we say down here: it's s--- elsewhere, too," Lecher says. He talks about how he never really left his city and his lifelong love for Schalke. He is more than a fan -- back in the noughties, he ran a cafe that was frequented by players including the Altintop brothers and Ivan Rakitic -- but now follows the club with a bit of distance, one of many turned off by football's megalomania. But you can feel it: His blood is still royal blue.
It's that never-ending bond with the club that the Bundesliga side hope to use as one of their key selling points in modern football's crowded, ultra-competitive marketplace -- across Germany, Europe and in the lands yet to be fully conquered. Their existing fans' love for Schalke -- along with the club's famous Knappenschmiede academy -- is viewed as their best hope of collecting further followers worldwide. As football establishes itself as the top global sport and makes steady progress in the United States and China, Schalke are battling to ensure they remain in the picture.
Going into the last couple of seasons of the decade, the Bundesliga has once more reached a turning point. Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund are established as the two powerhouses, while RB Leipzig, with the help of owners Red Bull, have not only brought money to the table but also what appears to be a sustainable model for sporting success. The path to Champions League qualification is narrowing even further for some of Germany's most storied teams.
In the age of super clubs and internationalisation, every year that clubs spend away from the Champions League -- and even the Europa League -- makes it harder to win over fans in the international growth markets. Instead of building their own brand, the established clubs fall back to a level where they are regarded as part of the league's tradition, but not as part of its future. It is a level where, internationally, they are no longer a brand but simply part of a wider effort to lift the Bundesliga's image.
Schalke marketing executive Alexander Jobst, who has had previous stints at FIFA and Real Madrid, has been tasked with the near-impossible task of using the fans and the Knappenschmiede academy to build a devoted global audience.
Schalke are rightly proud of those aspects of the club. The academy produced current stars, including Julian Draxler, Mesut Ozil, Manuel Neuer, Leroy Sane, Joel Matip, while Germany internationals Benedikt Howedes and Max Meyer remain on the books at the Veltins Arena.
It is also hard to find a more loyal fan base in the Bundesliga than Schalke's, with 145,631 members, and the club still operating as an "EV" -- a registered club denoting a nonprofit organisation set up for the common good and run by its members. Most other clubs have outsourced their football branch into companies these days, while others -- including Leipzig -- have found ways around the "50+1 rule," which stipulates that more than 50 percent of a club must be owned by its members. Hoffenheim, Wolfsburg and Leverkusen already operate outside the rule.
On match days, people sporting Schalke shirts roam the streets of downtown Gelsenkirchen -- an old miner's town with an unemployment rate of over 12 percent -- as they proceed toward the Veltins Arena. Some travel by tram along the famous Schalker Meile, with its Schalke pubs and the club's old Gluckaufkampfbahn stadium, which hosted their games until 1973. It's there that you can sometimes hear the club's ultras get ready for games on the old stands. Others arrive by car from faraway places.
"It's pretty amazing to see how committed they are down here," Weston McKennie, a U.S. under-20 midfielder who joined Schalke last summer, tells ESPN FC. "You gotta love soccer in this area because it is soccer. That's what they are about."
Schalke have not won a single Bundesliga title, last winning the championship back in 1958, when football still had no professional structure in Germany. They came close several times, losing the 2001 title to Bayern Munich in stoppage time of the final match day, when -- with fans already celebrating on the pitch of the old Parkstadion -- Bayern's Patrik Andersson fired a free kick into the back of the net over in Hamburg.
That year, the Parkstadion was replaced with the club-financed Veltins Arena, a few hundred metres away from the old stadium, and over the next decade they were Champions League regulars, reaching the semifinals in 2011. But having employed nine different coaches since the turn of the decade, they have not been able to maintain their consistency. They have played in the Europa League in the last two seasons and are currently in danger of failing to qualify for Europe at all for the first time since the 2009-10 season.
Despite their lack of progress in recent years, Schalke continue to collect fans, not only locally but internationally, where they have become one of the driving forces in the league's bid to gain market share abroad. At the same time, academy players such as Ozil, Draxler, Sane, Matip and Neuer have carried the Knappenschmiede name around the globe.
"Schalke 04 are the beacon in a structurally weak area. These days, we mean more than just fandom to our supporters and fans. It's rather a way of life, or maybe even a purpose in life -- at least a part of that purpose," Jobst tells ESPN FC.
The 43-year-old, who started Real Madrid's in-house TV channel around a decade ago, is sitting in one of the conference rooms overlooking Schalke's training pitches close to the stadium. In the background, what remains of the old Parkstadion, the club's home from 1973 through to that dreadful day in 2001, has been turned into a pitch for the Knappenschmiede. One floodlight will continue to exist as a landmark, but the other three are gone.
"To those growing up here, Schalke is just a part of their lives," says Hassan Talib Haji, who runs Hassanscorner, an online Schalke fan TV and fanzine with a huge community. "It's not possible without Schalke. You just identify with the club. That's why a few go mad whenever the club loses. They fight with their wives; they don't talk to their kids. When they lose, the weekend's over." He highlights the unemployment in the area. "The jobs are gone," he says. "In the end, all that remains is Schalke. The club is like a family. We argue and we make peace."
Jobst has the task of selling the passion. "We don't give priority to mining or our history in an international context, but rather focus on our closeness to the fans," he says. The club's final training sessions prior to their derbies away to Borussia Dortmund are traditionally attended by thousands of supporters. "Most other clubs don't even have open training sessions these days," he adds in an apparent dig at Dortmund, who only hold a few public training sessions over the course of the year. "We distribute and transport this closeness between team and players through our digital channels," Jobst says. "Those pictures can be seen in our target markets in the United States and China. That's a unique selling point because it's just different to other clubs."
Even so, Schalke, like every other club, need sporting success, not only in the Bundesliga but also in Europe. "Schalke 04 have to be successful on the pitch in the next couple of years. The measures we take are nowhere near as successful as reaching the Champions League or Europa League knockout stages," Jobst says. "Internationalisation is easier to justify when you have sporting success. If there's no success, we cannot ensure a successful e-commerce business in China."
Over the past few years, several Bundesliga clubs in Germany have challenged Bayern Munich, but some have since fallen off a cliff. Stuttgart, the Bundesliga champions in 2007, were relegated last summer, while Werder Bremen, Munich's big competitors in the 2000s, are currently two points above the relegation playoff spot in the table. The gap has become too big.
"There are examples of former 'big clubs' that have been successful in Champions League, but if they miss out on Europe for several years in a row, you can see how difficult it is to return to the upper third of Bundesliga," Jobst says.
Schalke, despite playing in the Europa League for the past two seasons, have posted another club-record turnover of €264.5 million, the third biggest in Bundesliga behind Bayern and Dortmund. In a year without Champions League football, Leroy Sane's €50m move to Manchester City played a major role in keeping the club's finances steady.
"Without a highly capable youth academy, a club like Schalke 04, with its structures, will have a rough ride. To put it in other words: We are dependent on it, and we know we need to invest in it so one or two players can make the step to the first team every year," Jobst says.
Schalke also hold all the marketing rights for their club, and are the only EV in German football to do so.
But with the domestic market -- where a multibillion-euro TV deal was struck by the German League (DFL) last summer -- all but exploited and transfers like those of Sane or Julian Draxler, who left for Wolfsburg in 2015, unlikely to go through ever year, future growth needs to be secured overseas, where fans follow the fortunes of their clubs and the league on social media platforms. A deal struck at the government level between Germany and China has left the league's clubs sensing a gold rush. German football is headed east.
Having already visited China last summer, they will return to the booming market in Asia this year and have a local agency taking care of their business to continue the work during the season. Late last year, they also signed an agreement with Chinese Super League side Guangzhou R&F, "which now needs to be filled with life," Jobst says. He describes the partnership as "give and take," with Schalke offering know-how for sporting aspects as well as strategic aspects on how to build a club and in turn receiving the opportunity to go into the market through their Chinese partner.
However, the international setup needs another string to its bow, and the United States is the club's second-biggest hope.
They've taken a different, more grassroots approach in the States, where they are hoping to win over the young target audience through cooperations with college teams as well as commercial youth soccer programmes. They are not adopting a blanket approach, instead looking to regions that have not been taken by other clubs and have similarities to the Ruhr area in Germany.
Sure, they would not mind seeing the likes of the U.S. youngsters inside the Knappenschmiede -- Weston McKennie, Haji Wright and Nic Taitague -- breaking into the first team, but Jobst insists they were only signed "from a sporting perspective." He elaborates: "Indeed, it would help our internationalisation efforts in the United States if they were to play successfully for us for a longer period. But that wasn't the main aspect.
"The interest in sports in the United States is undergoing a change. The youth are all fired up for soccer, because a certain degree of saturation with the NBA, NFL and NHL has set in. At least this a conclusion of our analysis in the U.S. sports market. Soccer stands somewhat as an honest sport with authenticity, and that just fits our identity. That's where Gerald Asamoah comes into play."
Former Germany international Asamoah has taken on a role as one of the brand ambassadors for Schalke. The 39-year-old has been one of the club's faces domestically and internationally in the past, and also works as the sporting director for the under-23 side.
He embodies Schalke like no one else and has battled for the club in several derbies against Dortmund, always knowing how to spice it up with his actions on and off the pitch.
"I owe Schalke 04 so much. I live this club, and you can ask a thousand people: Asamoah is Schalke 04. And that makes me very proud," Asamoah, who played at the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, says. He reflects on a signing session in a shopping mall during the 2016 Florida Cup, which he attended alongside club captain Howedes and Netherlands international Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. "You're afraid the Americans don't know you, and that only 50 people will show up, but then it lasted for three hours," he says. "I was surprised that the people there knew my name and it was great to see that they are interested in the club."
Asamoah talks about the growing interest in football in the United States. "I never imagined it to be like this," he says, having returned from a January trip to the NSCAA Convention 2017, where he held a training session for young soccer players, lifted the lid on a few Knappenschmiede secrets and represented the club.
"The Schalke Way is offering a home for the people," Jobst says. "Closeness, a family, a way of life. It's our big challenge to transport this internationally."
How far that will go remains to be seen. Red Bull, in addition to Leipzig, holds stakes in clubs in Austria, Brazil and the United States. The City Football Group boasts Manchester City, New York City FC, Melbourne City and academies all over the world. Atletico Madrid have invested in clubs in India, France and are thinking about a Mexican franchise.
"I don't want to rule out that Schalke 04 will one day consider the idea of farm teams, also in the States and China, but that's not part of our short-term or middle-term thinking," Jobst says.
For now, the focus is on sporting success, with April starting with a home game against Dortmund and also featuring a Europa League quarterfinal clash with Ajax. Success in the Europa League could be their best route to a return to the Champions League and the international spotlight.
"The top clubs will remain up there, and for those behind them it will be even more difficult to break into the phalanx," Jobst says when asked about the European super clubs, adding "that similar things apply for the domestic competition."
Schalke have reached a turning point. There is no question they have an international setup but, in the moving landscape of German and European football, they need sporting success to remain competitive off the pitch at a time when only a handful of clubs have the capacity to dominate.
"Our goal is to remain one of the big European clubs in the future from a sporting, economic and emotional aspect," Jobst says. "The sporting side will be challenging. We are heading in the right direction economically and I believe the emotional aspect won't be the major problem."
The sporting and economical aspects, however, are tied together. Everything comes down to on-field success. Schalke are one of Europe's sleeping giants but, to realise their dream of international success, they need to wake up soon.
Stephan Uersfeld is the Germany correspondent for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @uersfeld.