How Germany's First Digital Soccer Club Scores in China

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The regional league team TC Freisenbruch is not a normal eight-league club. The members decide on everything online - from transfers and budget to the formation. In an interview, the creators of the first German digital soccer club explain their project and report how they intend to take it to the next level in China.

Peter Schäfer ist Trainer beim TC Freisenbruch.
Peter Schäfer is coach at TC Freisenbruch.

Attack is the best defense. A phrase that is often used, especially in sports. In Particular when underdogs put the big opponents in their place. How this motto can also be interpreted in modern times is demonstrated by the soccer league team TC Freisenbruch.

The club from Essen had its back to the wall financially and was about to shut down the business. But instead of "closing the shop", Gerrit Kremer, Peter Schäfer and Peter Wingen decided to "pull the club out of the mud again with a crazy idea."

Soccer Club from Essen as Guest at ISPO Beijing

The trio decided that TC Freisenbruch should become the first digital club in Germany where the supporters make all the decisions - from transfers to line-up to budget. And not at general meetings, but online - at any time!

In the interview, the trio explains how this digital democracy is implemented in reality, which learning processes they have been gone through and how the district league team ended up at ISPO Beijing 2019.

Jedes zahlende Mitglied kann beim TC Freisenbruch seine Wunschaufstellung für die kommenden Spiele abgeben.
Every paying member can submit his wish list for the upcoming games to the TC Freisenbruch.
Image credit:
TC Freisenbruch

Living Counterpart to Commercialization Mr. Kremer, you are the managing director of the agency Doppelpass and one of the three managing partners of TC Freisenbruch. You yourself describe the change to the "first digital association in Germany" as a crazy idea. How did the decision come about and what alternatives would there have been?
Gerrit Kremer (CEO): To be honest, there weren't really much more ideas on the table. The idea of digitalization, on the other hand, had been under consideration for quite some time, and at that time the daring step seemed to us to be the right one.

Were there - especially at the beginning - also misunderstandings regarding the new concept in Freisenbruch?
Kremer: That happened from time to time. We also had journalists on site who thought it was a unique marketing gag. Maybe we were a little smiled at at first, thought of as a manager game, but with some success and attention the wind turns fast. Ultimately, in times of commercialization in soccer, we are the living counterpart to this development.

Digital Soccer Democracy in League 8

Were you aware of the hype that the restructuring of TC Freisenbruch would trigger?
Peter Wingen (Advisory Board): At least we speculated a little on it. But we could not have imagined that we would be invited to the ISPO Beijing with the TC Freisenbruch at some point.

Kremer: The story took off internationally when the editor-in-chief of ESPN Europe came from London to Freisenbruch to make a story about our club. So we got many international managers in one fell swoop, from West Hollywood to Australia.

How did the TC Freisenbruch come to put out their feelers to China?
Wings: The decisive impulse came from an article about the club in the Chinese online counterpart to the kicker - "All Football". In the end, five to six thousand comments were found under the article, which we then translated with Google Translator. The feedback was predominantly positive. But there was also the hint that the payment process via PayPal does not work in China and an English version of the site would be very helpful. We then attended the China Forum of the NRW Bank, where the feedback was also very good, and finally the invitation came from Messe München and the decision was made: "Now we are conquering the Chinese market as a district league team!"

Trainer Received Post After Member Survey

One of the most urged questions regarding your appearance at the fair: Did TC Freisenbruch receive the blessing of their team managers to make this exhausting trip to China?
Peter Schäfer (trainer): I have to admit that we did not ask our team managers about this matter, but we informed them about ISPO's offer in advance. But then there was a call from the team managers that there was still money in the marketing budget and that we should use these funds for the trip. This was then voted on. So I think we have the blessing of our followers (laughs).

Mr. Schäfer, from your point of view as a coach, how did the TC Freisenbruch start into the "digital age"?
Schäfer: I was involved in all the planning from the very beginning. Before it really started, a lot of programming and testing had to be done. That took a year and a half, easy. And then the mechanisms of the club worked for me. At the beginning I was the sports manager in Freisenbruch, but after we had to change the coach, I took over as interim. That went so well directly that it was voted whether I should continue as head coach. That was about 18 months ago.

Line-up by Swarm Intelligence

Usually player transfers run like this: Club A negotiates with club B, player XY changes ideally. How do new obligations work in Freisenbruch?
Schäfer: First of all, there is much more to explain, especially with regard to the potential new commitment. We are already quite well known in the Essen area, but the principle "line-up and also transfers are determined by the fans" must be made clear to everyone once again. But the feedback is predominantly positive, and the curiosity is great. Word has got around that we play in front of more fans and experience a lot more than in other clubs.

Votes, especially on the Internet, can also backfire. Have you ever had negative experiences with your digital-democratic approach in Freisenbruch?
Wings: At the beginning we already had some fears, but in the end everything was taken very seriously. On the one hand, it is certainly favored by the membership fee and on the other hand by the mass of team managers. Of course there are people from other clubs who choose nonsense for the line-up, but these are really only one or two people.

Kremer: I think it's quite easy to present the topic of constellation. Peter gives notes after each training and a constellation recommendation before a game. The team managers can follow this or not. However, many of our players consider the voting process to be much fairer, as not one person, i.e. the trainer, but the more than 600 managers vote and thus individual preferences are balanced. And even with the beer price a not too low amount was demanded, so that the association can earn enough money.

"The Chinese Are Fascinated by Our Project"

How would you define your goals for the days in China?
Schäfer: Our fundamental aim is to get attention for our project. Win a few new team managers and understand how football fans are travelling to China. But in the end we can only win on this journey.

Wings: The Chinese are very fascinated by our project.

In addition to TC Freisenbruch, clubs from the German Soccer League were also guests at ISPO Beijing. What is the relationship to the big German clubs like?
Wings: The club mascots already get along quite well, but I think the Bundesliga clubs find it a bit exotic what we do here.

Schäfer: This is all very cooperative. We had a few conversations, some of us already knew each other from events in Germany, and the clubs think it's pretty good what we got going with Freisenbruch.

Nothing Works in China Without Wechat

What can you learn from the Bundesliga clubs in China? And is there anything that professional clubs can learn from a regional league club?
Wings: Especially in the area of social media, for example WeChat, we have received a lot of helpful input from our colleagues. Conversely, I think the Bundesliga clubs can still learn something from us, especially when it comes to involving the fans.

Kremer: With us the fan doesn't just pay a membership fee and that's it. We offer extreme added value, a connection to the association and I think that's exactly what makes our project so attractive.

Finally, perhaps a small conclusion with regard to your planning in the run-up to the fair. What went well, where could you have invested a little more time and resources?
Kremer: We had extra flyers printed in Chinese, the banners here at the stand were also translated for the Chinese audience. Fortunately, several people have already confirmed that the texts have been translated correctly. One mistake was to print the URL code on the flyers. Here the WeChat QR code would have been the more sensible solution. In general: As learning we take with us - WeChat, WeChat, WeChat. Everything must be networked with WeChat, everything was scanned at our booth with WeChat - only maybe not my face yet. Nevertheless, I have to say that almost everything has gone smoothly for our modest possibilities so far, and we can be very satisfied.