When Carsten Cramer talks, inevitably the phrase 'The Borussia Dortmund way' finds a way of making an appearance. Repeatedly. For the BVB COO and the club, it's not just a marketing catchphrase. It's the tenet by which they have sworn to live and die for the past 15 years in each aspect of their functioning — be it their insistence to create superstars rather than buy them, or their strategy to deliberately keep ticket prices low to retain the in-game atmosphere and the loyalty to home fans, or their bottom-up approach to foreign markets rather than simply playing friendlies to maximise profits, or their refusal to not venture into other sports like basketball or eSports.
"Focus on ourself, focus on football, try to build superstars, but never hire them," said Cramer — who jokingly called himself 'a marketing guy who's fully convinced about his brand' — summing up 'The Dortmund Way' succinctly.
It is impossible not to draw comparisons to the cash-rich Premier League when one talks about 'The Dortmund Way'. For the last few decades, as commercialisation has taken root in football, Premier League clubs have irked their loyal fanbases by raising ticket prices, leading to locals finding it nearly unaffordable to attend games. Their places are usually taken by buzz-seeking tourists, who can afford to pay top dollar for a one-off football game.
"The intense footballing experience you get at Dortmund is different than going to the Emirates Stadium or Etihad Stadium. Sometimes it looks like football is disturbing the people in those stadiums," Cramer told Indian journalists at an interaction on Friday ahead of the team's away game against FC Cologne.
Dortmund, instead, issues 55,000 season tickets from the 81,365 seats available at Signal Iduna Park, despite being aware they could raise more gate fees by reducing the number of season tickets and opting to sell passes for individual games.
"The gate fees for the South Stand at Signal Iduna Park, where 25,000 fans of the Yellow Wall stand each game, is 12 euros at an average. Of course we can ask for more, because the demand is higher. But then we would have a change in the audience. We want to have Dortmund people in the stadium because of the intense footballing experience they bring. The loyalty of the people and the relationship between them and us, that's the USP of Borussia Dortmund. If we increase ticket prices, then it's a different atmosphere in the stadium. Then it's not Dortmund."
Knowing that there's a chance his words can be misinterpreted, he clarifies: "We are an open-minded club. Visitors from abroad are really welcome in Dortmund."
To emphasise his point, he draws attention to the 1,000-odd British fans who fly down to Dortmund to watch each home game where they're joined in the stands by unemployed workers from the Ruhr region attending games in the South Stand.
According to Cramer, the club makes less than 10 percent of its total revenue from ticket sales while they have just five percent commercial VIP seats. Those VIP seats have become a money-spinner for big European clubs, with Athletic Bilbao, for example, boasting of a gastronomic cathedral at the San Mames stadium with restaurants totalling 10 Michelin stars. Guests can sit in air-conditioned VIP boxes while enjoying the finest gourmet cuisines prepared by Michelin-star chefs while the game goes on.
Dortmund, on the other hand, stops serving food in the VIP seats once the kick-off happens.
'More than a football club'
Unlike other football clubs, BVB have stuck to their core competence rather than diverging into sports like basketball or eSports. They do not even have a women's football team. And while the club focusses on football, Cramer insists that winning isn't everything for them — a statement you would probably never hear from any other club in the cut-throat business of football.
"We are a smaller city. We're at a disadvantage than maybe a London or a Munich or a Madrid. Therefore we are convinced we have to focus on football. The way we play and the way we do business is different because the relationship with people is very important. We need the loyalty of the people.
"Dortmund tries to be as successful as possible. But we also try to be something people are concerned about. We represent values, we are more than just a football club.
"Of course we are ambitious and we want to win. But Dortmund is not obligated to win. It's not the same approach as Bayern. They seem to be obligated to become champions. When they play a cup final, they have to win. When we played the Champions League final at Wembley and lost, we weren't disappointed. We knew it was a success to be in the Champions League final."
Pragmatism borne out of adversity
Cramer admits that this pragmatism is borne out of the turbulent days of 2004, when the club almost went bankrupt.
"We spent too much money because we tried to overtake Bayern Munich. We raced against them. We tried to be the better Bayern Munich. That doesn't work. And now in the 15-year phase since, we have won two Bundesliga titles and we were in the Champions League final. Now we are able to get revenues above 500 million euros. There are some exceptions like Mats Hummels or Axel Witsel, but we will never buy superstars. The way we tried to be successful won't change," Cramer continued.
Their bond with the fans was also strengthened during this phase of adversity. When the club was facing a debt of nearly 200 million euros in 2004, the pressure from fans ensured that creditors did not bully the club.
Having emerged from that crisis, the club can now challenge the real heavyweights of the Bundesliga, Bayern Munich. Last season they pushed the Bavarian club till the last game of the season. This season too, with some nifty transfer business, the club has bolstered its position in the title race.
With two convincing wins in their first two games, they're already off to a steady start — a run of results that gain even more relevance when you see that Bayern Munich have dropped points in their opening game. But the Bavarian giants were trailing BVB by nine points at one point and still won the title in a photo-finish last season.
This season offers a fresh opportunity for the BVB. As has been the case for many years now, the race for the title is expected to be run between them and Bayern. But they believe the only way to overtake Bayern is 'The Dortmund Way'.
The writer is in Germany as part of the Robert Bosch Media Ambassadors Program
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