SportsInnovation 2024 – Opening speech by Steffen Merkel

20 March 2024 – SportsInnovation 2024 kicked off today, Wednesday, at the MERKUR SPIEL-ARENA in Düsseldorf. The opening speech at the trade fair for future technologies was given by DFL CEO Steffen Merkel.

Among other things, he spoke about the huge potential of artificial intelligence in sport. With a view to the importance of AI for the whole society, Merkel also called for a responsible approach and emphasised the importance of the Bundesliga acting as a role model.

The complete speech is available in English in the video above and as a written text as follows:

Ladies and gentlemen, dear guests, dear SportsInnovation partners, dear colleagues from all areas of the sports industry and the DFL Deutsche Fußball Liga. On behalf of the DFL, I would like to welcome you to SportsInnovation 2024 – where sport meets media, where tradition meets innovation.

“Football as it’s meant to be”. That is the slogan under which we are presenting the Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2 internationally. That’s a bold statement. And we mean it. We are proud of the history of our leagues and the tradition of our clubs since 1963. The Bundesliga has just celebrated its 60th anniversary, and Bundesliga 2 turns 50 this year. They are not only home to great players, great clubs and great sport, but also the social glue in a society that is drifting further and further apart.

The Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2 owe their strong standing to countless stories that connect millions of people. But it is just as important to think about how we tell these stories, and for that we must constantly evolve, move with the times, or even be ahead of the curve. That is one of the reasons why we are opening the third edition of SportsInnovation today.

Recognising the trends in media and technology, remaining curious, and thus constantly rekindling the fascination of sport for everyone is the aim of SportsInnovation. This is truer than ever – especially at a time when digital business models are evolving even faster than transfer rumours. And in which a new era of media consumption has already begun – because when it comes to how media sport offerings are used and followed, there have never been such profound differences between younger and older generations as today.

But back to the here and now. SportsInnovation. These two days are possible only thanks to great commitment and a lot of hard work. I would therefore like to start by thanking not only our co-organisers D.Sports and Spielmacher, but in particular all our colleagues at the DFL, Sportcast, Digital Sports, Sportec Solutions and especially all our partners who have put this programme together.

The next two days will be all about inspiration and innovation. I am very excited about everything there is to discover in the innovation games, on the panels, in the stands, and in the expert discussions. And I am particularly impressed by the large network of partners that has already developed around SportsInnovation at this third edition.

Because in my view, the DFL is rightly proud of the fact that it covers the entire media value chain itself and in-house. We organise the match operations. We produce the images ourselves and distribute them to more than 200 countries worldwide. We collect the match data. We create content for countless platforms, channels, and partners. And we sell the media rights to all of this globally. With the DFL, our partners get everything from a single source. That is a USP of German professional football that we can be proud of.

But: I am also convinced that one cannot play football alone. We need experienced players, and we need strong partners. SportsInnovation is based on this idea. And I also believe for the DFL in general, that we need to focus even more on partnerships and think in terms of networks more in the future. Among football leagues, we may be one of the largest organisations. But when compared to global corporations in the fields of AI, cloud computing and sports technology, it is obvious that the DFL is also a medium-sized enterprise.

Am I saying that we are a “mere dot” on the map? Of course not – the Bundesliga is the sixth-largest and one of the most emotional sports leagues in the world and is therefore also a business partner on an equal footing to many large corporations. But should we utilise the specialist knowledge, resources and networks of these companies within strong partnerships instead of developing every solution ourselves as a football league? Absolutely yes.

Our programme shows how diverse and international the sports business has become, but above all: what is possible nowadays. And how strongly sport is driving technological developments, helping them to become examples of application, visibility, and concrete benefits. Innovation that sparks emotions – this is perhaps only possible to this extent in sport.

The collection and processing of data, AI and mixed reality are making things possible that previously seemed unthinkable. And not only for innovative content, but also for football as a game. Performance and power diagnostics, load control, training and competition planning, scouting, even injury prevention – in all these areas, technology has become an integral part of the sport.

Or take, for example, the many forms of decision-making that are necessary and important in sport: goal or no goal, on- or offside. Did the ball touch the hand or not?

Digitalisation, internationalisation, marketing, media production, content creation: the possibilities of AI are opening up completely new worlds along the entire value chain, also in sport. A simple example: Where an editor previously had to spend hours searching through the archive and finding the right images before they could even spend the first creative minute of editing, today, AI can support them immediately.

The DFL has been using automated highlight videos in this way for quite some time. This allows us for example to produce localized high-quality content for our partners around the world: In Nigeria, a highlight clip from Victor Boniface is quickly available; in England, a video with the latest dream goal from Harry Kane – and in Japan, a compilation with the best scenes of the matchday from Hiroki Ito, Ritsu Doan, and Takuma Asano. Another example is our archive, the world’s largest football archive with more than 200,000 hours of content. We have used machine learning to tag the material that was archived on film reels 60 years ago and digitised 15 years ago with numerous new attributes – meaning that we no longer have to search for a needle in a haystack, but can find the right material from over 60 years of Bundesliga history.

Once again: The possibilities of technological innovation are beyond fascinating. And again: Right now, this is especially true in the field of AI. We all know: AI will impact not only the sports and media business, but many other areas of our lives as well. That is exactly why I would like to spend a few more words on this topic.

Because in a year of the next American Presidential election, and in which deep fakes can become a threat to democracies, and automated bots are influencing opinions in social media discourse, the topic of AI is sparking debate across different societies and sectors. In this environment, I believe the sports world has a responsibility to lead by example with a well-functioning compass.

What does this compass look like for the DFL or a league like the Bundesliga?
The Bundesliga and the Bundesliga 2 stand for an authentic experience. In the stadium and via our media partners, people are looking for emotions and moments that are real and follow athletes who are true role models. The media product that we will soon be tendering for the German-speaking countries, offers a Bundesliga experience for all generations. For those who concentrate fully on football for 90 minutes – but also for those who already knew how to use a smartphone before they even started primary school and therefore consume media in a completely different way. I firmly believe that this gives us a special responsibility also as a league.

For the DFL, but also for the clubs, it will be more important than ever to use new technologies responsibly but with a sense of control. And in a way that suits German football. The DFL is therefore currently developing guidelines on the use of AI. We are ready to lead the way as a sports organisation and make a contribution to society. We are not afraid of progress; we welcome it, we embrace it. And we will certainly use AI to produce creative content whenever it is possible and helpful. But the original remains the basis. And we will always make clear what is genuine – and what is not.

Sport is about the pursuit of perfection and improvement. But sport is also based on clear rules and fair competition. It is therefore our duty not just to follow thisdevelopment, but to take a proactive role and, in this specific case of AI-generated content, to be a role model facilitating media literacy. This is another example what we mean by a Bundesliga for all generations. For us, this is also football as it’s meant to be.

In this spirit, I wish every one of you an inspiring SportsInnovation 2024. Thank you.


The trade fair focuses on the latest developments, trends and future-oriented ideas in the sports ecosystem. The DFL is again host for the third edition together with the sports business conference organiser Spielmacher, as well as D.SPORTS . The most unique and outstanding feature of the event are the “innovation games”: three football matches that will showcase the latest technologies live in action.