When the “#FinalDraw” was broadcast last Friday in the first, i.e. the group draw for the soccer World Cup in Qatar, the man who was responsible for practically all soccer events for ARD over the past 19 years was no longer involved. Instead, Steffen Simon sat at home in Cologne and followed the “Sportschau” extra, moderated by his recent personal commitments, from the sofa like a normal viewer. The boss of Esther Sedlaczek and Bastian Schweinsteiger had previously taken himself out of the line of fire. Not that there is a conflict of interest! Soon he’s finally playing on the other side, on the “team” side.
As is well known, Steffen Simon will move to the DFB as the new media director on May 1st. “Football hammer”, headlined the “BILD” newspaper in its hammer style when the personal details became known at the end of March, hitting the nail on the head, hö hö hö. Nobody really expected this spectacular change of sides.
The deputy general secretary of the DFB distributed advance praise (“There is no doubt about his competence.”). Congratulations came from the highest WDR authority. And that’s exactly what Steffen Simon will need for his new job, the “excellent sense for public perception and opinion-forming” that director Tom Buhrow attested to in his farewell praise.
© WDR/Annika Fusswinkel
To put it mildly, the reputation of the German football team is not the best. She is perceived as an emotionless, unapproachable and, at the tournament level, hapless construct. Even Steffen Simon, in his role as a long-time ARD commentator and WDR sports director last year, judged here on DWDL.de that Jogi’s boys had “never euphorized our country for a moment since the quarter-final victory against Italy at Euro 2016, on the contrary”.
And now he’s supposed to give the national team a boost of euphoria? He of all people, who had to endure so much negative emotion during cup and international matches like hardly any other man in the commentary box? How is he going to do that?
Well, that remains his secret for now. He is still under contract with WDR. Right at the beginning of our conversation, Steffen Simon asks for your understanding that he will only be able to do this from May 1st. outer. However, he likes to talk about what drove him to change jobs.
“2021 was the most challenging year I’ve ever had,” he begins to explain. Because the WDR is becoming more and more the sports broadcasting center for the entire ARD, there have been more projects than ever before that had to be managed. He never stops enumerating: It was a super sport year with the finals, the CHIO and the rescheduled EURO 2020, including a huge technical production thunderstorm that was unprecedented in Cologne city center alone, plus responsibility for the final Bundesliga conference on 25 radio waves and exploitation the online rights acquired for the first time. The launch of the podcast “Sport Inside” and the documentary series “Generation F” for the ARD media library, the 50th anniversary of the goal of the month and much more.
At the end of the year he had “something like an appointment with himself,” Simon continues: You’ll be 57. Your last ten years of work are coming up. You can consolidate and manage this success. Or, if you’re lucky, you can do something else now. Old, white men are “a bit out of fashion, but I was lucky,” he laughs and then pulls out this incredible “hammer”: An acquaintance called him, the Cologne Carnival is looking for a new manager, are you interested?
“Great willingness to change”
Now you should know that Steffen Simon was born in 1965 in Jecken-free West Berlin. Even if the former ARD grandees Günter Struve, Ulrich Deppendorf and Hagen Boßdorf, in a joint effort with Jörg Schönenborn almost 20 years ago, guided him from the RBB in Potsdam, where he managed the sport, to the hotspot of cheerfulness to take over the management of the “Sportschau ‘ to take over – an assimilated Prussian in organized Fastelovend?
By his own admission, Steffen Simon likes to celebrate. He considers the carnival to be a “wonderful cultural institution” that brings people together. However, there were never any talks. But he noticed that there was “a great willingness to change me” in him.
And then the phone rang.
The conversation with a DFB member of parliament resulted in a four-month process that he found “fascinating” and the systematics of which he was not yet familiar with in such detail. After several interviews and going through an assessment center, both the football association and he were able to say with conviction: This is the new path for both sides.
According to Steffen Simon, the fact that the post of “Director of the Public and Fans Directorate” of the German Football Association had been vacant since the summer (Mirjam Berle had resigned after less than a year) should not lead to doubts about its attractiveness: “Indeed the position was not filled for a long time because they wanted to wait for the new leadership of the DFB.
With lateral entrant Bernd Neuendorf, she is here now. However, the job for the media director-to-be is not an “affair of the heart”, as his pre-predecessor Harald Stenger once put it. “‘A matter of the heart’ romanticizes the matter in this way. I approach this task with a very clear head and high expectations of myself. I want to help keep football in its strength because it brings people together across so many chasms and borders.” Last but not least, he himself was socialized through football.
His father, a Hertha BSC fan, took him to the Olympic Stadium early on. The Steppke wondered why everyone was always complaining in the curve. He became a fan anyway, he stayed a fan. “You change your wife, but never the football club,” the father of five, married twice and grandfather of two, quotes “this terrible saying”. He wished “it were different, because the love for Hertha is associated with a lot of pain”. (So please keep your fingers crossed at the derby against the Union tonight, for the sake of Mr. Simon!)
Hertha’s companion also had his start as a sports journalist quite early. He was 14 or 15 when he was allowed to yell out “Tooor in Berlin!” for the first time at home games under the then RIAS entertainment director Hans Rosenthal (“Dalli Dalli”), in an early form of the Bundesliga conference. Years later, commenting on international and cup matches in particular became his profession – and the source of constant criticism, which he also fueled on the path of satire.
The TV short format “Schnauze, Simon!”, which the WDR boss moderated in the 2013/14 season, was, depending on your point of view, “ten minutes tough” or “a lot of anarchy and trying things out”, at least nothing about what Steffen Simon “would be ashamed of afterwards”. But football is a serious thing, and so the attempt to “portray football with a mixture of not-so-serious views” was passé after 18 episodes. In February 2020, after the DFB Pokal Round of 16 SC Verl against Union Berlin, Simon finally left the field as a commentator.
Had he been worn down by the constant bombardment in social media and the press (especially the FAZ)?
His decision not to comment anymore had “exclusively” something to do with the increasing level of his responsibility as a manager, is Steffen Simon’s answer. In 2003 he started at WDR with 20 or 30 colleagues. Lastly they were 250 and a four-man team with no intermediate hierarchy. “It was simply no longer possible to comment on the side.” He also takes the view that everything has its time. “It has something to do with generational responsibility that you make room for those next to you.”
“Our ambitious goal is that we want even more commentators.”
However, his release did not produce too many football commentators. With Stefanie Baczyk and Christina Graf, ARD has just two in Bundesliga games and zero when the national team is playing. “Our ambitious goal is that we would like even more commentators,” says the outgoing WDR sports director, knowing full well that his successor has to decide on this. It is not yet clear who it will be. Simon’s deputy, Klaus Heinen, with whom he has worked closely since 2003, will take over on an acting basis.
© WDR/Annika Fusswinkel
If you ask Steffen Simon about the highlights in 19 WDR years, he asks back: “How much time do you have? There were a few.” One of them is definitely: the development of the cross-media sports campus. Forming a powerful unit from the old television editorial team, the radio department and the digital colleagues from Sportschau.de was the most challenging thing he was ever responsible for. Today he can say: It was a success. “Everyone has come out of their silos. We are the most successful digital sports brand in Germany.” But that’s not all he’s proud of.
The sports background reporting, which he pushed with the founding of the ARD doping editorial team and the background magazine “Sport Inside”, is “of journalistic value” and has also made the ARD “a little bit independent of the acquisition of rights”: “It is our USP and makes a difference us substantially from many sports editors in Germany.”
And because that’s the case, you also have to ask Steffen Simon this question: Did he accidentally score an own goal? As the soon-to-be DFB media director, will he be afraid of the investigative sharpness of his ex-colleagues on WDR?
“No, not at all,” he says, who always saw himself as an “observing journalist” and despite his large network in football “always kept his distance”. Of course, on the way to this career change, he questioned himself: Can a journalist who has promoted investigative sports journalism switch sides? He’s convinced: Yes, it’s possible if you don’t throw your journalistic ethos overboard.
“In the future I will not sell things as good that are not good. Good public relations work must be authentic and also allow a critical view of your own company.” Meanwhile, he is not worried about his own critical view, nor about his freedom of expression in the future DFB function: “We also live in a democracy in sport . It will certainly be allowed to have an opinion, even one that differs from that of the FIFA President.”
From May 1st, he and we will know more.
Incidentally, Steffen Simon will not be moving to the DFB headquarters in Frankfurt. The subject of the contract was a BahnCard 100. He still wants to buy the folding bike he needs to commute by ICE. For the business trip to Qatar in November, he will probably take the plane. His hope then travels with him in his luggage “that this time we will survive the preliminary round”.
Yes, that would indeed be nice to start Steffen Simon’s new job.