50+1 under pressure
Never before has German football’s “50+1” rule – whereby outside investors are generally forbidden from holding a controlling stake in a club – looked so ripe for reform or abolition. In March, a majority of the country’s 36 professional teams voted to retain the clause, but by no means can it be regarded as a definitive victory. The German League (DFL) says it will make a final decision on the issue at the end of the year, and with 12 of the 18 Bundesliga clubs thought to be keen for change, nothing can be taken for granted.
Those administrators who see 50+1 as a barrier to greater external funding continue to make a lot of noise, with Hanover president Martin Kind, whose application for an exemption to the rule was thrown out by the DFL this summer, threatening legal action.
The hierarchy at Eintracht Frankfurt are floating the idea that each club be allowed to decide for itself whether to conform or not, while Bayern Munich chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, who is very much in the vanguard of the liberalisation movement, constantly argues that the clause is eroding the competitiveness of German clubs in Europe and that the best of the Bundesliga are being left behind by their English and Spanish counterparts.
“Everyone is worried and fearful that if we open up the market, we will lose our ability to compete,” says Rummenigge. “The opposite is true. Germany would benefit from it. Either we also go down this path or end up paying a price for not doing so.”
It’s undeniably true that the Bundesliga has been performing badly of late on the continental front. Not since 2013 has a German team reached a European Final and last season was a near wipe-out, with two of their three Champions League qualifiers dumped out at the group stage and not one side progressing from a Europa League pool. Only Champions League semi-finalists Bayern made the passing grade.
On the other side of the fence, vast swathes of football supporters have a totally different take on club governance.
For them, the purpose of 50+1 is to protect the soul of the people’s game, a guarantee of commercial fair play, low ticket prices, full stadia,
“Everyone is worried and fearful that if we open up the market, we will lose our ability to compete. The opposite is true. Germany would benefit from it” Bayern Munich chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge
a thriving fan culture and community-driven identity.
The prospect of a Premier League-like ownership structure featuring US financiers, Middle Eastern states and Russian oligarchs is simply anathema to a large proportion of the German public. Nor would they like to experience the fate of the faithful at Milan, whose mysterious Chinese owner could not keep up his loan repayments and recently had to hand the club over to an American hedge fund.
Fans in Germany have deep emotional ties with their clubs and shudder at the thought of becoming mere customers. At grounds up and down the country, banners defending the membership model have been sprouting like springtime daffodils and over 3,000 fan organisations are now working together under the “50+1 Stays” umbrella.
“Every week, football brings hundreds of thousands of different people together,” reads the mission statement of the aforementioned group. “It doesn’t belong to an individual, companies or investors. It belongs to us all. At the end of the day, it’s about still more money for the profiteers.
“For us fans, the football will not improve because of it [the scrapping of 50+1] and neither will business responsibility. Quite the opposite.
“A lot has been said about the international competitiveness of the Bundesliga. But do we really want to move to the nonsensical sums of money in Paris or crazy market in England?”
The problem for the traditionalists is that the 50+1 citadel already has been breached. Three clubs – Bayer Leverkusen, Wolfsburg and Hoffenheim – enjoy special dispensation from the rule, while RB Leipzig, who are almost entirely owned by the Red Bull soft-drink conglomerate, only comply in the loosest of senses, and Borussia Dortmund solely own 5.5 per cent of their Stock Market share bundle.
Ultimately German football will have to make a decision. Do they stick to their unique fan-friendly way of operating or totally embrace the money men?
The battle lines are drawn.
Exempt...Borussia Dortmund (in yellow) and RB Leipzig
Leader... Karl-Heinz Rummenigge
Protest... Stuttgart fans