For as long as football fans in England have complained about sanitised atmospheres, expensive tickets and disastrous owners, Germany has been held up as the exemplar of how much more supporter-friendly our national game could be.
Affordable entry prices, safe standing areas and an ingrained respect for fan culture are all cited as examples of the Bundesliga's more desirable traditions. But above all of them stands the "50+1 rule" which stipulates that clubs in the top two divisions should be majority-owned — at least 51 per cent — by their members, and not commercial interests.
It’s a rule which, with a few exceptions, has kept German football clubs in the hands of their fans. That is in stark contrast to outfits in England, who can rise or fall according to the whims and capabilities of a single rich benefactor, sometimes with little connection to the team they own.
“Football fans can be great owners as they have nothing but the club's long-term interest at heart,” says a spokesperson for the British-based Football Supporters Federation. “There are no ulterior motives.”
Yet Germany’s unique position could soon change. Christian Seifert, chief executive of the Deutsche Fussball Liga (DFL) governing body that oversees the country’s top two divisions, has put the future of 50+1 up for discussion among its 36 clubs. Representatives will be engaged in a consultation process lasting several months before a vote is cast over whether to keep, scrap or adjust the rule.
The DFL has called for a “fundamental debate” about the commercial limitations the rule places on Bundesliga clubs who, beyond near-perennial champions Bayern Munich, have struggled to compete for European honours.
“Germany is Europe’s strongest economic nation, the Germany Football Federation (DFB) is the world’s largest football federation, and Germany reigning world champions — with these conditions we can never be satisfied with mediocrity,” Seifert said at a DFL meeting last month.
“If we want to be competitive, we have to commit ourselves to a certain degree of commerce.”
In Deloitte’s latest ranking of the world’s richest football clubs only Bayern were present in the top 10, at fourth, while Borussia Dortmund, who were 12th, and Schalke, at 16th, were the only other representatives in the top 20.
The argument against the 50+1 rule would point to the likes of Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea, Leicester City and Inter Milan, all of whom have been catapulted to their position in the top 20 by wealthy foreign owners.
“They are in global competition and there is a possibility they could get left behind by all the other European leagues who have a different ownership structure,” experienced football executive Trevor Birch, who has overseen takeovers at Chelsea, Leeds United and Portsmouth and is now managing director at Duff and Phelps, told City A.M.
“Their current TV deal is about 85 per cent up on the previous one, but in total terms it’s still only 50 per cent less than the Premier League. On that basis alone you’d think they’d probably want to encourage further external investment. And by changing the ownership structure they might be able to do that. Most investors want to have some kind of influence but they can’t get that unless they’ve got some kind of majority control.”
Birch points to the potentially easier access into Champions League and the lucrative TV market that comes with it as an attractive proposition for investors. Germany currently has four spots in the competition but only Bayern are widely expected to make it each year, while in England four spots are furiously fought over by six already strong clubs.
With more investment, German clubs could hold onto their best players, bring other superstars into the league and compete for more valuable international TV rights.
In scrapping 50+1 however, the German leagues would risk putting terminal pressure on a fan-friendly status envied outside the country, but under increasing scrutiny within it.
The current debate was prompted by Hannover 96 chairman Martin Kind’s attempts to take control of the club earlier this year and proposed in order to prevent a potential legal challenge from Kind upending the 50+1 rule entirely.
The rule’s effectiveness was already under the spotlight following the rapid emergence of Red Bull-owned RB Leipzig, the closest thing Bayern had to a title rival last season. Leipzig’s owners effectively found a loophole by keeping membership to just 17 people, all of whom are connected to the energy drink conglomerate. Their arrival in the Bundesliga last year was met with boycotts by some opposition fans.
Meanwhile the 50+1 issue is being debated to a backdrop of protests over a number of gripes including video assistant referee (VAR) technology, sponsorships from Gulf countries deemed morally questionable and games being rescheduled for TV at the expense of travelling fans.
In response to the idea of a debate over 50+1, fans’ group ProFans issued a statement describing its possible abolition as “the total commercialisation of club football” that will “open a pandora’s box” of furious fans’ protests should it go ahead.
The FSF say that while “the 50+1 rule was useful in terms of explaining the concept of fan ownership in the media” it's possible abolition would not impact the push for greater supporter involvement in the UK.
For the 36 clubs debating the issue — 24 of whom are required to approve of any changes before they can go ahead — it will be a case of weighing the potential gains from private capital against what they could lose in the eyes of fans, both at home and abroad.