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A unique rule across world football regarding club ownership, I take a look at what it means for fans, club finances, sporting success, notable exceptions, and ultimately, whether or not it has a future
The 50+1 rule is arguably the most well-known facet unique to German football. It is an informal term used to refer to a clause in the regulations of the Deutsche Fußball Liga (DFL) which states that, in order to obtain a license to compete in the Bundesliga, the top tier of professional football in Germany, a club (in other words, its supporters) must own the majority of the club’s voting rights - this is equivalent to fifty percent of all shares in the club, plus one additional share. The purpose of the rule is simple: to protect clubs from the influence of external investors, who are often more profit-motivated than fan-motivated.
However, the rule goes beyond solely protecting German football clubs from macro-scale corporate investment. It is also a major reason why average attendances consistently rank amongst the best in the world, why ticket prices remain so low, and it can even arguably contribute to the fact that safe-standing areas are still permitted, and that you can have a beer in the stands – both privileges which we no longer enjoy in the UK, where votes on such decisions rarely lie in the hands of the fans.
Possibly the greatest argument for the 50+1 rule, at least from a pure sporting perspective, is that it has had no significant impact on the competitiveness of German football on an international scale. Since the 2002/03 season, Germany has only ranked outside of the top 4 leagues in Europe in four seasons (continually between 2004 and 2008), according to UEFA club coefficients, despite the seemingly obvious barriers to improvements in the quality of football thanks to the rule.
This is also true on a domestic level. Since the introduction of the rule in 1998, only one team holding an exception to the rule (more details on such exceptions are to follow) has won the Bundesliga title (VfL Wolfsburg in 2009), and only one has won the DFB-Pokal, the primary cup competition in German football (also VfL Wolfsburg, in 2015).
Arguably the key implication from this is that being a mostly fan-owned club does not appear to provide any barriers to competitiveness on the pitch. There are naturally other factors at play here – clubs have to be well-run, rich, and privately-backed or not, to be successful in the medium to long-term. By the same token, we can infer that being a mostly privately-backed club is absolutely no guarantee of sporting success. It may provide the arguably necessary capital to experience such success, but it must be utilised correctly (see the RB Leipzig case later).
This, however, is not to say that the rule has no exemptions. Bayer 04 Leverkusen, for example, was founded in 1904 by employees of the German pharmaceutical company Bayer, and VfL Wolfsburg was founded in a similar fashion in 1945 by employees of Volkswagen stationed in the city assembling the Beetle. Both of these clubs enjoy exceptions to the rule because the corporate investors in the two clubs have held an interest in their respective clubs for more than twenty years.
TSG Hoffenheim was also granted an exemption in December 2014, after Dietmar Hopp successfully petitioned the DFL to grant him majority control of the club given he had been a significant and continuous minority investor in the club for more than twenty years, providing support to both the professional and amateur sections of the club.
The RB Leipzig Case
The emergence of RB Leipzig is the latest example of an exception to the rule, although in a slightly different manner to those of Leverkusen, Wolfsburg, and Hoffenheim. Co-owner of Red Bull GmbH, Dieter Mateschitz, had been searching since 2006 for a location for a suitable investment in German football and had proposals turned down by FC Sachsen Leipzig, FC St. Pauli (a club well-known for its staunch dedication to left-wing politics), and Fortuna Düsseldorf, largely down to strong and borderline unanimous opposition from supporters of each of the three clubs.
The company eventually decided on Leipzig as the city in which to base their investment, thanks to the existence of exemplary infrastructure (airport, Autobahn connections, and a large stadium, which had initially been built for the 2006 World Cup), the obvious economic potential (roughly 500,000 inhabitants at the time) and a rich footballing history (where the Deutsche Fußball Bund (DFB) had been founded), despite there having been no professional team in the city since 1998. After acquiring a playing right from fifth-tier SSV Markranstädt and rebranding itself as RB Leipzig (DFB statutes prevent corporate names from being used in official club names), the team began its ascent through the German football pyramid, winning promotion to the Bundesliga in 2016, securing Champions League qualification for the first time as Bundesliga runners-up in 2017, and competing in the semi-finals of the Champions League for the first time in 2020.
It is important to consider, however, that it is not solely the money being pumped into the Red Bull project in Leipzig which is responsible for the quick ascent and continued sporting success of the club. As mentioned earlier, this money has to be used in the correct way, and it cannot be disputed that RB Leipzig has been one of the most consistently well-run clubs in Europe in recent years. One need only look at their recruitment policy: a staunch commitment to the recruitment of young stars (often, but not exclusively, players no older than twenty-four) with potential, who are then sold on for large fees to other clubs.
This is a self-sustaining, and smart, business model, as one might expect from a club run by the biggest energy drink company in the world. Of course, their situation is helped by the fact that Red Bull have also invested in footballing projects in other countries across the globe: Red Bull Salzburg in Austria, New York Red Bulls in the USA, Red Bull Brasil, and Red Bull Bragantino in Brazil and FC Goa in India, affording the club a genuinely worldwide scouting network. However, it still requires the right people in the right positions of authority (from a footballing perspective) to take advantage of such a network, and the continued success of RB Leipzig points to the fact that they must be getting these decisions right.
Opposition to the Exceptions
The cases of Hoffenheim and Leipzig have led to large-scale fan protests from across the league, which have persisted in the long term. One notable case is Bayern Munich’s 6-0 win at Hoffenheim in February 2020, which had to be halted in the seventy-seventh minute after Bayern fans unfurled banners insulting the aforementioned Hopp, leading to a very tense and heated atmosphere inside the stadium. After the resumption of the game, players of both sides simply passed the ball between each other, with no intention of continuing the match in a competitive fashion. It is important to remember here that, at the time, it had been over five years since Hopp’s exception to take majority control of Hoffenheim had been granted.
Numerous articles in the wake of Leipzig’s ascent to being one of the most successful clubs in Germany have branded the club the “most hated” in the country. This is, of course, an entirely subjective moniker, especially given the three aforementioned clubs who hold exemptions to the rule, but it is certainly an arguable distinction.
Leipzig’s case is unique in that, as opposed to having a direct exemption from the rule, in principle, they follow it, but, in stark contrast to the vast majority of other German clubs, according to a Guardian article from 2016, RB Leipzig only has seventeen “active” members, with memberships costing as much as €1,000 per year – contrast this with Borussia Dortmund, who, according to the same article, had 139,000 paying members at the time, with membership costing a mere sixty-two euros per year. This is before you realise that such memberships at Leipzig simply make you a non-voting member, whereas, at Dortmund, one gets a say in all important club matters upon becoming a member by paying the fee.
Does the rule have a future?
I hope I have made it clear by this point that the 50+1 rule goes beyond simply being a clause in a rulebook; it is instead a long-standing and core element of German footballing culture and one which many German fans see as one last bastion of resistance against the commercialisation of the clubs they hold so close to their hearts. However, the question must be asked of whether or not the rule has a future if German football is to remain competitive and one of the best leagues in the world.
The 50+1 rule was only introduced in 1998, as mentioned earlier, after the German footballing authorities accepted that, without any private investment in clubs at all, the level of football in the country risked falling dramatically. Up until this point, private investment of any kind in any German club was strictly forbidden, so it is important to remember that, in a historical context, the rules are already not as strict as they used to be. This certainly makes it that much easier to envision the possibility of future changes to the rule. That is not to say such changes are guaranteed to happen, nor is it to say that it is only a matter of time until the rule is no more. It is simply a reminder that nothing, either way, can be ruled in or out.
Ultimately, only time will tell. The decision will ultimately lie in the hands of the supporters themselves, arguably as it should, and it is not impossible to foresee a point in time where German football fans have to choose between success on the pitch, and their clubs remaining sporting communities with fans at the core. Put another way, it may well come down to what the fans believe football really represents.