The Bundesliga and German Society – A Virtuous Circle

Supporters in larger German society bannerIn parts 1 and 2 in my series, I first looked at how the financial fair play rules in German football have an effect on the strengths of German soccer and then looked I looked at the cost of being a German football fan, particularly when contrasted with the fan experience in the English Premier League.

However, there is an over-arching theme even greater that football itself that I will discuss in this article. Namely, the role of football, in particular the Bundesliga, within German society. It is very interesting to examine this relationship apart from the statistics, facts and figures that can be represented in different ways. While it is fair to say football does hold an important social place in countries like Germany and England, it is also fair to say that the nature of the relationship is vastly different in either country.

In English society, supporters attending a football match tend to be viewed by authorities as a potential problem needing to be dealt with. Later in this article, I’ll explain how much it costs clubs in England to pay for extra policing and stewarding needed for crowd control (in 2007-2008, estimated at between £12 million and £15 million) and how that at certain times of the day, it is sometimes impossible to offer transport to or from the game.

All these things, of course, tend to cost money and in the main, it is the club that pays the bill, specifically in terms of policing and stewarding. In England, authorities try to strike a balance between keeping fans happy and safe and preventing trouble between opposing fans. However, too often the emphasis lies on the latter issue, rather than the first.

The net result of this emphasis, combined with this increasing sense of parochialism where only your club matters, tends to breed a somewhat strained atmosphere at games. This is particularly evident in games between heated local rivals, as well as clashes involving the traditional top 5 or 6 clubs in the Premier League.

In these games, atmospheres at grounds can be not only electric, but also hugely intimidating. The level of vitriol, anger and downright abuse at these games is viewed by some as all part of football banter. But there are times when this spills over into nothing but horrific, unwarranted and hurtful abuse, such as when fans of Liverpool and Manchester United taunt each other about the tragedies that have befallen their clubs, or when Arsenal fans chant about sending Spurs fans to the gas chambers.

Given that this happens often in high profile, televised games with the actions of the fans analysed repeatedly across all forms of media, it is easy to see why English society views the soccer fan almost as a naughty teen who needs firm boundaries and must be carefully watched to keep them out of mischief.

In Germany, the role of the fan in the larger social picture in Germany, and indeed, the make up of the supporters at a typical Bundesliga game is very, very different. As we have seen in my two previous articles, the fan is central to the entire decision-making process and thanks to the 50+1 rule in the Bundesliga, their interests are always represented at the highest levels within each club.

The difference these facets have on how society views German soccer fans is huge. Instead of ‘dealing’ with fans, German clubs and local authorities are happy to provide for them. This attitude is evident, not just in cheap ticket prices and free transport to and from games, but also in how the fans are treated.

German Bundesliga fans can stand to watch games, they can enjoy a beer and they do so with a remarkably low incidence of violence at games. German football treats fans, not as troubled teens, but as adults, respecting their views and providing a pleasurable atmosphere and environment for the football fan. This treatment becomes the expected experience all Bundesliga teams and local authorities should be offering.

The origins for this treatment, however, is interesting to look at and its roots lay firmly embedded in German football culture and how society in general views the game. In the UK, for example, the vast majority of football fans are from the same demographic: males between 18 and 40. Despite attempts from FA, the Premier League, and football clubs to encourage more women, children and families to the game, it is still predominantly a male-dominated fan base.

By contrast, in Germany there is a different demographic. At Borussia Dortmund, for example, as reported in this Daily Mirror article, 40% of supporters are under 25 years of age and many of them are women. This fact is interesting because it is this age range in England that has been prevented the most from attending matches due to the spiraling cost of attending games.

Football may still be male-dominated in the Bundesliga, but it is undoubtedly more female and child-friendly too, even if simply  in terms of providing excellent facilities for these particular groups of football fans or having tickets priced in such a way that make the game accessible to more people.

The difference can be attributed to many things, but one key is a difference in mentality between England and Germany. Manchester United’s former manager, the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson often achieved a feeling of togetherness and success by instilling an “us against the world” attitude at Old Trafford. Unfortunately for the British game, this mentality now manifests itself across almost all top clubs. All gestures clubs make to include more women and children at the game and promoting a family atmosphere run somewhat paradoxically against the fact that quite simply, the clubs are bogged down by their own need for cash and self-interest to do this properly.

The reason for this tension is pure and simple economics. To attract more Under-25 women and children to Premier League games, clubs would radically need to lower their ticket prices. While strategy works in Germany, in England and the Premier League such a move would likely leave many clubs facing a serious debt shortfall at the season’s end.

It is often said that football is a part of English society, but in the present, football is actually separated from society. The void between the English fan, his club, and its players has never been wider or more difficult to bridge than in the present.

In the Bundesliga, the gap is much smaller, since, as majority shareholders, the fans effectively employ the players, which is how it used to be in England before the age of Sky mega-money, oligarchs and 16-year-old schoolboys earning £20,000 a week.

The real reason German society values its football supporters is because these fans are still a vital part of the Bundesliga both in terms of support and revenue. In the UK, the fans’ role has diminished significantly in importance to the point where now they are simply the clubs’ cash cows, ready to be milked at every available opportunity.

That isn’t healthy for football or society in England and it is why the German model thrives. Football serves society and society serves football: a virtuous circle.

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