Five years ago, Borussia Dortmund’s CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke stridently asserted: “Wir wollen ja Fußball spielen und keine Bank aufmachen! Wir wollen unseren fünf Millionen Fans Freude machen” (My translation: “We certainly want to play football and do not want to open a bank! We want to make our five million fans happy”). When it comes to the transfer market, Watzke reminded us that BVB is not a bank interested in accumulating profits. Whew.
Yes, sport clubs are not banks. Shocking truth, I know. Yet the fact that Watzke felt compelled to remind us of this truism is worth noting.
During transfer season time, it’s easy to think about our favorite sport as nothing but a big business with hundreds of floating balance sheets. We speculate about smart deals, bad deals, budgets, costs, salaries, future profit, cutting losses, fees, Euros, and contracts. You’d think we were obsessing over the European economy.
As the economics and finances of our favorite sports have become increasingly visible, our fandom has evolved to include a sort Monopoly board game awareness of the business of big football. No wonder we need reminders, like Watzke’s truism. Because, if we reason with ourselves, for example, we actually don’t want our football clubs to make profit that just sits in the bank. (Doubt me? Just ask American baseball fans from mid-small market baseball cities about this problem.) Watzke’s truism also reminds us, that contrary to conventional thinking, sports might not be business. For example, if you’re into making profits, owning a sport club might not be for you.
Anyhow, Watzke made these comments in early 2011 as rumors swirled about the dual-transfers of Mats Hummels and Mario Götze. The CEO insisted that these two stars wouldn’t be sold – presumably, that is, for purpose of making a profit. And we all know what happened. But to Watzke and BVB’s credit, the club didn’t just sit on the profits made from selling these two players (and others). It continually reinvested them in new players.
Watzke lived up to his promise: BVB is still not a bank (whew!) and this summer the club spent off the profits of its own departing transfers on a clutch of glittering new players. No profits have been accumulated here, folks. And this is a good thing.
So here we are: BVB has just plunked down 100 million € this summer in the transfer market. Talk about spending money.
My claim in this piece is that this summer signals a status change for BVB. Rather than being one of the big boys in the secondary “selling club” bracket, BVB now occupies a liminal space between the “selling” and prime “buying” club brackets.
Let’s unpack this claim. Previously, Dortmund has been an immensely successful “seller club,” earning profit by developing talented young players, then reinvesting this profit by bringing in increasingly higher profile transfers each season. For example, an incoming transfer like Pierre-Emrick Aubameyang wouldn’t have been possible before an outgoing transfer like Mario Götze. And this summer’s 100 million € blow out wasn’t possible without BVB also selling off 100 million €+ worth of players (Mats Hummels, Ilkay Gündogan, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan).
However, as useful as this selling cycle has been to BVB in recent seasons, the club seems to have moved toward higher “buying” club bracket this summer when BVB bought not just young talents, but also prime players in their prime playing years, thanks to the incoming transfers of Mario Götze and Andre Schürrle.
But don’t get too excited, this new status doesn’t mean that Dortmund is a top tier buyer club, like Bayern, Barcelona, Real Madrid, PSG, or the Manchester clubs. Not quite. Instead, I’d submit that BVB is something in between. Something liminal. That is, not a strictly seller club nor an uber-powered buyer club. Instead, BVB has taken on elements of both identities this summer. Arguably, the club is still more “seller” than “buyer” – I mean, BVB were never seriously contenders for the likes of Paul Pogba – but this summer BVB have become a “buyer” club in ways unimaginable just a few years ago.
Some context makes this shift clear. The 100 million € spree this summer seems to have closed the final chapter on Dortmund’s 2004 bankruptcy scare in two particular ways. First, a change in strategy. The disaster of 2004 was fueled by transfer debt as BVB bought gaudy talent to cement the Euro title runs in the late 1990s. These graudy transfers were disasters. After getting bailed out, Dortmund’s strategy was to sell off older expensive players and target young, but overlooked talents, whom the club would develop. Jürgen Klopp’s back-to-back Bundesliga title winning squads were built this way. BVB had followed this strategy for about a decade now. Indeed, this summer appeared no different as BVB bought Mikel Merino, Ousmane Dembélé, Marc Bartra, Raphael Guerreiro, and Emre Mor – all of whom fit the bill as young talents (average age of 20.8), who will probably be sold for big bucks later. Collectively, these youngsters cost 45.75 € million in transfer fees. Throw in Sebastian Rode‘s 12 € million transfer from Bayern, and BVB had spent 57.75 € million this summer. A seemingly typical BVB summer as a top dog “seller” club.
However, the transfers of Hummels (35 € million), Gündogan (27 € million), and Mkhitaryan (42 € million) netted BVB 104 € million in fees. Throw in another 7 € million for the transfers out of Jakub Blaszczykowski and Moritz Leitner and you’ve got 110 € million to burn. Yet after spending 57.75 € million, BVB still had 53.25 € million remaining. Thankfully, BVB isn’t a bank and this remaining amount was spent on the blockbuster transfers of Andre Schürrle (30 € million) and Mario Götze (22 € million).
Now that’s how you spend money.
So a change in transfer strategy. BVB was able to pull off two things at once: 1) buy a bucketful of talented youngsters, and 2) buy prime players in their peak years. The signings of Schürrle and Götze are significant, not so much for what these players bring to the pitch, but for the shifting status their arrival grants to Dortmund: buyers of prime players. Of course we could (and should!) have a tense debate about spending 30 € million on Schürrle – I’d argue this transfer makes sense (whether is actually pans out is another matter!) – however, the signing of Götze is special. In this case, we had a player still being courted by Europe’s top clubs after a flat stint at Bayern, so a move to the Premier League especially seemed inevitably in the Götze narrative. However, instead we got a home-coming. Plus, there’s the nationalistic symbolism around Götze as Germany’s “Chosen One” prodigy and World Cup winning goal-scorer. Oh, and the attacking midfielder is *only* 24 years old. On paper, the odds of BVB landing Götze seemed remote at best. And yet. Money is powerful and the heart is a strange thing. Of course, there’s no guarantee that Götze will work out; however, for the sake scope, I’m treating on-pitch success separately from transfer market success – after all, this is a piece about status! Regardless, Götze’s return alone signals that something might be different in transfer market dynamics and status for BVB.
Second, BVB have closed the debt chapter simply by continuing to avoid debt, all the while getting really good players to wear yellow and black. And winning stuff.
As the 2016-17 season is about to begin, Dortmund seem to be sitting in a new place in terms of their club identity within the context of Europe’s other big football clubs. Clearly, Bayern is (still) king of the Bundesliga, yet Dortmund keep assembling high quality squads that Bayern enough to trigger the Bavarians (and others) to buy off BVB’s best players. And this summer, BVB even nabbed a couple prime players. Most importantly, for this piece’s purpose, Dortmund has done this while not being a bank. Money gets spent in exciting ways at BVB, which is appropriate for a club build on generations of accumulate cultural capital.
As I watch this Bundesliga season, I’ll be returning to this summer and what the 100 € millon shopping spree means. Did it signal a change in status for Dortmund? (My claim here and so far is yes it does.) And if yes, was this summer the key moment?
Or finally, to what extent does this summer make BVB both complicit in and against the grain of “modern football”? Another topic for another day, folks.
Meanwhile, 100 € million. Think about it.