Does the 50+1 rule stand for a fall?

The influence of fans at the clubs and the way the Bundesliga chooses to accommodate fans has made the league attractive to many fans overseas over the last few years. Its much envied fan culture that has developed over the years in Germany has been in part made possible by the 50+1 rule. This law states that 50 per cent plus one share of a club’s professional football division must be owned non-commercial and non-profit parent club.

This rule was passed back in 1999 and so far it has allowed German fans to claim that they yield a certain amount of power at their clubs and that they haven’t been subject to the interests of some sheik or American investor who gets in and runs the club with only his own glory and interest in mind.

However, over the last few years the 50+1 rule has taken hit after hit, which raises the question if the rule is going to survive in the future. Recently Hannover 96 president and opponent of the rule Martin Kind told Sky:

“I’m against the rule and I would recommend to dissolve the rule entirely. However, this is going to be difficult and therefore I would suggest modifying this rule.”

Rich men having their ways anyways – Hannover 96 and TSG Hoffenheim

Hannover’s president and his stances regarding the 50+1 rule have been controversial for some time. Back in 2011 Kind managed to amend the law, as he threatened to sue the DFL to get the rule removed. In the end the clubs of the league agreed to allow investors who had been involved for 20 years to acquire the majority of shares of a club’s professional football division.

For Kind this going to be the case in 2018. However, most fans in Hannover would already argue that their president is already all-powerful. Kind’s stances against some of the club’s Ultras and hardcore fans have led to disagreements between the fans and the club itself on a number of occasions. Some fans in Hannover have actually had it with their president and have decided to only attend the matches of the second team.

At Hoffenheim the sugar daddy of the club is already in charge both on paper and in reality. Dietmar Hopp was able to buy the shares he needed to gain the majority of the club back in 2015 due to the amendment that was passed back in 2011. The 74-year-old had started his footballing career at the club as a child and had supported the team financially over 20 years at that point. Without the software billionaire’s continued support a team like Hoffenheim would still play in the lower regions of German football. For many football fans the team represented a horror version of what the Bundesliga shouldn’t be.

RB Leipzig – Violating the spirit of the law

However, that horror version has been put to shame by RB Leipzig over the last few years. The owner of the team’s corporate sponsor may be running off his mouth in the press these days – stating that Bayern München are represented by players whom he considers to be “Roman mercenaries” compared to his team of young and talents – but, that doesn’t take into account how Dieter Mateschitz’s team came into being.

So far the club has been catapulted from the 6th tier of German football and into the Bundesliga by the money of the corporate franchise that is heavily involved in a number of teams from all around the world. The flow of money from Austria to Leipzig has so far allowed Rasenballsport to invest 113 million Euros into new players, whilst the club has only managed to gain the ridiculous;y low amount of 1.9 million Euros from the players they have sold.

There’s little doubt that most teams within the Bundesliga have more balanced transfer budgets than Mateschitz’s sponsoring project. And whilst Bayern may have spent more money in total than RB, the fact of the matter remains that the Bavarians have managed to make a profit. RBL, which was placed in East Germany due to corporate interests, has been run while producing considerable losses year in and year out.

As of now the excessive use of money by RB could potentially lead to restrictions for the team in the upcoming Champions League season. According to the UEFA FFP rules Ralph Hasenhüttl’s team could be forced to compete against Europe’s elite with a reduced squad due to the losses RB Leipzig have made over the last few years.

Another troubling element for the team currently run by sporting director Ralf Rangnick is the fact that RB Salzburg’s potential participation in the same competition could represent a conflict of interest, as two teams with the same owner aren’t allowed to compete in the same competition.

Over the last few years the DFL have had their problems handling RB Leipzig, but so far they have managed to get RB to change their logo and their membership structure. But, despite the fact that the club now have 600 members – meaning that the Dietrich Mateschitz has less power now than back in the day when the club had 12 members – there’s still the looming question about whether or not RB Leipzig are following the spirit of the rules.

The fact that the team has been created for marketing purposes and the way the Austrian soda maker runs the show at the club are clear-cut indicators that the company has gotten around the 50+1 rule and created what the rule set out to prevent in the first place.

Growing commercial interest from abroad

For some people working inside the Bundesliga the 50+1 rule has been a pain in the back. Fredi Bobic said during his time as a sporting director at VfB Stuttgart that the “sacred cow” had to be removed from the ice, as it was hindering the development of the Bundesliga into something bigger. These days there is considerable commercial interest in the league. Over the last few weeks there have been numerous reports about the growing commercial interest from Chinese companies.

However, the ownership structure and the fact that companies can’t barge in to take over clubs entirely makes the Bundesliga less attractive for investors. They have no way of completely controlling their investment against the interests of the fans given the way the clubs are structured.

Furthermore, the DFL and most clubs in Germany have seemingly been willing to defend the rule, but so far their efforts haven’t stopped the likes of big Austrian conglomerates getting their way. For the defenders of the rule the biggest problem turns out to be EU law, which on paper prohibits the type of business restriction set by the rule. However, so far nobody has been willing to challenge the rule in a long-winded court battle. Martin Kind has threatened to do so in the past, but concessions made by the rest of the league have been enough to keep him away from fighting a battle that could take years to settle

Over the years the DFL has faced the pickle of having to give up something whenever somebody came knocking on the door asking for the rule to be changed or abolished. On the other hand side, what’s the point of a watered down rule which would allow businesses like Red Bull to do whatever they like?

Can the rule survive?

Most fans have pointed to the rule as a protector of German football. However, with foreign interests and the likes of RB already damaging the rule, one might be tempted to think that 50+1 could become a thing of the past. There are already clubs in place which are run by rich men alone. So far this has been the exception, in the future this could become much more common place.

Not everybody working within the Bundesliga regards the rule as something positive. Martin Kind is far from the only person pointing out that the rule is a hindrance for foreign investment and further growth for the league. If those forces become stronger there could be a change in how German football is run.

As of now the rule is still standing. But, the winds of change are blowing and the candle of the 50+1 rule is still flickering, fighting to survive yet another storm.

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Niklas Wildhagen

Niklas is a 32-year-old football writer and podcaster who has been following the Bundesliga and German football since the early 90s. You can follow him on Twitter, @normusings, and listen to his opinions on @TalkingFussball.

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