March 22, 2017

Balancing Cult Status and Business Needs – St. Pauli’s Under Armour Deal

St. Pauli are currently sitting second in the Bundesliga 2, having already beaten heavyweights RB Leipzig and SC Freiburg. The fans should be happy about one of the better starts to a season the Buccaneers have put together, but trouble is brewing at the club.

Being known for their fan-friendly and fan-inclusive ways, St. Pauli has built a reputation for being a different club compared to most. The fans are to be found on the left wing of the political spectrum, which is evident when one enters the Millerntor. For example, this year’s refugee crisis spurred many clubs and their fans into action to help. The difference between St. Pauli fans and other fan groups is that they have been doing this sort of thing for many years now. Say what you want about the Rock’n’Roll bravado, but there’s no doubt that these fans have a social consciousness.

International Brand

Over the years, this social and political dimension has made St. Pauli a popular club, both in Germany and abroad. Many fans call them their second favourite team, precisely because of the club’s fan-inclusion and its refusal to follow all the rules set and driven by financial interest within the world of football. The club keeps ads before kickoff to a minimum, and for the last 15 minutes before the match starts, there are no ads to be heard at the Millerntor.

Because of these decisions, the club misses out on and estimated 2 million Euros per season, money that could be spent on improving the squad with one or two good players. Additionally, St. Pauli have decided to keep their stadium name, which is also costing the club a good bundle of sponsorship money each and every season. Another example of the club being picky about the ads includes the story of the erotic men’s magazine Maxim trying to run an ad in the stadium. The fans found the ads to be sexist and protested against them, ultimately getting the billboard for the magazine removed.

One could say that this particular advertising decision makes for very bad business in the hyper-competitive world of the Bundesliga 2, but there is another crucial dimension to the club’s success. Fans come to the Millerntor in huge numbers, no matter how dreadful the football is, because of the strong emotional connection between team and club. This connection is enhanced because fans are part of the decision-making process. Few sides in Germany have such a strong bond with their fans. Furthermore, the way things are being run at St. Pauli creates international appeal, which in turn generates revenue streams that other sides at the second-tier level can only dream about. Only Bundesliga greats like Bayern, Dortmund, and Schalke are actually able to outdo the Buccaneers when it comes to the sale of fan merchandise.

Nick Davidson, author of the book Pirates, Punks and Politics, explains that the club has to balance these two conflicting sides every day:

It is very tough and exactly that – a tightrope. The two things constantly co-exist and conflict. There’s the pressure to exist as a modern professional football club with sponsorship, kit deals, TV . . . the entire commercial reality and then there is the fact that the club represents an alternative way of doing things and left-wing ideals. The active fan base will always remain deeply rooted in the left wing politics of the district. They will always be actively engaged in issues like the refugee crisis or the fight against racism, fascism, and homophobia. But FCSP is always a contradiction. It has to be, because it exists as a professional sports club. The positives are that it is member-owned, that fans do have an influence in how the club is run, and that the board are actually pretty good at listening to fan concerns.

Under Armour and St. Pauli: A Good Fit?

The new board, elected into office in 2014, have taken it upon themselves to keep the club’s very spirit alive, whilst furthering the club’s chances of becoming a successful football team.

Not an easy task by any means.

New president Oke Göttlich told German football magazine 11 Freunde that if the club is going to be able to pull this off, everybody at the club needs to work together to make St. Pauli a club that can function in the future no matter who is in charge, including the fans.

This lady on the Under Armour Hunt Facebook page might be all smiles, but St. Pauli's fans aren't when it comes to the deal with Under Armour.(Screen shot taken from Facebook)
This lady on the Under Armour Hunt Facebook page might be all smiles, but St. Pauli’s fans aren’t when it comes to the deal with Under Armour. (Screen shot taken from Facebook)

Willingness to compromise is one of the key ingredients for Göttlich and the board. And when it came time to find a new kit supplier from the 2015-16 season onwards, the board accepted the offer of American sportswear manufacturer Under Armour.

Based in Baltimore, Under Armour is currently the sixth biggest supplier of sportswear internationally and the second biggest in the States.

One quick Google search reveals why many of the fans don’t like this particular deal: Under Armour sells hunting equipment. The company is ever-present at gun shows, designs jackets to accommodate room for guns, and the online store of Academi (formerly known as Blackwater) sells equipment from the company on their website.

St. Pauli’s left wing consciousness and Under Armour are seemingly a worse fit than a ham at a vegetarian restaurant. Vice-President Joachim Pawlik told the press that the deal between the Buccaneers and the American supplier had been discussed openly within club before St. Pauli decided to sign papers. Furthermore, he added that one needs to see Under Armour’s activities in the States in another context, given the cultural differences between the US and Germany. Nonetheless, Nick Davidson observes that the deal between Under Armour and St. Pauli is controversial among fans:

Obviously, as fans became aware of Under Armour’s deals with the US military and particularly after hunting photos appeared on the UA Facebook page, there was increased questioning of the ethics of the deal. It does seem to go against a lot of what FCSP stands for. The counter-argument is, of course, that there may be no such thing as a truly ethical sportswear manufacturer. You could argue none of them (as far as I’m aware) can guarantee the working conditions and pay of those people making the kits are fair and ethical.
It will be interesting to see how the deal plays out. Will fans accept it, or will they vote against with their actions: not buying any UA kit or merchandise. Again, the contrast between the club as a global brand and an active fan base will be highlighted. I suspect active fans will avoid UA products, but overall it won’t have much impact as plenty of fans will buy the kit. The club has a shop on the Reeperbahn. Thousands of tourists pass through each year; not many of them will be aware of (or care about) the politics of the UA deal.
Most of the active fan base probably don’t buy that much official kit anyway, preferring stuff from the Fanladen, etc.
The impact on the club’s image will be more interesting, as lots of media will pick up on it in some form or other. It is more ammunition to those who claim that FCSP is really no different from other clubs.

Fan Reaction

Given the circumstances, it doesn’t come as a surprise that many of the fans have been critical about the deal. The board around Oke Göttlich with its background from the active fan scene has been held in high regards by most St. Pauli fans. Could this possibly change that? Nick Davidson points out that the fans of the Buccaneers are critical by nature:

“There’s always a risk of backlash for the board on every decision. They are in the position of never being able to please the entire fan base. We are very critical as fans (and rightly so, as it is a strength of the fan scene to question things).

I guess that opposition to Under Armour might influence the club’s popularity, but they are respected by most of the active fans, which is where many of this board came from. It doesn’t make their decisions above criticism, though.”

President Oke Göttlich found clear words when he was on the MillernTon Podcast, a show produced by St. Pauli fans. The president stated, “We’ve been very clear about this. In the end we decided in favour of this partner, despite critical analysis of said partner, and we started an unparalleled process early on, unparalleled for a Bundesliga club to my knowledge, at least. We could have done a bit earlier. We informed different forums about this decision. We didn’t include them in the decision, but we said very early that we are going to work with partner because of reasons A, B, C, D, E, and F.”

Göttlich goes on stating that the club hopes to help improve Under Armour in Germany, but that he isn’t under any impression that the new supplier is going to get rid of its hunting section any time soon. In addition to being given a good supply deal in terms of the number of kits and other equipment coming St. Pauli’s way, the club is also very happy about the financial aspects of the deal according to Göttlich.

One of the fans on the podcast, Justus, states that the club and the new supplier held a meeting in Baltimore which included four fans. On the agenda, were discussions about how the deal would impact the fans and the need for both sides to better get to know each other. Furthermore, the fans told Under Armour about their involvement in social projects.

Despite the club’s effort to include the fans, there was one fan who protested and suggested a boycott of the new supplier during this year’s annual member meeting, according to MoPo. Despite the media storm about the deal ahead of the meeting, however, the Under Armour deal was not the most-talked about topic. St. Pauli’s stance on a possible bid to get the Olympics to Hamburg in 2024 was the biggest talking point.

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Niklas Wildhagen

Niklas is a 30-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 and on the @AufstiegPod.