August 23, 2017

The Cross-Pressured Bundesliga: an Interview with ESPN FC’s Stephan Uersfeld

For approximately these past two years, the Bundesliga has been at an identity crossroads. On one hand, the league wants to preserves the distinctives that make it unique among the world’s biggest football leagues: supporter club ownership and the 50+1 rule, wonderful Matchday atmospherics, cheap tickets and concessions,subsidized public transit to-and-from matches, Traditionsvereine, and deeply embedded grassroots supporter cultures in general.  On the other hand, the league wants — put bluntly — to become bigger, better, and more lucrative by embracing the forces of globalization and market forces in the areas of TV rights, TV-friendly scheduling, private club ownership, foreign tours and marketing, and higher profiles player transfers.

Although many of these pressures have exerted themselves on the league since its founding in 1963 (see Ronald Reng’s Matchdays for such details lurking inside his narrative) and inexorable professionalization of German football, the force of their pressure has greatly accelerated thanks to recent developments, like the Premier League’s record-breaking behemoth TV deal; the Bundesliga’s own bigger domestic TV deal; the eroding of the “50+1 rule” thanks to clubs like Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig, or personalities like Hannover’s 96 Martin Kind; the increase of off-season international tours and marketing; rumblings about Chinese investors; etc. By these indicators, the Bundesliga is certainly at a kairotic moment. The time is ripe: something is happening here, but do you know what it is, Mr. Jones? Because, my American prophet always says it best: “The times, they are achangin’.”

The responses have varied. Some reject the new trends, while holding fiercely to the old values; others fully embrace the here-already future; and some, like Bundesliga CEO Christian Seifert, think we can have it all. We are all meeting at the crossroads, it seems. Put another way, in the framework of my favorite philosopher, Charles Taylor, the Bundesliga is “cross-pressured” by all these forces. And what emerges from the cross-pressuring will define what becomes of the Bundesliga.

I plan to explore the cross-pressuring of the Bundesliga in a series that explores the various facets of the situation and its surrounding debates. My goal is to clarify the issues and what’s at stake in them, so that all of us who care about the Bundesliga can enter the debate and future events with more intentionality and foresight.

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For this first piece in the series, I interviewed football writer Stephan Uersfeld about what been going in the Bundesliga. Currently, Stephan is the Germany correspondent for ESPN FC. Based in Berlin, Stephan has been writing for ESPN FC for five years; before this, we was a writer at the renowned Dortmund fanzine, Schwarzgelb, meaning he’s been writing about football for ten years. Prior to football writing, Stephan worked in the music industry where he did PR work for musical festivals and bands on the Americana and Slo-Core music circuit. German readers might know Stephan from his fictional dembowski ermittelt site, which is both riotously funny and touching in documenting the details and emotions that makes football meaningful.

Recently, ESPN FC sent Stephan around Germany to learn more about how Bundesliga clubs are preparing for the future in terms of globalization, investment, youth development, and fan culture. This project gives Stephan a privileged perspective for talking about the “cross-pressuring” issues that I outlined above. As a supplement to this interview, I highly recommend that you read these recent pieces from Stephan’s travels around Germany:

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Travis Timmons: Stephan, thanks so much for being willing to share your knowledge with us! Here’s the windup to my first question: on the surface, someone might think you’re simply reporting on what various Bundesliga clubs are doing to stay competitive. In a certain sense, this interpretation is probably correct; however, I’d argue that what unifies your ESPN FC stories is the push toward the next level of hyper-professionalization being pursued by Bundesliga clubs, who are attempting to join the company of the Premier League clubs and the big Spanish clubs by shifting into the operating logic of business, markets, and globalization.
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Does this sound right to you? How would you describe the common themes threading through your reporting?
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Stephan Uersfeld: Indeed, what I do is go to the clubs and find out about their plans for the near-term and middle-term future. That’s not spectacular. But the future might very well be spectacular.
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The Bundesliga, more than any other league, has been marketed as a fan-friendly league; it all circled around Bratwurst and Bier, safe standing [terraces], fan-owned clubs, and cheap tickets. Yet, with football becoming the global sport #1, with leagues somewhat drifting into obscurity, and the focus shifting to those very few super clubs and sometimes even only to those selected star players, clubs in Germany are well aware they need to find a new approach.
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The domestic market has been fully exploited; clubs realize there’s not much more to earn from ticketing, and the TV rights have been sold for the next couple of years. Clubs are getting into the starting blocks, some fond of their rich past, others trying to find new approaches, and some free from all historic burdens look beyond marketing to position themselves as revolutionaries. But what ties all of them together is “the Bundesliga construct,” which needed to become more open to keep up with those big Spanish clubs and most of the Premier League clubs, who have spent vast amounts of money to attract Bundesliga players.Football is a business — clubs follow the gold trail to China and to the United States. The 50+1 rule has been undermined, and the landscape in Germany is currently undergoing a drastic change. That’s why I look at the clubs, trying to document their past and sketch out their plans for a more global future. Will all of them find their place?
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Travis Timmons: Throughout your writing, there’s much talk among Bundesliga brass about when (not if) the 50+1 rule will disappear. What exactly is triggering this kind of talk? Are there any concrete events coming up that could undo the rule? Or is the doom talk abstraction, helped along by RB Leipzig’s promotion? After all, it’s a few years now since Hannover 96’s Martin Kind first started openly advocating abolishing the 50+1 rule. And, for us German Fussball folks, it’s not as if RBL’s rise has been a complete surprising — the club has been in the news for a number of seasons now, since they began climbing through the 3.Liga. So what’s driving the current talk, exactly?

Stephan Uersfeld: The 50+1 rule, as much as it is loved by some clubs and most fans, appears to be outdated. At Hannover, who will return to Bundesliga in the 2017-18 season, Martin Kind will become the owner of what then will be his club. Hannover will become the fourth club after Wolfsburg, Leverkusen and Hoffenheim operating outside the rules; everyone’s aware that Leipzig found means to bypass the rule; at Hamburg, billionaire Klaus-Michael Kühne basically bankrolls the club; and down in the second tier TSV 1860 Munich have become a mess. But only looking at the first league, one-third of the league might no longer be abiding by the rule.

On top of that, Chinese investors have signalled they are interested in taking over Bundesliga clubs, and my best guess is that there are quite a few sides just waiting for that cash to attack the runaway teams Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, who have yet to establish themselves over a longer period of time and who are still vulnerable as they hope to establish themselves among the top European sides. The domestic market might still be a key market, but to win over new fans to sell their jerseys to the clubs need to tell a success story. People love fairy tales, and there are at least 98 clubs in the top European leagues. It feels like there is a growing belief from within the system that a fairy tale can be attached to clubs already operating outside the 50+1 rule, as the example of Leizpig and their PR machine has already shown this season.

However, given the drama at 1860 Munich and Ismaik’s threat to take the DFB to court over the 50+1 rule, we might even see it fall earlier than expected.

Travis Timmons: If the path forward for German sides is global in scope, what specific obstacles do German clubs confront in globalizing themselves? Is it a language barrier? Or lateness (e.g. the Premier League clubs and other got there first)? Or something cultural about Germans and German institutions?

Stephan Uersfeld: The language barrier might even not be a problem. The Bundesliga has players from all over the globe, and clubs are running websites and social media accounts in several languages, like English, Spanish, or Chinese. Coverage, in theory, is also secured in all the growing football markets, but, as you say, the league is pretty late in their effort to go global, maybe too late since the path has already been narrowed down to a few super clubs, and of course those star players, like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

There will be other superstars of the game, but most likely they will not play in Bundesliga. Even in Bayern’s recent treble-winning season, Bayern players were not able to break into the Messi/Ronaldo dominance at the Ballon d’Or. And there is no way for anyone to imagine that if Bayern players can’t do it, a player from another club can do it.

Back to the clubs and Bundesliga. While there have been a few different champions back in the last decade, it has all been about Bayern ever since Dortmund’s back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2012. Bayern is just too far away from the rest of the league and too busy fighting for the Champions League crown to care about what happens to the league. Dortmund have also embarked on their own journey. They want to be one of the clubs chasing the super clubs, and this leaves 15 other teams and Leipzig, who might soon be a mainstay in Champions League as well, to represent Bundesliga, a league where as the saying goes the title race is decided before the first whistle of the season. As long as a team does not make a deep run in Champions League, or there is a thrilling title race in one, maybe even two consecutive seasons, there is no way for those clubs playing catch up to reach a global audience.

While every club has a story to tell, there are only so many stories for fans to hear about, to read about. Sure, there will be always be fans of the league, of the set-up, of a certain club, it might not be enough to leave the niche. And it the end, it might as well come down to the language barrier. For every Mainz, there is already a Southampton, and for every Darmstadt, there is a Sunderland, and for every Hertha, there is a West Ham United.

Travis Timmons: Simply put, it sounds like the rational for the 50+1 rule and the on-the-ground support buttressing it is simply eroding. For example, I’ve followed a number of strident 50+1 supporters, who now seem quite accepting of the new reality, which I think helps me make sense of a phenomenon I observed in the aftermath of RB Leipzig’s promotion. Would you argue that losing the 50+1 rule is okay — in terms of preserving the “Bundesliga construct” as you call it — because there’s a deeper underlying social fabric in Germany that enables and preserves such things? After all, Germany is the nation of Mitbestimmung! (Maybe I really asking if there’s a relationship between the practice of Mitbestimmung and the “Bundesliga construct.”)

Stephan Uersfeld: I can’t really say what will happen once the rule’s gone. There will be clubs who might not make any changes at all, and others, blinded by the money, will put their fate in the hands of investors in no way attached to the history of German football. For a while, we might notice that a few new clubs appear and others will go away.

But even Schalke 04, the kings of Mitbestimmung, are already working on ways to eliminate surprises at their Mitgliederversammlung by planning a change of organization, and then allowing their members to only vote for five possible supervisory board members, while the other five could then be selected by the club’s executive, supervisory board, and other organs tied to the club hierarchy.

The outlook might be bleak, and you know that Germany is coming from a pretty high standard, and that aforementioned “Bundesliga construct,” the idea that those 36 clubs forming the upper tier also have a social responsibility in their home towns, where people are not only emotionally tied to the club, but also do important social work ranging from tutoring to the fight against racism and leaving their traces in the city. With Leipzig, however, it feels like for the first time a real franchise model club has made an impact in Germany.

Travis Timmons: Given that we’ve mostly discussed international changes driving the Bundesliga, it’s worth turning domestically back on Germany itself. As an outsider looking in from the U.S., I get the sense that folks in Germany have had a pretty ambivalent reaction to the Bundesliga’s aspiration to achieve global status. Some folks seemed concerned and decry “modern football,” some just shrug and get back to the weekly matchday news, while some seem progressive in accepting new values and growth. Can you help set the record straight: what has the reaction in Germany been to the Bundesliga’s aspirations? And has the meaning and place of the league in the lives of Germany evolved at all?

Stephan Uersfeld: In Germany, it has been accepted by the majority that the Bundesliga needs to find other markets in order to compete with the other leagues. However, there is also an awareness that not all clubs will profit from the globalization, which is set to focus only on a handful of sides. There are other, more pressing concerns in football here in Germany right now though.

If you look at it from a sporting perspective, the main question is whether there will be a club to break into the Bayern dominance, and certainly another question is whether older, more traditional clubs like FC Schalke 04, Hamburger SV, or Werder Bremen will force their way back into European football in the near future or whether they will face painful years of decay, like the example of Hamburg has already shown.

With match days now split from Friday through to (occasionally) Monday, football also has become a TV sport with politicians and the football association itself making questionable proposals on how to prevent those active supporters from producing unwanted scenes on TV. The debate on the use of pyros is just one example of this concern. Moreover, this season, clubs have been fined for banners presented by their fans — not only at Dortmund, where the club was hit with a partial stadium closure for the fans’ protests against RB Leipzig inside its stadium perimeters since the DFL’s rules do not allow for outbursts of violence as a lever.

Like in every other country, fans here are fed up with the scandals in worldwide football. The governing side has done little to convince the fans that football these days is about more than filling the pockets of a selected few.

Still, there will be a new generation of fans, which might put an even greater focus on the sporting aspects of football and not on the social aspects. They might care about the tactics on the field, but will not be taken in by ninety minutes of support from the stands. It’s a different way of perceiving the game, one that clearly focuses on interesting projects, on new formations and one which might not bother too much with who turns up to the Bundesliga party and with what motives.

Travis Timmons: Last question, Stephan. Let’s pretend it’s 2027 (yikes — is Bayern alone still winning the salad plate?). The 50+1 Rule is gone. Chinese investors have cashed in. Et cetera. By this point in the future, what will the legacy of the 50+1 Rule be? Will we have nostalgia for it? Will it look like an odd blip in current of sporting history? Or something else?

Stephan Uersfeld: I don’t have a clue, to be honest. You won’t be able to take away the values underlying the 50+1 rule anytime soon, and there will be clubs still acting as homes to people from their own region. There will be other clubs completely detached from any regional aspects, since it will not matter when you can pretend to be in the stadium with whatever technique will enable us to feel, see, hear, maybe even smell the Volksparkstadion without leaving home.

But will we still have a Bundesliga by then? And or will Bayern, Dortmund, Leipzig have left the league to compete in a Europe Super League?

Travis Timmons: A chilling final paragraph!

Stephan, thank you. It’s been a true pleasure to have this conversation with you about the near and medium future of the Bundesliga. I always look forward to reading anything you write and hope you enjoy some time off this summer.

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and coaching the U6s are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, and his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!