Why Hertha BSC Berlin is not a German Powerhouse (and Probably Never Will Be)

Despite its capital city status, Hertha Berlin will never make it big.

If you ask 100 random people who know about Germany but have no knowledge of German football where the biggest and most successful team is located, how many would name Berlin? At least 95%, probably. And we’re not talking about Hertha Berlin.

Then you ask 100 people who know the Bundesliga well that same question. Berlin would be mentioned exactly zero times.

The explanation for that is pretty obvious:

People who don’t know the Bundesliga will have a thought process like this:

“Well the biggest sports teams seem to play in the capitals or big markets so that should be the case in Germany, too. Since Berlin is the capital and biggest city, I would assume Berlin is the correct answer.”

People who know about the league’s history would just say “Munich” and be done with it.
Even if you’d ask them for a Top 5, Hertha would be way behind Dortmund, Hamburg, Bremen, and Gelsenkirchen (Schalke 04).

So it’s an interesting question why a team from the capital with about 4 million potential fans, in a stadium so nice and big that it has hosted a World Cup and a Champions League final in the last ten years, is ranked 12th in the historic Bundesliga table (one spot behind 1.FC Kaiserslautern, a team from a small town of 100.000 souls).

“Die alte Dame” is in ninth place of all German clubs in paying-members at around 30,000.
BVB and Schalke have ca. 130,000 each. Bayern, the #1 on that list (surprise!), has 270,000. Numbers released by Pay-TV network Sky show that Hertha games are being watched by 380,000 subscribers on average, ninth place again behind such “powerhouses” like Stuttgart, Hamburg, and Frankfurt. The “Best 11 of the Century” that Hertha supporters voted for in 2003 includes guys like Axel Kruse, Michael Preetz, and Kjetil Rekdal (don’t feel ashamed if you have never heard of them or aren’t impressed).
So, Hertha BSC is basically the scientific example of a mediocre Bundesliga club

Hertha is also a total anomaly in Europe’s top leagues, too. In Paris there is PSG, London has Arsenal, Chelsea, and Spurs. Madrid has Real plus Atletico. Rome has Lazio and Roma. Every capital is represented with at least one good or great team.

So why does Germany not have a top-tier football club in its “Hauptstadt”?

Shouldn’t the hand Hertha was dealt from being located in Berlin translate into a European powerhouse or at least a perennial contender in Germany?

At this point it gets tricky, because the hand Hertha was dealt might not be as good as it seems.

Quick Historical Recap

First of all, we will have to take a quick look at the club’s history to find out what went wrong.

Hertha BSC (“Berliner Sport Club”) was founded in 1892 and named after the riverboat the club was founded on (true story). “Hertha” is a women’s first name, that’s why Hertha has the nickname “die alte Dame” (old Lady). Juventus Turin (“la vecchia signora”) has the same nickname, but unfortunately that’s where the similarities end.

The Old Lady won back-to-back German championships in 1930 & 1931 that don’t really count for much as they were won in the pre-Bundesliga era. Soon after, WWII followed and made football a total non-issue. This meant Hertha couldn’t gain any momentum from its only two Meisterschaften before the Bundesliga-era began.

Hertha was part of the inaugural Bundesliga season in 1963, a gesture by the DFB to show support for torn-apart Berlin. The decision did not sit well with other teams who were bigger and better, yet hadn’t the political backing (Bayern Munich for example). Hertha did not really use the opportunity and was kicked out of the league in 1965 for bribing opponents’ players.

The club had its hands in another massive scandal in 1971: the famous ‘Bundesliga Skandal,’ but bounced back to reach second place in 1975 and third place in 1978.

In 1980, Hertha got relegated (this time by just being bad on the field) to the 2.Bundesliga. In 1986 they went down into the 3.Liga and even were evicted from the Olympiastadion in what remains the lowest-point of the club’s history and part of the reason Hertha has that ‘loser’ image.

From that point, Hertha was a forgettable team that played second-tier opponents in front of 5,000 people (in a 80,000-seat arena). They had little hope and a messed-up reputation as cheaters. Since the Bundesliga was founded, Hertha has been outside it for 20 seasons.

Hertha is seen as a Skandalverein to this day, with illegal fireworks and violence problems in the stands. Right-wing fans chanting racist slogans were and are also always an issue. Hertha supporters were ranked by German police as the fifth-most-violent fan base in the country, not the top-five finish of which to be proud and a valid reason for many fans to avoid the Ostkurve where Hertha’s die-hards are situated.

In 1989 the Wall came down, and Berlin experienced a renaissance that is still going on to this day. Hertha was the only show in town, and new opportunities arose. By 1995, the UFA entertainment company started pouring money into the club, getting future profit shares in return. A bet on the vacated Berlin football market that backfired for all parties involved ten years later.

While UFA gave Hertha money up front for short-term investments in wages and transfer fees, the profit-sharing crippled club finances for almost two decades. At the beginning of the partnership though, it was awesome for Hertha to have money to play with and nobody thought about the consequences down the road. In 1998, Hertha got back into the Bundesliga and made the Champions League in 1999-2000, beating AC Milan 1:0, Chelsea 2:1, and drawing FC Barcelona 1:1 in the famous Nebelschlacht (Battle in the Fog).

“Berlin Back Where it Belongs,” read the headlines after that season, showing that Berliners felt entitled to have at least one big-time football club. The old days when Hertha was a joke and the Olympiastadion only sold out for the cup final seemed to be over. Expectations grew irrationally high with only few skeptics pointing out that the success was an over-achievement by the squad and not the result of a carefully planned process.

But the sky seemed to be the limit for GM Dieter Hoeneß, brother of Bayern’s more-famous and -successful manager Uli. Dieter promised fans that he would one day drive through the Brandenburg Gate with the champtioship Schale in his hands.

To achieve that goal, Dieter would have to compete with the big boys on the transfer market, so he started spending way more money than initially planned, mortgaging away the future in the process by selling future marketing, catering, and gate profits.
His biggest transfer coup was getting Gladbach’s Sebastian Deisler, at that time one of the hottest prospects in Europe and touted as “Germany’s future.”

Another big move was getting Huub Stevens, who had won the 1997 UEFA Cup with Schalke and was a hot coach at the time, to replace Jürgen Röber.

Players were also brought in from Brazil for big fees, but few of them lived up to the hype.
It seemed like Dieter was trying to emulate the transfer policy of Bayer Leverkusen, who imported world-class talent like Lucio and Ze Roberto from Brazil. Dieter Hoeneß got lucky with Marcelinho (who was awesome), but there were also Alex Alves, Luisao, Rodnei, and Andre Lima.

“Who,” you ask? That’s the point.

Dieter Hoeneß went “all-in” and built a club that regularly reached the UEFA Cup, but with all that spending, Champions League revenue was the only chance to make the numbers work.  

After a great season in 2008-09 under budding coaching genius Lucien Favre, Hertha narrowly missed a third place finish to secure CL qualification and the financial mismanagement started to creep up on Hertha. UEFA Cup money was not enough to pay the growing debt, and investors finally pulled the plug on Dieter, who had piled on 55 million Euros in debt, almost leading to bankruptcy and the loss of the Bundesliga license.

Literally every one of Hertha’s star players (Arne Friedrich, Josup Simunic, Andrej Woronin, and Marko Pantelic) were let go in a single summer and replaced with cheaper, mediocre players. Think about what would happen if FC Barcelona would lose Messi, Suarez, Pique, and Busquets. With Arne Friedrich now gone, the Old Lady had also lost its skipper and only player who made the Nationalmannschaft on a regular basis, representing Hertha BSC at the 2006 and 2010 World Cups.

Everything else fell apart over the next three years, leading to relegation in 2010, promotion in 2011, and yet another relegation in 2012. The 2012 season was probably the craziest ever. Markus Babbel and Michael Skibbe were both let go as coaches during that year, and for the final games coaching legend Otto Rehhagel was brought in to avoid relegation.

König Otto won the Euro 2004 with Greece and managed to secure promotion at Kaiserslautern in 1997 and then immediately winning the Bundesliga championship in 1998. But even a wizard like that couldn’t save Hertha, who lost the relegation-playoff to Fortuna Düsseldorf under the weirdest circumstances possible. Hertha lost the home leg 1:2 and it was 2:2 in the 89th minute of the away leg, Hertha needing just one goal to avoid relegation on away goals. But a whistle by the referee was misinterpreted as the final whistle by Fortuna fans who then rushed the field. The game had to be suspended for 30 minutes because the pitch was overrun. Players were sent to the locker room. When the field was clear of fans, the ref got players back from the lockers to finish the game. Hertha BSC, furious about the ref’s decision, took legal action against the league and Fortuna to force a rematch. Hertha fans hoped for weeks that relegation could ultimately be avoided through legal moves, but the DFL judges ruled against the BSC. The Old Lady was the laughing stock of German football yet again, ‘cheaters’ who tried to weasel themselves out of a loss.

As you are reading this, the BSC has the third most relegations in Bundesliga history and have a reputation as ‘sorry losers’ and ‘cheaters’ at the same time all over Germany (a weird mixture of the Cleveland Browns’ and New England Patriots’ reputation in the NFL).

Location, Location, Location

Sports teams are not like the real estate market where location is everything, but I assume everyone agrees that the location of a team matters.

Outliers like Green Bay, San Antonio, Villareal, or Hoffenheim may exist, but playing in a big market is normally a huge advantage over small-market teams in any sport. You automatically have more potential customers and big companies around to generate money from than a rival small market team, right? Well, not in Berlin.

After the war, Berlin was split into halves; the western part became a capitalist island inside the communist GDR. That meant getting out of West Berlin required a travel visa and hours of driving on bad socialist roads or taking a plane EVERY time you wanted to leave the city. A pretty tough sell any player you want to join your team, huh?

Big companies based in Berlin (a.k.a. ‘sponsors’) didn’t rebuild their headquarters after the war and opted for Munich, Hamburg, or the Ruhr Valley. To this day, not a single DAX 50 corporation (DAX is like the German Dow Jones) is operating out of Berlin.

During the Mauerjahre (wall years), Hertha only had half the city to work with, since the GDR had a separate football league from West Germany. Ostberlin teams like BFC Dynamo or Union are still more popular than Hertha in the eastern boroughs of the city.

Because of the shady reputation and the up-and-down history of the club, the Old Lady also failed to attract the Turkish immigrants of the 70’s who preferred to continue watching teams like Fenerbahce and Galatasaray to becoming a Herthaner.

The same thing happened with transplants from other parts of Germany.

If you visit a bar in Dortmund on game day, the BVB game will be on the biggest screen for sure. In Berlin, the Konferenz (a simulcast of all games) will be shown in many places, since there are always some BVB, Bayern, or Stuttgart fans around who don’t care about Hertha and want to see their team.

It also doesn’t help Hertha’s attendance numbers (ranked seventh in 2015, even though the team is playing well and has a big stadium) that the basketball and ice hockey teams ALBA and Eisbären are title contenders playing in a modern NBA/NHL-level arena right in heart of the city offering concerts, events, and other distractions a city like Bremen would never have to compete with.

What hurts the most though is the stadium. Yes, you heard right.

If you have seen the 2015 Champions League final or any DFB Pokal final, you might remember a beautiful sold-out arena on warm summer night. That version of the “Oly” is one of the most majestic arenas in the football world along with Wembley and the Stade de France. Now imagine the same stadium on a rainy Friday night in February with 35,000 people in the half-empty stands. THAT is the stadium Hertha mostly plays in.

It also never feels like a true home since the arena is famous for the 1936 Olympics and reminds you of the darkest days in German history in every corner.
The stadium experience really sucks. You sit far away from the field because there is an athletic race track around it, and there are not enough restrooms and food stands, like in the modern dedicated-football arenas every other team seems to have. As a result, the Olympiastadion is only sold out if Bayern or BVB are playing, creating an away-game atmosphere for Hertha players because almost half of the crowd comes to support the away team. During the Hoeneß era, there were talks about building a smaller modern arena, but there was never really a chance due to Hertha’s miserable finances and no support by the mayor’s office. For the foreseeable future, the BSC is stuck paying rent for a huge stadium that double features as a historic site and tourist attraction but simply does not offer a genuine home-field advantage.

So if the Berlin inner-city market is not the huge advantage we thought it was, but what about the suburbs and the regions around Berlin?

To be frank, the neighboring regions outside of Berlin are the poorest and least-populated in Germany. And even there Hertha isn’t winning people’s hearts. Teams from the old GDR days like FC Magdeburg, Hansa Rostock, or Dynamo Dresden still have faithful supporters in these regions who couldn’t care less about Hertha.

Being surrounded by the GDR also means that potential local rivals never played Hertha before 1991 and basically have no legitimate beef with Hertha. Across town in Köpenick, 1.FC Union Berlin has established itself as a solid 2.Bundesliga organization. Unfortunately, there is just not enough history between Hertha and Union to call it a genuine rivalry.

Sad but true fact, the main rival of Hertha is Schalke 04. The hatred is pretty one-sided, since Schalke fans are so busy with hating the BVB that some of them don’t even know about the rivalry with Hertha. The rest just don’t care.

So, not only is Hertha missing a derby rival to get people excited (think Hamburg vs. Bremen), there is also no huge fan base to tap into outside of city limits.

Dducting immigrants, non-Berliners, and Ossis (a slang word for east Berlin residents) from the Berlin population of about 4 million, Hertha actually has a potential fan base of 500.000 to 1 million.

Mismanagement and ‘Inkompetenz’

I do not want to sound like a know-it-all who criticizes decisions after the fact. There are tough calls to be made, and a lot of luck is involved running a Bundesliga club, especially in the crazy Berlin media environment. But numbers don’t lie, and the financial numbers are just horrible. Match-fixing scandals also have nothing to do with bad luck.

Another aspect is that the scouting and youth-academy business has been horrible, not at all taking advantage of the opportunities Berlin offers. A good youth program is supposed to produce starters for your club or generate income by selling players. There are many immigrants and poor people in Berlin by German standards, who can make it out of the ‘hood through success in sports. This situation normally produces a lot of talented local players to pick for your youth academy, a huge advantage, since not many 15-year-olds want to move away at a really young age. Yet, same ol’ Hertha has never been able to capitalize.

Before the Hoeneß era, talents like Thomas “Icke” Häßler and Christian Ziege played for small-time clubs like Hertha 03 Zehlendorf or Reinickendorfer Füchse. They were either not noticed by Hertha scouts or left Berlin so soon that Hertha could never get a hand on them.

To stop that trend, 35 million Euros were spent on state-of-the-art youth-team facilities.
By the mid-2000’s, a promising generation of players was breaking into the first team.
The Boateng brothers are probably the most-famous examples, but guys like Patrick Ebert, Ashkan Dejagah, Ivica Olic, Christopher Samba, Ibrahima Traore, Hakan Balta, and Alex Madlung also turned into solid players that could have helped Hertha.

Today, exactly zero of them are at the club. To make matters worse, Hertha did not even cash in when they left because “Sell ASAP!” seemed to be the strategy. Hamburg SV paid just 1.1 million Euros in 2007 for Jerome Boateng (who might be the best central defender in the game today) and resold him for 15 million just three years later. His brother Kevin-Prince was sold for eight million and later became a star at AC Milan.

Basically, Hertha got next to nothing from that generation on the field and not enough money from transfer fees, because, like always, the situation was managed badly.

Good organisations like Bayern or Barcelona keep their young guns in check like a strict parent, and any bad behaviour is punished on the spot, no matter who the offender is. When guys like Thomas Müller or Andres Iniesta came out of those academies, they already were role-model pros that don’t do scandals and keep a clean image.

At Hertha’s program though, kids were acting like big-star players, partying all the time, getting into trouble with the law, and never learning to play nice with the staff. In March 2009, K.P. Boateng and Patrick Ebert were leaving a brothel and decided it would be fun to smash in car mirrors. The story then was all over the news. There was also a disgusting sexting scandal in which underage girls were involved with married Hertha pros.

The youth academy of Hertha is still seen as a failure. Young, Berlin-based prospects like Antonio Rüdiger (now at AS Roma) tend to pick the academies of Stuttgart, BVB, or Bayern over Hertha’s.

I have already mentioned the huge Turkish community (200,000 potential fans) in Berlin. Normally you would expect a football club to attract them by bringing in Turkish players from the Süperlig. Well, Hertha was so focused on finding the next Ronaldo in Brazil that they never even looked at the Turkish market. From 2004 to 2007, Yildiray Bastürk, a little past his prime, played for the BSC, but he was born in Germany and never played in Turkey, so the effect on attendance was pretty much none.

As you can see, Hertha had been dealt some crappy hands by historic events, but also made many mistakes that are 100% the club’s own fault.

Presence and Outlook

Hertha is doing great at the moment. The coach-GM combination seems to work, and the finances are stable for the first time in decades, ever since Investment Group KKR bought into the club in 2013. The team just finished the Hinrunde in third place and are in the quarterfinals of the Pokal (they normally lose in the first round to cupcakes like Koblenz or Worms).

But if you have not skipped the last paragraphs, you can probably guess that there is not much euphoria or hype to be felt in the city. True Berliners have been let down by Hertha too many times to get carried away, and the rest of the city doesn’t care anyways.

Many fans I know personally are scared that Hertha makes the Europa League and like Augsburg this year don’t handle the extra games well. Another fear is that Premier League teams will buy guys like Darida, Brooks, and Lustenberger next summer.

It’s Hertha after all, the team and the city has “been there, done that” when it comes to self-inflicted pain and and embarrassing scandals. The KKR deal could also blow up the finances, if KKR decides to pull out. Hertha was loaned around 60 million Euros by KKR, who are betting on TV-rights prices for live sports going way up in value, to consolidate finances and buy back any previously sold rights. Hertha paid-off the crippling debt and bought back catering rights, but as soon as KKR wants to pull out, Hertha is on the hook to pay back a big chunk of the investment.

So going forward, just being a normal Bundesliga team that finishes between 8th and 12th place over the next ten years is something Hertha fans would be totally happy with. The 40 years behind the Berlin Wall, the scandals, and the the bad decisions make it almost impossible to compete with the teams like Bayern, Arsenal, BVB, Barcelona, or Inter Milan, that have been run with competence for the last couple of decades.

Even if Hertha is doing everything right going forward, star players eventually move on to the big teams they have watched as a kid.  

That’s why Hertha is not a powerhouse type of club (and probably never will be).

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