The 50+1 Rule Remains in Place. Now What?

Last time we reported on the issue, DFL members voted in favor of keeping the Bundesliga’s famed 50+1 rule intact during a March 22nd vote. The vote provided a temporary sense of closure to an issue weighing heavily as a source of major upheaval in the Bundesliga this season. I say “temporary,” because DFL representatives voted to keep the rule in place for now, meaning that future legal challenges to the rule in German or E.U. courts are still possible. However, the Bundesliga’s most distinctive element remains in place, ensuring that everything seemingly contingent on it—from cheap tickets and concessions, club governance representation, as well as the Bundesliga’s famed grassroots supporter culture—also remain in place.

This much we now know. After a full season of anti-DFL protests, banners, and stunts, supporter groups won at least one victory during a tumultuous season, which saw VAR used in the Bundesliga for the first time, a Premier League-styled TV deal kicking in, a handful of Monday matchdays, as well as more invasive security measures during matchdays. All these issues, coupled with the threats piling up to the 50+1 rule from the likes of Hannover 96’s Martin Kind, meant that until the March 22nd vote, it had been a case of too many changes, too soon for Bundesliga supporters in 2017-18.

Indeed, despite the plethora of issues plaguing the Bundesliga this season, the 50+1 rule is arguably the most important. This rule is the central marker of identity for the Bundesliga, as well as the mechanism both enabling and securing the league’s famed supporter culture and vaunted matchday atmosphere. So if Bundesliga supporters were to win one victory this season, keeping the 50+1 intact was the most important. Significantly, it’s the not the subject matter of the rule itself that’s important, as much as what the rule enables, or what the rule implies, that matters. These ramifications provide reasons why supporters can be happy.

This interpretation is echoed in various editorials published after the March 22nd vote. For example, DW.de’s Matt Ford focuses his editorial on anecdotes about English fans making the weekly trek to Borussia Dortmund’s home matches, not because of the quality of play and competition in the Bundesliga, but because of the matchday experience, especially the supporters. Ford argues this weekly experience is the Bundesliga’s distinctive trait and is worth preserving at all costs. David Joram’s editorial in Der Tagesspiel extends Ford’s argument by claiming the vote is a sign of healthy democracy reasserting itself in German football and pushing back against the moneyed influence of billionaires and foreign investors. A short Sportschau.de article echoes Joram’s sentiment, claiming that only in Germany do fans “have a voice.” For evidence of this “voice,” look no further than the 90 feet long scroll of signatures from members of 3,097 supporter group submitted to the DFL offices before the vote. Such was the tone of those celebrating the vote in favor of the 50+1 rule.

Now that the vote is recent history, it’s time to consider its implications. Naturally, these implications mostly haven’t occurred, so myself and others must engage in hypothetical thinking. From what I’ve read, there’s debate about the hypotheticals, ranging from predictions that clubs will simply look for ways to bypass the 50+1 rule or that retaining the rule only strengthens the league’s status quo, especially Bayern’s stranglehold over the top. In other words, everyone making their best guess about the future.

However, one implication is already pretty concrete. Of the 36 Bundesliga and 2.Bundesliga clubs who voted, only 18 voted in favor of retaining the 50+1 rule, while 4 voted against it (including RB Leipzig and Bayern Munich), and the remaining clubs abstained from voting. Over at ESPN FC, Stephan Uersfeld highlights this fact and observes that the vote itself points to a rift already existing within German football, emphasizing that this rift won’t merely disappear on its own. The rift itself is characterized by Bayern’s Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, who went as far as blaming a 2nd division club (St. Pauli, who initiated the vote) for directly harming the competitiveness of German football. How this rift between the two camps rears its head in coming seasons will be the most compelling DFL-themed story to watch out for.

Another implication that’s already clear is that, in the world of Bundesliga followers (both domestically in Germany and abroad internationally), competing priorities exist. For supporters on the ground in Germany or regularly visiting Bundesliga matches (like the English fans mentioned by Matt Ford), preserving the Bundesliga’s special matchday experience is the highest good over promoting the competitiveness of German clubs (by which I mean the ability to compete successfully in European football and challenge Bayern’s supremacy for the title). In other words, these locally-based supporters don’t care as much about the quality of the football they’re watching, as much as they care about the values representing German football and their ability either to experience or participate in the vaunted Bundesliga matchday experience.

On the other hand, international Bundesliga supporters seem more sympathetic toward cries for removing the 50+1 rule and theoretically opening the door to foreign investment in German football. At least I’ve observed this attitude on various podcasts, blogs, and social media activity from internationally-based Bundesliga followers. The standard view in this sector is that many of the Bundesliga supporters, especially the ultras, are fighting a losing battle against modernity and globalization, and must give up their symbolic values and embrace the pragmatism of modern footballing economics.

Obviously international Bundesliga followers (myself included!) are removed from the local community and physical contexts surrounding our clubs. From our vantage point, it’s much easier to fixate on Bayern’s dominance of the Bundesliga and the relative failure of German clubs in the Champions and Europa League these past seasons. Without the immersive local contexts, us internationals are left with the deeply personal emotions stemming from our clubs winning and losing. That is, for us internationals, it’s results that define our experience. So its no wonder that increasing the domestic and European competitiveness is prioritized among these fans.

Other implications are more hypothetical. First, it’s somewhat tricky to say who will benefit most from the 50+1 rule remaining. My fairly obvious guess is that, despite its “no’ vote, Bayern Munich is the biggest domestic winner. The Bavarians’ position atop the German food chain will probably continue to stay unchallenged. The reason why is historical. As I’ve written elsewhere, the Bavarians are decades ahead of everyone else financially and in terms of branding. Domestically, Bayern will still be able to easily out-purchase anyone else thanks to club’s revenue streams, which aren’t dependent on the deus-ex-machina of a foreign or single-entity investor injecting loads of cash into the club, as other Bundesliga clubs seem to have hoped before the March 22nd vote. Sorry everyone else—you better get really good at playing the “Imagine There’s No Bayern” game. We’ll be playing this game for the foreseeable future.

So I’d better not hear you complain about Bayern’s dominance anymore, at least if you were in favor of the 50+1 rule remaining.

However, the 50+1 rule remaining will probably hurt Bayern’s chances to compete on the larger post-Neymar-to-PSG European transfer market, which now seemingly requires hundreds of millions of Euros. If past transfer markets are any indication, Bayern competes on the transfer market for players worth tens of millions of Euros, not hundreds. So in terms of attracting an even larger international fanbase and presumably trying to win the Champion League by buying the biggest transfer targets, Bayern will occupy a social stratus inferior to the biggest (i.e. richest) clubs like Real Madrid, PSG, the two Manchester clubs, Barcelona, etc. Brace yourself for hearing Uli Hoeness and Rummenigge complain about the 50+1 vote every time Bayern bombs out of the Champions League or loses out on a big transfer target in coming seasons. You better believe Bayern brass will be lamenting this vote for seasons to come, despite the actuality that the club will continue to dominate the Bundesliga.

Second, there are possible implications regarding how other German clubs will react to the 50+1 rule remaining. Clubs currently in the top divisions will have to look for other ways to skirt the rule, if they are seeking involvement any money from single-entity investors. For example, Hannover 96’s Martin Kind, who was poised to become the club’s sole owner, has gone quiet after withdrawing his ownership claim in light of his 20 year tenure as a significant investor was being questioned (Kind was trying to become owner through the “20 year rule,” which was used by Hoffenheim’s Dieter Hopp to become TSG’s owner). Although Kind lost his bid to take over Hannover, this loss doesn’t mean that other interested parties are prevented from following the same legal path at other Bundesliga clubs.

Yet it seems plausible that the dreaded single-party investors wouldn’t wait 20 years to file for ownership club of a Bundesliga or 2.Bundesliga club, especially when there are other readily-available options (i.e. clubs) in England, Spain, and Italy. Hence other foreign investors interested in owning a German club might be tempted to replicate the RB Leipzig model of buying/merging/creating a lower league club, dumping a ton of money into it and installing a symbolic board of “supporters,” who technically meet the 50+1 rule, as is infamously the case with RB Leipzig. Currently, nothing prevents other investors from following the example of Red Bull and RasenBallsport Leipzig. This path seems more likely than a repetition of the disastrous case of Hasan Ismaik and TSV 1860 Munich, which ended with the club in financial ruin and 4th division status.

Of course, none of these scenarios are guaranteed. Or for that matter, none of the doomsday scenarios following the voting down of the 50+1 were guaranteed, at least this is the point is raised in a Süddeutsche Zeitung editorial by Johannes Aumüller, who argues that a flood of foreign investors might’ve actually been unlikely. According the Aumüller, angst over the disappearance of the 50+1 rule was misplaced. Moreover, Aumüller predicts that Bayern would have probably benefited the most from the rule disappearing, given the club’s existing brand strength in attracting investors. Finally, Aumüller worries that supporters cling too tightly and too emotionally to the 50+1 rule, while missing the boat on the larger and more significant commercialization that German football is already deeply seeped in. In Aumüller’s reading, the 50+1 rule has become a fetish—a concrete piece of football legislation—possessing almost magical value for many supporters. While Aumüller supports Germany’s fabled supporter culture remaining intact, he’s worried that obsessing about the 50+1 rule isn’t the most effective way to fight the fight.

Although I don’t buy Aumüller’s argument about misplaced energy being directed toward the rule (after all, preserving the rule was one of only concrete goals available for supporters to campaign around this season—a time of unprecedented turmoil), I do agree with his point about commercialization already having its way with German football, which is why I was attracted to the concrete proposals suggested by Eintracht Frankfurt’s president Axel Hellmann, which would have concretely fixed club colors and badges in place, while guaranteeing supporter access and participation in the club, regardless of who owned the club. These proposals would have created something like a “covenential” framework around all the clubs in the league, guaranteeing certain markers of identify, regardless if an ownership party were to act in bad faith.

Anyhow, another reckoning for the soul of German football will happen again. The March 22nd vote merely preserves the already-straining status quo, putting off the bigger questions posed by commercialization, investors, and trade winds of globalized football. These questions will return with a vengeance, I fear. For now, enjoy the continued run of Bayern success into the foreseeable future. And if you care about a title race, pray to the football gods that Red Bull keeps pumping money into its RasenBallsport child. Otherwise, Bayern’s hegemony will remain unchallenged.

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. He writes for Howler magazine's website, as well as The Short Pass where he covers the USL and other topics. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and sports 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!

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