With 'Red Bull' Leipzig, Bundesliga moves away from community model

  • Sumil Sudhakaran, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Aug 01, 2016 13:04 IST
Red Bull bought SSV Markranstadt in 2009, and cleverly renamed it RasenBallsport Leipzig, which would become RB Leipzig. (Getty Images)

Modern football is no place for socialist principles. Clubs owned by Russians or Arabs with questionable background is the norm these days. In this crowd of capitalist football, Germany has, however, stood apart, with its '50+1' rule that promotes community driven football. In 2016-17 season, however, the German league, the Bundesliga, hand in hand with the newly-promoted RB Leipzig, will take a few steps away from this fan-owned model.

The 50+1 rule states, in order for a club to obtain licence to play in Bundesliga, 50 percent plus one share cannot be traded in market and must remain in the possession of the non-commercial, non-profit parent club. This statute has made 50 percent plus one share of Bundeliga clubs to be owned by members; to be a member a fan only has to pay a nominal annual fee, such as 62 euros in case of Borussia Dortmund. This has meant even Bayern Munich, fifth richest club in the world with a total revenue of 474 million euros according to financial experts Deloitte,  is driven by the fans.

However, there have been exceptions to this rule in Wolfsburg and Leverkusen. Wolfsburg is owned by German automaker Volkswagen whereas Leverkusen is owned by pharmaceutical giants Bayer. They have been granted the exception as they were set up by the firms many decades back. That these owners still involve the community --- the cities of Wolfsburg and Leverkusen are intrinsically tied to the firms like in the case of Jamshedpur and Tata in India -- have also helped.

But in 2008, TSG Hoffenheim won promotion to Bundesliga. Hoffenheim is controlled by billionaire software entrepreneur Dietmar Hopp. In 2015, Hopp increased his voting stake in the club from the '50+1' approved 49 per cent to a majority stake. The league approved the change as its gives an exception from the rule if an investor "has promoted football at the club considerably and without interruption for at least 20 years."

Last season, Ingolstadt made their debut in Bundesliga, with a 11th place finish ensuring their survival. The club founded in 2004 does follow the '50+1' on paper, but is all but owned by Audi.

This coming season would see the biggest challenge to the rule, with RB Leipzig joining the Bundeliga. The club has undergone a remarkable transformation since being taken over by energy drink giants Red Bull in 2009. Back then they were in the fifth tier of German football and was called SSV Markranstadt. German FA rules do not allow a club to be named after a sponsor, but Red Bull knew how to get around it. They renamed the club RasenBallsport Leipzig, meaning 'lawn ball sport' Leipzig. The abbreviation of course stood as RB Leipzig, thereby making it congruent with the other Red Bull-owned football clubs such as New York Red Bulls of the MLS, Red Bull Salzburg of Austria and Red Bull Brasil of well, Brazil. 

On paper, 50+1 shares of the club is owned by members, with the rest under Red Bull and other market investors. However, the members of the club are largely employees of the company and the membership fee is a princely 800 euros annually, according to These Football Times. It does not help either that unlike in the case of Wolfsburg or Leverkusen, the company owning the club is not German at all, but based in Austria.

It won't take long for Red Bull to flex their financial muscle and build a team that could challenge the likes of Bayern and Dortmund. With sales of over 4 billion euros annually, and the company valued at 7.9 billion dollars by Forbes, they clearly have the financial wherewithal. 

Germany may still have St Pauli, the darling of left-leaning football fans plying their trade in the second tier, but with every passing season, the Bundesliga is becoming less community driven.

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