In early February 2018 Hannover 96 shareholder, Martin Kind, withdrew his application to the Deutsche Fußball Liga (DFL) to take majority control of the club. This wouldn’t usually cause much of a stir outside Germany, however he was trying to make Hannover only the fifth Bundesliga team to be majority owned by a single entity and thus circumventing the 50+1 rule. This isn’t the first time he has made waves around ownership, in 2009 he was involved in a league-wide proposal to abolish the rule however this was rejected by 32 votes to four. Kind’s most recent intentions had been met with opposition by Hannover supporters and their first home game of the season was more of a protest march than a game as banners and anti-Kind chants were prominent. The prospect of extra revenue, being able to attract the world’s best players and, hopefully, winning a few trophies, are pipe dreams for supporters of most clubs, even in leagues where takeovers are common, so why the uproar?
The rule itself states that at least 51% of the shares in a club must be owned by the club itself, and by extension this means the fans. There are notable exceptions to the rule, VFL Wolfsburg and Bayer 04 Leverkusen were founded by employees of Volkswagen and Bayer pharmaceuticals respectively and have now both formally separated from their owners. Two other examples exist, Rasenballsport Leipzig, better known as RB Leipzig, is a fairly well known story; they were a fifth division team, SSV Markrandstadt, until 2009 when energy drink company, Red Bull, bought the club and invested heavily as they ascended the divisions and were promoted to the Bundesliga in 2014. German teams cannot be named after their sponsors so they have avoided this by naming the team Rasenballsport, which translates as lawn ball sport, then shortening it to RB, which is about as close to naming them after their owners as they can legally get.
As far as Leipzig and the 50+1 rule are concerned, all clubs require a licence to play in the Bundesliga and Leipzig’s was subject to strict terms and conditions, namely the re-design of the club’s crest as it bore too much a resemblance to Red Bull’s logo, secondly, they also had to ensure the club’s management was distanced from the Red Bull company. These terms, after a series of rejections and appeals, were agreed to. Although it can be argued the new crest is virtually the same as the old one and the terms surrounding club ownership are a little unclear and open to interpretation. Controversially, Leipzig also vigorously control their membership, by which fans are given their voting right, as such the club only has around 20 members the majority of which are employees of Red Bull. An original stipulation of their entry into the Bundesliga was that they had to open up their membership and lower membership costs, however this was contested by the club in April 2014 and wasn’t a condition they had to meet to have their licence granted.
The other team to be given exemption from 50+1 is TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, lead by Dietmar Hopp, he exercised the 20 year rule under 50+1 whereby a single entity can become majority shareholder after proving to the DFL they have provided significant investment for at least 20 years. Hoffenheim, under Hopp’s financial backing, made a remarkable rise through the divisions after being in the fifth division in 2000. Martin Kind’s most recent application at Hannover was based on this rule but the DFL were, according to reports, going to dismiss his application stating he hadn’t provided significant enough investment for the required period.
The last two examples are similar to Gretna’s rise from obscurity in the early 2000s and have made Leipzig and Hoffenheim among the most disliked in German football as they appear to have lost some of the integrity which is held in high regard by supporters of 50+1. One can see why, we can use Manchester City and Paris Saint Germain as examples of clubs who have been catapulted into Champions League winners contention by heavy investment from overseas, rather than that of the route taken by those few teams with a good infrastructure and who have invested wisely in players and the club in general. It is this pride and soul of a club which fans often identify their team with. It can be argued there are a significant number of fans of City, PSG and Chelsea, among others, who deep down know their success has been bought rather than earned on their own merit. Their rise can be seen as being because of an unfair advantage by other supporters as their owners are willing to part with vast sums of money to compete with the cream of domestic and European football. This raises its own questions where criticism of these teams and their methods can be viewed as outright jealousy. While Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig aren’t on the same level of PSG in terms of status and progress yet, although they did finish fourth and second respectively last season, the disdain of opposition supporters is understandable.
The German model of fan ownership has created, at least from the outside looking in, a Utopian land of fan and board friendship, where financial accountability and transparency is the norm. Given this view it’s easy to empathise with Hannover fans as there is a certain romantic notion to 50+1 which protects the interests of the club and prevents fans from being merely consumers by giving them a platform to have their say on club issues such as ticket prices.
Of course it’s not all mutual backslapping as there is a growing voice against 50+1 from Kind and other potential investors. One also has to feel some sympathy for the teams who are challenging Bayern Munich for the title each year. Teams such as Schalke 04, Borussia Monchengladbach and to a lesser extent Borussia Dortmund, can claim to being stifled by the rule. They’re almost certainly guaranteed Champions League revenue and a top six finish in the Bundesliga but without outside investment they’ll always be in Bayern’s shadow. Currently Bayern are by far the biggest club in Germany and realistically the only domestic team who can pick up their rivals’ best players on a whim. Without the promise of an extended Champions League run or the promise of attracting a better calibre of player or sponsor, all of which can be facilitated by outside investment, it can be very difficult for those in the shadow of Bayern to keep hold of their better players and succeed.
Given Kind’s opposition to the rule his withdrawal certainly seems to be of a tactical nature as he has apparently been given assurances that the rules around 50+1 will be reviewed by the DFL. I for one cannot comprehend a situation where such vocal opposition to the rule would simply be withdrawn without question and it appears when the DFL do re-visit 50+1 their decision may well be in Kind’s and his supporter’s favour. There are compelling arguments for both sides, the ”Against Modern Football’ philosophy of those in support of the rule is very well supported by supporters’ trusts across Europe and is still a key argument to prevent support apathy. In order to stop the Bundesliga becoming like the Premier League they will need to be resilient in their quest to keep the status quo as the lure of increased investment, exposure and sponsorship may ultimately be too much for the DFL to ignore.