Why this matters
In Germany, the Bundesliga operates under a long-held rule that requires 50 percent of a club plus one share to be possessed by team vereins. But tradition is being challenged as more money flows into European soccer.
On May 18, 50,000 rowdy German soccer fans took to the streets of Seville, Spain. They were dressed in black and white, including scarves with thick black-and-white horizontal bands. Spain was experiencing a heatwave, and the day was an unseasonably high 97 degrees, but that didn’t matter. The fans were there for a kind of business. Their team, Eintracht Frankfurt, was about to play Glasgow’s Rangers in the final of the Europa League, the second most prestigious tournament in European club soccer.
The final was a momentous occasion for both teams. Eintracht last won the tournament, then called the Union of European Football Associations Cup, in 1980. The last European title that Rangers took home was for something called the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, a tournament that no longer exists. The year was 1972.
For Eintracht, the final was not simply the final test of a remarkable tournament run. It also represented the culmination of one of the greatest displays of traveling support in recent memory. It wasn’t just that Eintracht brought more fans to Sevilla than the 44,000-seat Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán could hold. (Rangers accomplished that as well.) It was that the team had been bringing similar numbers to away matches all season. Those fans had helped Eintracht – a team that finished 11th in the Bundesliga, the top German domestic league – beat a string of more deep-pocketed teams, like England’s West Ham United and Spain’s mighty Barcelona.
During the quarterfinal match in Barcelona, Eintracht fans made headlines around the world when they somehow got hold of 30,000 tickets, despite only 5,000 being officially allocated to the away fans. With a stadium full of supporters, Eintracht won, 3-2. Afterward, Barcelona’s coach complained that his team had been “robbed in their own home.” Barcelona’s president, Juan Laporta, later declared his team was investigating how so many tickets could have possibly wound up in opposition hands. “I very much believe it affected the result,” Eintracht’s president, Axel Hellmann, told The Athletic.
The supporters did their job, in other words, willing their side to success – and perhaps intimidating the opposition in the process. They did it again during the final in Seville, where Eintracht beat Rangers on penalties after the game finished 1-1.
When I say, “did their job,” you might think I’m being facetious. But for Eintracht fans, it’s no joke. They traveled to Spain out of pride and a desire to be part of the spectacle, sure, but also out of a sense of duty. Eintracht is a club with more than 100,000 members, all of whom can vote for their club’s leadership. In a real sense, they are part-owners of the team. So, unlike, say, Dallas Cowboys fans, Eintracht’s traveling supporters weren’t just hoping for a victory. They were working toward the success of an entity in which they play a custodial role.
In the world of German soccer, Eintracht’s ownership structure is far from unique. Almost every German soccer team is part of a sporting club known as a verein (pronounced fer-INE). According to a report from Germany’s Ministry of Sports Science, the average size of a German sporting club in 2018 was 267 people, but the biggest sports club is Bayern Munich, which has more than 290,000 members. A Bundesliga verein’s democratically elected leadership is responsible not just for maintaining huge budgets but also for organizing club events and offering members all manner of sporting opportunities beyond soccer. Eintracht’s members, for example, have more than 50 activities to choose from.
None of those activities are as popular or have a budget the size of the professional soccer team. If you know anything about European soccer, you know that team ownership can mirror that of pro sports in the United States, with big clubs often becoming the playthings of billionaires. Some of Europe’s top teams are owned by Middle Eastern sovereign wealth funds, rich Americans, and, until recently, Russian oligarchs. This is not the case in Germany. In the bylaws of the German Football League – the DFL – there is a rule that the majority of every club must be owned by the club itself.
The rule, known colloquially as 50+1 (for 50 percent plus 1 share), is credited with creating an environment of fan engagement that has become a hallmark of German soccer – and the envy of fans in other leagues who feel voiceless in the face of private, often foreign, ownership. The perceived importance of the 50+1 rule is difficult to overstate. It has been studied in the Parliament of the United Kingdom as a model for a more sustainable approach to soccer. Florian Proeckl, a diehard Eintracht fan who traveled to Sevilla for the Europa League final, told me that “50+1 is the most important rule of German football and is a gatekeeper to the soul of the game.”
To understand how Proeckl and millions of other German soccer fans might feel that way, it helps to understand a bit about the country’s verein system, which is central to its social structure. In the United States, it’s common for adults to find connections through their work, but in Germany, verein membership and friendship often go hand in hand.
Vereins often have nothing to do with sports. In my neighborhood in Heidelberg, Germany, for example, a quick search of Google Maps shows two science clubs, a club for citizen journalists, various neighborhood associations, two shooting clubs, and a club for German shepherd enthusiasts. Many of these clubs have been around for decades.
Larger vereins often own property and run clubhouses with a bar and restaurant where their members gather in the evening to socialize. In other words, they’re not just places to learn a skill or practice a hobby. They’re social hubs and community institutions. They’re also run as non-profit organizations — and this is where 50+1 comes in.
In the 1990s, European soccer went through a dramatic professionalization, both as a sport and a business. Revenues skyrocketed. Bundesliga broadcasting rights alone increased by 3,450 percent from the 1988-89 season to the 2000-01 season, from 10 million deutschmarks to 355 million. The sudden influx of cash made it difficult for clubs to maintain their non-for-profit status. In 1998, the DFL offered its clubs a solution. Rather than operate as nonprofits, they would be able to spin off their soccer divisions into subsidiary for-profit corporations, so long as the parent vereins maintained majority control of the new entities. (Most of the DFL’s clubs took this option, though there remain some holdouts that did not spin off their soccer divisions, like Freiberg and Mainz.)
In addition to ensuring the continued relevance of the traditional vereins, Bundesliga officials hoped that limiting private ownership would do two things: a) protect clubs from being used as ATMs by parasitic owners (think Jeffrey Loria and the Florida Marlins or the Glazier family and Manchester United); and b) encourage greater competitive balance throughout the league by preventing clubs from becoming the budgetless playthings of the oligarch class.
While all of this sounds great — especially to fans of the rival English Premier League, where many clubs really are the playthings of the oligarch class — 50+1 has been challenged from its very inception. One complication has to do with Bayer Leverkusen and Wolfsburg. Because those teams began as clubs for the workers of the pharmaceutical company Bayer and the automaker Volkswagen, they already existed as corporate rather than member-owned entities. The DFL has allowed them to continue operating as such, which makes them exceptions to the 50+1 rule.
Another compilation has to do with the exact nature of ownership. While vereins are required to own 50 percent plus one share of their spinoff organizations, this applies only to voting rights — not to the shares of the subsidiary company. In several cases, there are clubs whose shares are majority controlled by an individual or entity other than the verein. Lars Windhorst, a German millionaire, holds 66.6 percent of Hertha Berlin, via a holding company he controls. Another German millionaire, Martin Kind, owns the majority of Second Division team Hannover 96 and has repeatedly threatened to challenge 50+1 in court in a bid to … well, control what he already essentially owns.
Since 50+1 became law, two clubs have been able to get around it. One of them, Hoffenheim, began as a humble sports club in a village that today has just over 3,000 residents. That the team plays in the Bundesliga is the result of investment by billionaire Ditmar Hopp, co-founder of the tech giant SAP. For more than two decades, Hopp has been pumping millions of euros into Hoffenheim, his hometown verein, helping it rise from Germany’s amateur leagues to an all-time high of third in the Bundesliga in 2018.
In 2015, Hopp took full control of the soccer club. He did so because the DFL exception granting Bayer and Wolfsburg ownership wasn’t specific to those teams; instead, it allowed for individuals to take full control once they had “continuously and substantially” contributed to the success of their team for more than 20 years. Hopp fit the bill.
The other team, RasenBallsport Leipzig e.V., better known as RB Leipzig or Red Bull Leipzig, got around 50+1 by exploiting a loophole. The RassenBallsport verein – the team wasn’t permitted to call it “Red Bull” – was formed in 2009. That year, it purchased the license to participate in the fifth division of German soccer from a small verein called SSV Markranstädt. Red Bull, the well-known energy drink company, then pumped millions into the team, much as Hopp did for Hoffenheim. The difference between the two is that Red Bull controls its verein via limiting membership to just 21 people, making it by far the smallest club in the Bundesliga. The identities of some RB Leipzig members remain unknown, but all are thought to have links to the company, allowing Red Bull to control the club by proxy.
Fans of the Bundesliga’s traditional vereins view both RB Leipzig and Hoffenheim as abominations. RB Leipzig is routinely protested for having exploited a loophole and undermined the democratic principles of the verein system. So is Hoffenhiem. When Bayern Munich traveled to Hoffenheim in 2020, its fans displayed a banner calling Hopp the “son of a whore.” It wasn’t the first time Hopp had been ridiculed by fans; some of these protests over the years have even ended up in court, with accusations of defamation.
It’s not hard to understand why the fans would be upset. Hoffenheim and Leipzig – and to a lesser degree, Wolfsburg and Bayer – represent the front lines in an ongoing battle between tradition and local control, on the one hand, and globalized commercialization on the other. For the Bundesliga’s “ultras,” the most diehard of fans, it feels as though everything is at stake, from their custodial roles in their vereins to the fan experience itself.
The fan experience is perhaps the Bundesliga’s top selling point. The league is regularly the most attended in Europe. In the 2019-20 season, sellout rates were 90 percent, and season tickets for perennial champions Bayern Munich were the lowest on offer at just 145 euros, which averages out to staggeringly low price of just over 8 euros 50 per game. Meanwhile, the cheapest one-off tickets were just 15 euros – and all tickets double as public transit tickets to and from stadiums.
Once inside, concessions are similarly (read: reasonably) priced. I grew up going to baseball games in Southern California and came to expect that, much like going to Disneyland, once you entered the stadium gates, the cost of food and drink would increase dramatically. But in the 10 years I’ve lived in Germany and attended Bundesliga matches, I’ve never paid more than 4.5 euros ($4.79) for a half-liter beer in a soccer stadium. Same for a bratwurst. By comparison, a slightly larger, 20-ounce beer costs as much as $18.40 at a National Football League game in the U.S.
I remember thinking how naive it was, in a business sense, for German stadiums not to charge more. But Germany's inexpensive gameday experience is directly related to 50+1 and the broader idea that professional soccer is not only for the fans but also impossible without them. Players often talk about the responsibility they have to the club and the club members, and teams almost always gather after a match to applaud their supporters before heading to the locker room.
But not everyone is convinced quite as much is at stake as the die-hard fans believe. One of those skeptics is Dr. Sebastian Uhrich, a professor of sports business administration at the German Sport University Cologne. He sees the 50+1 rule as anachronistic and unnecessary. When asked what a world without 50+1 might look like, Uhrich says he could envision a situation in which it’s “up to the clubs to develop their own guidelines and define certain requirements that need to be fulfilled for an investor to engage in the team. It could be, I don’t know, a long-term contract of 20 years to prevent short-term investors with short-term commercial interests from investing in the club.” That, of course, is just one example, but Uhrich’s point is that there are myriad ways a club could do business with guiding principles that reflect the morals and wishes of the verein in the absence of 50+1.
The way Uhrich sees it, the true source of competitive imbalance in European soccer isn’t private ownership. It’s how much money owners are allowed to pump into their clubs. And this, he says, is an issue that needs to be addressed at the continental level. “Financial fair play,” he says, referring to the much-maligned effort to control club spending by UEFA, “has to be taken seriously. And it’s not.”
Uhrich is also critical of the notion that the 50+1 rule enshrines democratic governance of German soccer teams. “All the clubs are run by professionals,” he says, referring to the spinoff organizations. “The voting rights only refer to major things like a new stadium or very fundamental questions, but daily business is run by professionals, and there’s no way for fans to influence it.”g
Uhrich has a point. Imagine what might happen if a Bundesliga team today were to raise beer prices to, say, an unreasonably high 8 euros. Could the team’s club members really do anything about it? They could protest. They could refuse to drink stadium beer. But if they were to press for change via their voting power, it would require them to first elect a new verein governing body and then hope that the governing body forces the subsidiary company to change its beer prices.
If that sounds far fetched, well, it is. Beer is like a natural resource in Germany. The entire nation would be outraged. But the distance between club members and actual decision-making power is an increasingly visible problem in German soccer.
The most recent general meeting for Bayern Munich members is a great example. The meeting featured heated exchanges between members and club officials over the club’s partnership with Qatar Airways. Qatar, of course, will host the upcoming World Cup, despite a less-than-stellar human rights record and an almost surely corrupt voting process that awarded the tiny Persian Gulf nation the tournament to begin with. On moral grounds, fans wanted Bayern to sever ties with Qatar. Bayern’s officials were less than receptive to the fan protests. The sponsorship is set to expire in 2023.
Uhrich, for his part, points out that the most engaged fans, such as those who go to general meetings and protest in stadiums, are not necessarily representative of the wider fandom. “Only a very, very small minority of voters actually exercise their voting rights,” Uhrich said in a podcast interview late last year, later suggesting only a group in the hundreds or low thousands participates at any given Bundesliga team’s annual meeting.
There’s an argument to be made that the people power promised by the 50+1 rule is mostly an illusion. However, it’s an illusion that both fans, clubs, and their subsidiary soccer companies are happy to entertain, so long as it’s mutually beneficial, helping teams pack their stadiums and providing an emotional connection between fans and clubs that’s hard to find elsewhere.
That connection holds a lesson for privately owned-and-operated pro sports organizations in the U.S. and elsewhere. When a German team is not doing well, fans tend to remain engaged, because they see it as their responsibility to help the team improve. They arguably have a deeper interest in the well-being of the Bundesliga as a whole, too: In 2018, fan protests convinced the league to discontinue Monday matches, which German fans considered a concession to global rather than local interests, since work-day kickoffs are more difficult to attend.
If American teams could find a way to transform their “franchises'' into entities viewed less as businesses than as cultural institutions, it would go a long way toward creating the kind of activist fanbases you see in Germany. Perhaps American owners could create official fan clubs and give those clubs some say in important team decisions.
That might sound crazy. After all, it’s hard to imagine someone like Cowboys owner Jerry Jones willfully diluting his own power. But if the 50+1 rule has shown the world anything, it’s that allowing fans even a nominal seat at the table can foster a level of engagement that’s based on more than just winning and losing. And the cheaper beer doesn’t hurt, either.
You can see it from the skyline: Sport is a dominant part of any community where it is played. The economic relationship between professional organizations and these communities has always been fundamental to understanding sport, but as the industry grows, so too does the sway sport holds over cities and states.
How do fans and residents see this relationship? Do these private businesses owe the public more than they are giving? And what is the ideal role sports organizations should play in a community?