The Football Notebook
The 50 + 1 Rule
In a footballing world that is more commercially valuable than ever, many clubs see themselves owned and controlled by billionaire owners.
More than ever, there is a strong correlation between club wealth and success; teams like Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, and the Red Bull franchises have seen much success in the past decade or so, mostly owing this to the backing of wealthy owners.
Unfortunately, this means clubs are often at the mercy of their owner(s), which can certainly lead to conflict when the owner’s actions and interests don’t particularly align with those of the fans, players, or coaching staff. Examples of these include:
Mike Ashley at Newcastle
Vincent Tan at Cardiff City FC
David Gold and David Sullivan at West Ham United
The Glazers at Manchester United
While football in the lower levels is accessible(you can compete without huge financial backing) to practically anyone, financial prowess becomes increasingly influential at a higher level. The German Bundesliga, however, has a unique alternative which aims to combat controlling owners and bring fans back into the fray to some extent.
The 50+1 rule dictates that German clubs’ supporters must hold a majority of voting rights within the club. In theory, all Bundesliga clubs are run democratically, which means that with their majority the fans control decisions in the same way that owners or companies would elsewhere. Fans pay an annual membership fee, which provides voting rights - with clubs like Bayern Munich having almost 300,000 members.
In effect, the fans control German football, and they love it.
In 2018, 3000 German fan groups signed a 30-meter long petition to protest the potential removal of the 50+1 rule. Hundreds of thousands of German football fans rallied together to protect their way of football ownership.
But it is important to note that the 50+1 rule does not apply to shares; clubs can still be injected with millions of Euros, but no private enterprise can take control of the major decisions of a club in the manner of teams in the UK, France, or Italy. Whereas elsewhere a private owner could raise ticket prices or monetise other aspects of the club for profit and their own financial gain, German fans can make sure their club is directed in the way they want.
This does not mean they get to decide which players to buy or sell; it just applies to the general board decisions that the club takes.
However, the entry of RB Leipzig into the Bundesliga in 2016 caused many to protest. While the club is called “RasenBallsport Leipzig” which means “Lawn Ball Sports Leipzig” in English, meaning it complies with the law in German football that forbids the appearance of corporations in team names, it is quite obvious that the unusual name was to incorporate Red Bull (RB) into the brand. The Austrian energy drink company, which sold over 7 billion cans last year, owns football teams around the world, in the USA, Brazil, Austria, and formerly in Ghana, but other than RB Salzburg none have been as successful as Leipzig.
After replacing SSV Markranstädt in the 5th tier of the German football in 2009, the team shot through the footballing pyramid, being promoted to the Bundesliga in 2016, and most famously reaching the Champions League semi-final last month. Players like Timo Werner, Naby Keita, Dayot Upamecano, Emil Forsberg, and Marcel Sabitzer have played at the club, but despite these successes, which include a 2nd place finish in the club’s first-ever Bundi season, their progress has been marred by controversy.
In yet another corporate ploy, RB have found a sort of loophole in the 50+1 rule.
While they technically follow it, they reserve the right to refuse membership in the club. By exploiting this, Leipzig have restricted their voting members to only 17 people, most of whom are Red Bull employees. So while technically the club follows the 50+1 rule, it is essentially controlled by the Red Bull corporation, which is then allowed to inject money into the club with few restrictions, effectively ruling it like any normal club outside Germany.
The equality and fan power which is a vital part of German football and Germany itself is to some extent eroded by the presence of Leipzig in the Bundesliga. The increasingly financial influence on football makes the removal of the 50+1 rule even more attractive to many clubs; currently, some investors are reluctant to invest in German clubs as they are not as able to make the board decisions themselves.