What the English Premier League can learn from the Bundesliga

By Ant Sims 26 April 2013

The resurgent Bundesliga is the hottest sports topic since the hammerings handed out by two German teams to two Spanish super-clubs in the Champions League earlier this week. At the core of the German football league’s success is the mantra that the fans and supporters are the foundation of the clubs, something the English Premier League has yet to realise. By ANT SIMS.

In just two days German football has announced its return. In the two Champions League matches this week, German teams came out tops and convincingly so. Bayern Munich thumped Barcelona 4-0 while Borussia Dortmund hammered Real Madrid 4-1 as everyone pointed to the story of “the little guy” triumphing over the big guns.  That is, of course, because in soccer these days, being a big gun almost automatically refers to pockets lined with foreign cash or bucket loads of debt which only gets worse as clubs continue to fork out for overpaid prima donnas.

Things are different in the German football league, the Bundesliga, where the 50% plus one rule is enforced which requires that clubs be owned by their members and cannot be taken over by private investors. There are just three exceptions to the rule: Wolfsburg, owned by Volkswagen; Bayer Leverkeusen, owned by the pharmacy giant Bayer; and Hoffenheim, now funded by a single entrepreneur, Dietmar Hopp.

Things weren’t always so rosy for the Dortmund outfit, though. While they were the first, and are still the only, club to be listed on the German Stock exchange, poor financial management resulted in heavy debt and the sale of their Westfalenstadion ground. A loan from Bayern Munich to help them foot their wage bill didn’t help either and the club was on the brink of bankruptcy in 2005 as its shares continued to plummet and a 20% pay cut in players’ wages was the end result.

In a further effort to reduce debt, the Westfalenstadion entered into a sponsorship agreement in 2006 and was subsequently renamed “Signal Diana Park”. Things were looking pretty glum, but their rise back to the top started during the 2009-10 season when they managed to qualify for the Europe League. By 2010-11, things were looking much better with a young side and they clinched the title with two games in hand. The y went on to defend that title in 2012 and now they find themselves on the brink of making a Champions League final with a team that cost nearly an eighth of what Real Madrid cost and a wage bill that sets them back only about £70 million.

The club’s chief executive, Hans-Joachim Watzke, has previously revealed that he feels some other leagues are ruining the romance of football and when his side played Manchester City last year, he made it clear that foreign ownership isn’t quite what domestic league football is all about.

“I am a little bit romantic, and that is not romantic. In England people seem not to be interested in this – at Liverpool they are fine for the club to belong to an American. But the German is romantic: when there is a club, he wants to have the feeling it is my club, not the club of Qatar or Abu Dhabi,” Watzke said.

The 50% plus one rule was challenged by Martin Kind, president of Hannover, and Watzke is insistent that the rule remain in place. When the rule was challenged only the three clubs not owned by their members and Hannover, voted in favour of scrapping the rule.

“I was the biggest opponent of changing the rule,” Watzke said in an interview with the Guardian last year.

“Germans want to have that sense of belonging. When you give [the supporters] the feeling that they are your customers, you have lost. In Germany, we want everybody to feel it is their club, and that is really important.”

“In former times in England I think the relationship between the club and supporters was very strong,” Watzke argued. “Our people come to the stadium like they are going to their family. Here, the supporters say: it’s ours, it’s my club.”

Another part of feeling like the fans belong is the ticket prices. Those who make up the “Yellow Wall” only pay £154 for a season ticket for the 17 home Bundesliga matches. A ticket that includes entry to the first three Champions League group matches, costs about £190, meaning fans pay less than £10 per match.  Those prices, compared to what English clubs charge, are staggeringly low. Arsenal, the most expensive for season tickets, charge £1 ,954 for the privilege while Manchester City and Manchester United have both kept season ticket prices under £1,000. Season tickets for Wigan, at £300, are the cheapest. Still, not a single club manages to offer supporters the chance to follow their team under £10 a match.

The ticket price issue has been hotly contested recently and Arsenal, with their exorbitant pricing, have tried to make a change and will be introducing a £10 teenagers-only section for next season as they look to harness support from the next generation of fans.

Other English Premier League clubs have deals for youngsters, too. Everton offer a £149 season-ticket for under-16s, while West Ham and Fulham offer “kids-for-a-quid” deals at some matches, but Arsenal are the first of the “top four” to introduce such a radical scheme.

While things haven’t always been quite so rosy for Dortmund, they do have some solid ideas and values and they stay true to the essence of football: the importance of fans. While their English counterparts focus a lot of their attention on the club being a product and marketing it to whatever extent they can, in whatever country they can, such business models simply aren’t viable. It’ll serve English clubs well to remember just how important the fans are, especially those who hail from the areas where the clubs are based. DM

Photo: Borussia Dortmund’s players celebrate victory over Real Madrid after their Champions League semi-final first leg soccer match in Dortmund April 24, 2013. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay


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