Financial prudence of clubs, interests of the fans paramount and exciting homegrown talent makes the football league model a winning formula.
The reasons behind the rising popularity of Germany’s Bundesliga
When the Borussia Dortmund’s famous Yellow Wall sways and sings, three sides of their 80,000-capacity Westfalenstadion watch in admiration.
Dortmund’s home, with its steep stands, can lay claim to being the finest football stadium around. The wall, otherwise known as the South Tribune, is the largest terrace in world football, with space for more than 25,000 fans to stand.
Ticket prices are cheap in the working-class city, the atmosphere consistently loud and colourful. It is one reason German football is so admired.
Inspired by Dortmund, Real Madrid want to introduce their own White Wall at the Bernabeu, though fan culture is so different in Spain it will be a challenge to duplicate the German experience.
Also, Madrid fans are not allowed to stand, not even behind rail seats, which can be converted to seating for European competition.
Football fans often want numerous changes made, from new players to lower ticket prices. Not in Dortmund.
“There’s not a single thing I’d change about this club,” says the season-ticket holder Jens Hoellering, a 54-year-old dentist from nearby Arnsberg. “Jurgen Klopp isn’t quite a god, but he’s close to one here. He has worked a miracle, but he’s not the only one.
“The chief executive is very good. Borussia was close to administration five years ago, but now it’s very well-organised and successful.”
Klopp, the coach, and Dortmund have many admirers. Agreeing that Klopp is “a genius”, Manchester United’s chief executive Ed Woodward said: “Their wage bill is lower than half the clubs in the Premier League, but he’s really got a lot out of them.”
Woodward, like many, is an admirer of the German football model and Bayern Munich, in particular. “They do a lot of things extremely well,” he said.
“They built a stadium with the right financing structure. They’ve paid a lot of their debt down. They bought out Munich 1860’s stadium shares and increased their revenues that way.
They have a lot of sponsorship deals and they’ve kept their ticket prices at a reasonable level.
“All of that has fed into an incredibly successful team on the pitch. It has taken years to build, but three Champions League finals in four years …”
Bayern have an affordable ticket-pricing plan – €120 (Dh607) for a terrace season ticket. One third, or 12,500, of the club’s season tickets are at this price.
Uli Hoeness, the club president, said: “We could charge more than €120. Let’s say we charged €300. We’d get €2 million more in income but what’s €2m to us? In a transfer discussion you argue about that sum for five minutes. But the difference between €120 and €300 is huge for the fan.
“We do not think the fans are like cows, who you milk. That’s the biggest difference between us and England.”
Germany’s clubs have a strong connection with their supporters. Vincent Leggett, who since 1990 has lived in Cologne, Germany’s fourth biggest city, said “98 per cent” of the fans at FC Koln matches are from Cologne.
“It’s an extension of the community. The players feel like they’re letting them down if they don’t play well. We feel a very strong feeling with the crowd,” said Roman Golobart, a Spaniard who plays in front of 50,000 for second-division Koln after moving from England’s Wigan Athletic.
“That’s at least 10 times the crowd you’d get in the Spanish second division. We’re the 13th-best-supported team in Europe and we’re in the second division.
“We took 10,000 fans to Bochum recently. We applaud the fans; we see them at training. We think they’re crazy at times, but it’s a wonderful atmosphere in which to play football.”
Fans have significant power and influence in Germany; clubs give financial support to fan groups for their choreography and banners.
These can be edgy, with political messages, and fans can feel as if they have been asked to join a movement as well as a crowd. Harmony does not always prevail and hooliganism is an issue in Dortmund. But, overall, the German model works.
If there was a flaw, it was financial.
Because their clubs did not charge as much for tickets as the Premier League, because they did not sell foreign television rights to the Bundesliga until 2005 – Dubai Sports has the Mena rights until 2015 – and because they were not as commercially astute as the leading English clubs, they could not afford to pay top wages.
German teams were a distant third to English and Spanish teams in Europe for most of the past decade.
In 2009, Manchester United’s best-paid player earned £50,000 (Dh301,000) per week more than the best-paid at every German club.
But times are changing.
When Bayern and United went head to head for a player, Thiago Alcantara, in June, Bayern won.
German law stipulates that their football clubs must be majority-owned by their supporters.
Bayern Munich are 82 per cent owned by their 225,000 members. That prevents takeovers. When the regulation was introduced, in the 1990s it was considered counterproductive.
How could a club attract an investor if that investor could not have control?
There are moves to change the structure; at Hamburg, it has been suggested that 24.9 per cent of the club’s equity could be sold as stocks to raise investment.
Those behind the plan want to raise finances to buy better players. They play in one of Europe’s richest cities, average crowds of more than 50,000 and have 71,000 members, yet they feel shackled by the status quo and want “flexibility at a financial level”, a more capitalist, less socialist mentality.
Dortmund, the last German team to be involved with the stock market, nearly went bust as result of chronic bad financial management in 2005.
Member influence does not protect a club from financial problems, nor is it a panacea for all of football’s ills.
Finances remain tight for clubs below the top level, but even leading German clubs still lose money – €9 million at Hamburg last year – but these losses are scrutinised carefully by the owners, the supporters.
This relative prudence means Uefa’s Financial Fair Play initiative particularly benefits German sides.
Add in a huge pool of home-grown talent from Europe’s most populous country, sound coaching and solid infrastructure in a rich nation and the winning formula becomes apparent.
Bayern Munich, the European champions who will try to become world champions next week at the Club World Cup in Morocco, have always been the powerhouse, the “locomotive” of German football, according to their chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.
Their €433m revenue last season was €130m more than the second team, Dortmund.
Such inequality led the Eintract Frankfurt coach Heribert Bruchhagen to suggest that the money German clubs earn from playing in the Champions League should be shared around the Bundesliga.
Rummenigge says that Bayern have to compete not only at a national level, but against richer foreign rivals.
He announced this week that they plan to build on their success with an international campaign of marketing and summer tours.
They will follow Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester United by opening offices abroad, in Bayern’s case in the United States and China. They want other clubs to follow because they know a high-profile Bundesliga is good for them.
“The German ownership model is something I’d like to look at going forward,” said United’s Woodward.
“Their fans are not really getting any economic ownership and I don’t think that’s important to the fans.
“They are not getting things that they can vote on and I don’t think that’s important for them. I think it’s more about a feeling, a connection with their club.”
Not that Woodward foresees any change to United’s structure.
“I’m not proposing fans own part of the club. I want to investigate what the fans get from their stake in a German club.
“If it is a closeness, access and communication, I want to see if we can break down the parts and consider what we could do.”
German football is not perfect and the Manchester clubs have recently beaten Bayern and Bayer Leverkusen, currently first and second in Germany, but the Bundesliga’s considerable strengths are the result of sound long-term practices and safeguards.
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