With sound financial policies that respect both the beautiful game and its fans, Germany’s Bundesliga is a vision of what professional football could be.

The Bundesliga's financial structure respects the soul of football by prioritizing fans.

Bundesliga: the land of beer, bratwurst, and incomprehensible club names. It’s the league most underrated by casual fans, according to some. It’s the league most overrated by dedicated hipsters, according to others.

The most common arguments for Bundesliga’s superiority are money management and fan culture. The Bundesliga is the most profitable league in the world, with a much-discussed financial model and record match attendance numbers every year. But numbers are just numbers. Trying to quantify a certain club or league’s appeal is something of a futile endeavor, given that fans generally consider their loyalties to be non-negotiable. Revenue? Sponsors? CL coefficients? What does any of that mean when compared to a ringing stadium on Saturday afternoon and your team taking the pitch?

On the other hand, abstract powers like “fan loyalty” are still subject to concrete parameters, such as “financial insolvency.” Money doesn’t make a club, but a lack thereof can certainly ruin one. The two must answer to one another. And this is where Germany’s top-flight stands out. Because in the Bundesliga, finance is not simply a matter of profit, it is a matter of football ai??i?? and the priority is not on shareholders, but on fans.

Football is nothing without fans

It’s simple. In business, the customer is always right. In spectator sport, the fan is king. So it should follow that the best business model for professional football is one that prioritizes and respects fans of the beautiful game. As Jock Stein said, “Football is nothing without fans.” All this seems insultingly obvious, but in an age of global expansion, corporate branding and billionaire owners, even the obvious may become confused.

Football can be attractive to investors and sponsors because of the incredible “brand loyalty” exhibited by its “consumers” (to phrase it using marketing terms). Except a football club is more than just a brand, and football fans are more than consumers. No matter how many loyalty points one earns at his favorite retail store, for instance, the shop owner and the customer will never have a relationship in the way that a football club and its fans are beholden to one another.

To treat football as a simple moneymaking venture is to insult the sport, and to call the bond between a club and its members “customer relations” is to cheapen that relationship. There is something sacred about the beautiful game, a sense of ownership and belonging that comes with supporting a club, and this must be respected.

It’s a popular enough concept that most people would agree; it’s harder to find places where they practice what they preach. Germany, however, is one such place ai??i?? because in the Bundesliga, this relationship between club and fans still commands hard respect in the form of the 50+1 rule.

The Bundesliga’s 50+1 rule

Germany has a history of suspicion when it comes to the moneymaking side of football. Professional football was late in reaching Germany, where amateurism reigned for the better part of the 20th century, and where wage caps remained in effect until 1972. Toward the end of the century, while foreign clubs benefited from wealthy owners and investors, Bundesliga clubs remained public and non-profit until 1998 when the DFB finally sanctioned publicly traded clubs ai??i?? as well as the “50+1 rule.”

This rule is so called because it requires a club to own 50% plus one voting share of any shares issued by its PLC ai??i?? meaning that the majority of shares will always remain with the club and its members. An exception was made for Bayer Leverkusen, who have been supported by Bayer AG since the beginning, and the resulting “Lex Bayer” also applied to VfL Wolfsburg, owned by Volkswagen.

But the exception proves the rule, which is that the Bundesliga is run on a philosophy of membership rather than ownership. And membership at a German football club means active involvement in the decision making process: they elect club representatives, help set meeting agendas, and vote on club issues.

“In Germany, we believe in the clubs as member clubs, and our fans must be our members, not our customers,” said Borussia Dortmund’s general manager Hans-Joachim Watzke. “Here, this is the only way.”

This member-based business philosophy respects the simple fact that football belongs to the fans, to the players, and to the clubs ai??i?? not to third party investors. The 50+1 rule allowed Bundesliga clubs to move forward without leaving its members behind.

Of course, the German league is still not perfect. Clubs can still come under bad management and overspend (e.g. Wolfsburg); people can still take advantage of loopholes (e.g. Dietmar Hopp bankrolling Hoffenheim’s meteoric rise from the amateur divisions); and there is even internal opposition to the 50+1 rule (e.g. Martin Kind’s one-man crusade). But it should be noted that the Bundesliga generated over ai??i??2 billion in revenue last season; that 14 of the 18 top-flight clubs reported profits; and that Martin Kind’s 2009 motion to abolish the 50+1 rule was voted down, 35 to 1, at a meeting of Germany’s professional teams. All told, the DFB’s policies seem to be working quite well.

Promoting sustainability

The Bundesliga operates under a strict licensing system that, “above all,” requires clubs to stay financially viable. Clubs that fall too far into debt risk point deductions, relegation, or even having their license revoked. Put it down to German stereotypes, if you will, but the basic idea is sound: keep it tidy on the business end of things, and leave the drama to be enacted on the pitch, with the players and with the coaches.

Contrary to urban myths, the Bundesliga proves that you don’t have to spend tens of millions in order to have competitive, entertaining, and successful football teams. Take Lucien Favre’s Borussia MAi??nchengladbach of 2011/12, for example; or look at Christian Streich’s Freiburg of today.

According to a midseason report, then-5th-placed Freiburg had spent just ai??i??620,000 for each goal they scored during the Hinrunde ai??i?? which was 24. Not a bad number for an underdog side. In fact, the majority of Bundesliga teams had spent less than ai??i??2m per goal, including the likes of Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund.

It is a point of pride for many of these clubs that they do not buy superstar players, preferring instead to seek out and promote exceptional young talent. Bundesliga clubs invest over ai??i??100 million a year in their youth academies, and the system has yielded rich rewards in home-grown talents like Thomas MA?ller (Bayern), Mario GAi??tze (Dortmund), Benedikt HAi??wedes (Schalke), and Marc-AndrAi?? ter Stegen (Gladbach), etc.

But more than just world-class players, what the Bundesliga has here is a sustainable football model; talent does not dry up overnight, nor wash its hands of a failing venture, the way wealthy benefactors might. Through financial prudence and careful investments in players and infrastructure, the Bundesliga is securing a future for its clubs and its fans.

Understanding the business of football

The Bundesliga’s financial practices are at heart a statement on what football means to them: a game with social value, where members are involved with their clubs, and where fans are valued as people, not just consumers. The DFL’s licensing guidelines, the 50+1 rule, and the German youth system are not perfect, but they are a vision of the ideal. And that, really, is all anyone can ask.

At the end of the day, the Bundesliga model has proven good for the football, good for the fans, and good for the bank accounts, as well. It’s proven that it is important to make the money about the game, rather than the other way around; that professional sport does not have to be a soulless business venture; that football can still belong to the fans.

So hear, hear, as the Bundesliga celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Here’s to a league that really understands the business of football.

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