If we’ve learned anything about German football clubs this week, it’s quite simply that their owners are smarter than the average club owner. The 50+1 rule in Germany has recently been getting attention due to its involvement in stopping the dreaded European Super League from coming to Germany and sweeping away the nation’s biggest clubs. But what is the 50+1 rule?
50+1 Rule Explained
The 50+1 rule refers to a clause in the regulations of Germany’s top flight – the German Bundesliga. Essentially, in order to obtain the right to compete in Deutsche Fußball-Liga, a club must hold a majority of its own voting rights. That is – their members, possibly even their fans, must have a say in decision making processes. The club’s members retain control through 50% of the shares, +1 share. Why the +1? So that the majority (more than 50%) comes out the side of the members, and not external investors. In many of Europe’s top leagues, external investors can purchase a club, and own almost the entirety of the club’s power and voting rights. This is essentially how the European Super League was formed, and simultaneously how it fell apart not even two days later. The idea of owners making decisions on behalf of the club for their own best interest would simply never happen in the Bundesliga, and this was key in stopping some of Germany’s elite clubs from joining the breakaway league.
Before the turn of the millennium, clubs in Germany operated as non-profit organizations. Private ownership was even so far as forbidden under any circumstance. But in 1998, the German Football Association (DFB) implemented a new rule, the “50+1 rule”. Although the rule was meant with much rejoice and celebration, it was also met with criticism. Some believed that private ownership of any kind would turn the game into more of a business (hello Super League), while others believed that if an external owner was willing and able to fund the club, that they should be granted more control over the voting rights. In Germany, it remains a contested debate.
There are a few exceptions to the rule that currently allow external companies to have slightly more control over the voting rights. Clubs like VFL Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen who have demonstrated that a substantial part of their funds come from a single person or company, can be given more control. However, both cases were granted under circumstances where the company was involved over a period of twenty years or more. In Wolfsburg’s case – by automobile manufacturers Volskwagen, while Bayer 04 are owned by pharmaceuticals company Bayer. These exceptions are widely accepted by the German public, given the period of time the companies have been involved with their respective clubs. One that was less widely accepted was Red Bull Leipzig’s rise to the top-flight through foreign investment from, you guessed it, Red Bull. The club officially gave a majority of their voting rights to club members before their first season in 2. Bundesliga, and each of those club members still to this day pay a significant fee to be part of the club. The one problem? They’re all Red Bull employees and agents. Members of the public can purchase the same right to be a club member, but without any voting rights. This makes Leipzig’s situation all the more complicated. There were calls for the nation and DFB to re-evaluate the 50+1 rule even well within Leipzig’s second season in the Bundesliga, but those calls have died down with the increased competitive edge to the league the club has provided. Nonetheless, Leipzig present a unique case where the 50+1 rule can easily be exploited.
So although the 50+1 rule has been praised as of late for its involvement in stopping the European Super League, it is not without faults, neither is German football and their lawmakers. It is however positive to see such a rule exist in a sport that is increasingly becoming more and more of a business in leagues around the world. German football retains much of its heritage and communal pride, and the European Super League was a great reminder of that, in large part thanks to the 50+1 rule.