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German fan protests: What is the Bundesliga's investor plan?

Matt Ford Dortmund
April 9, 2023

The Bundesliga is hoping to secure a multi-billion-euro investment deal with private equity firms. Opposed to further commercialization, German fans are up in arms. What are the fans so mad about?

Protest banners with messages such as "The league belongs to all of us - against investors!" and "Stop investors, save football!"
"The league belongs to all of us - against investors!" BVB fans protested against the Bundesliga's investor plansImage: Martin Meissner/AP/picture alliance

Towering above the city of Dortmund and dominating the skyline is a huge, yellow letter "U," perched atop the building which once housed the "Dortmunder Union" brewery.

On Saturday, however, the phrase "Dortmunder Union" took on a different meaning as supporters of Borussia Dortmund and Union Berlin united in a joint protest against the German Football League (DFL).

"No to investors in the DFL!" read the huge yellow and black banner across the front of the famous "Südtribüne" (or south stand) at the start of the second half, backed up by dozens of similar messages held up across terrace, some more polite in tone than others.

"Stop the marketing madness!" was the corresponding message in red and white from the away end.

The banners were part of a coordinated nationwide protest by German football supporters against the DFL's latest plans to boost investment in the Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2 and enable German clubs to better compete internationally. Supporters fear another step in what they perceive as the over-commercialization of the game.

Particularly in terms of broadcasting rights, the Bundesliga lags well behind England's Premier League, whose current international rights deal — €6.3 billion ($6.9 billion) between 2022 and 2025 — dwarfs that of Germany's top flight, which sits at €170 million ($187 million) per year.

Just last month, Borussia Dortmund's Champions League defeat to Premier League side, Chelsea, a club which has this season spent more (€611.5 million, $672 million) than the entire Bundesliga combined (€555 million), demonstrated the financial gulf between the two leagues.

Now, under the stewardship of new supervisory board chairman Hans-Joachim Watzke and interim chief executives, Oliver Leki and Axel Hellmann, the DFL is pushing forward with its plans to sell shares in its broadcasting revenues to an investor.

DFL plans: Billions for a stake in Bundesliga broadcast revenues

According to the plans, which were first reported by German media in February but which have been being discussed for a few years by the DFL's Future Scenarios working group, the DFL intends to create a sister company which will manage and sell the league's domestic and international broadcast rights.

The sale of between 12.5% and 20% stakes in this company, to be named the DFL Media GmbH & Co KGaA, to external investors over periods of either 20, 25 or 30 years, will lead to a corresponding share of future revenues. With this, the DFL hopes to immediately raise between €1.8 billion and €3 billion, capital which it says will largely be invested in club infrastructure, such as youth academies, stadiums and digitalization. A further, smaller proportion is to be distributed directly to the clubs.

"We have to invest in our future now," said Rüdiger Fritsch, president of current Bundesliga 2 leaders, SV Darmstadt, and member of the DFL's supervisory board, in a recent interview with Kicker magazine.

"We are confronted with changing media markets, changing user behavior and rival leagues who are already investing long-term. The Premier League has already left us far behind and, if we don't do something, Spain, Italy and France will steal a march too, since they don't have a rule like 50+1 and so can make money in other ways."

50+1 rule to remain untouched

Crucially, the DFL's plans envisage leaving German football's "50+1" ownership rule untouched. Any stakes are to be sold in the league's new sister company and not in the clubs themselves, whose professional football divisions will continue to be majority controlled by the parent clubs and their members.

Advocates say the 50+1 rule helps maintain the relatively democratic and supporter-friendly nature of German football by preventing the sort of majority takeovers by oligarchs and nation states seen in England's Premier League. But critics argue that it discourages large-scale investment in German football, and that it may even contravene German or European law by artificially restricting the free market.

However, after Germany's federal competition regulater, the Bundeskartellamt, recently found the 50+1 rule to be "unproblematic" in terms of competition law, the DFL has committed to the rule in principle, with no further exemptions allowed.

Existing exemptions to the rule, namely VfL Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen, will remain but will have to fulfil certain additional requirements, such as member representation on boards and balanced accounts. TSG Hoffenheim had constituted a third exemption, but benefactor and owner Dietmar Hopp recently announced he would be relinquishing his majority voting rights.

There has been a marked silence over the controversial issue of Red Bull-backed RB Leipzig.

DFL supervisory board chairman Hans-Joachim Watzke (center) is spearheading the Bundesliga's investor planImage: Arne Dedert/dpa/picture alliance

Who are the potential investors?

And so, with 50+1 set to remain, the DFL's plans for investment in the league itself via a new sister company represent a sort of Plan B.

But if league bosses thought it would also constitute a compromise which would be acceptable to Germany's highly organized, well informed and critical fanbase, they appear to have been mistaken, with fan groups raising a range of concerns, not least of which revolve around the identities of the potential investors, all of whom come from the private equity sector.

According to German tabloid Sportbild, the DFL last week distributed a 110-page English-language information memorandum to six potential investors: CVC, EQT, KKR, Advent, Blackstone and Bridgepoint.

Of those, KKR may ring a bell to Bundesliga fans as a former minority shareholder in Hertha Berlin prior to the arrival of Lars Windhorst. The US fund also holds a 35% stake in the Axel Springer publishing house, which owns several major German newspapers.

CVC, meanwhile, founded in the USA but with a headquarters in Luxembourg, held a controlling stake in Formula One for 12 years between 2006 and 2017, with mixed results, and also has stakes in similar broadcast rights revenue deals in France's "Ligue Un" and Spain's "La Liga" – although this excludes Real Madrid and Barcelona, who are challenging the Spanish deal.

And what might an investor want in return?

Whoever enters into a partnership with the DFL, fans are concerned about what concessions could be made to an investor and what influence they would like to have within the DFL in return for their investment.

"Opening up to investors, particularly to private equity firms who are after maximum profit, risks them using their influence to maximize their returns, potentially against the interests of fans and stadium-goers," said Jan van Leeuwen, who sits on the board of Borussia Dortmund's official Fan Department, in a statement distributed to journalists at the stadium on Saturday.

In its memorandum, the DFL has already highlighted 13 "supportive measures" which could help boost the league's marketing strategy, including a new online streaming platform, virtual advertising hoardings, non-fungible fan tokens (NFTs) and further club committments abroad.

DFL supervisory board chairman Watzke recently insisted to Süddeutsche Zeitung that any investor "would have zero influence on sporting decisions such as kickoff times or anything like that."

But fans aren't convinced.

"Stop the marketing madness!" Union Berlin supporters also joined in the protestImage: Bernd Thissen/dpa/picture alliance

"In future, top fixtures could be played at 22:30 German time for the benefit of an American prime-time audience, as is already the case in Spain, or even abroad if it helps open up new revenue streams for the investor," said Claas Schneider, spokesperson for Südtribüne Dortmund, an umbrella group representing 31 BVB fan clubs, the hardcore ultra groups and around 4,000 individual supporters.

"It is also unclear how exactly the engagement of an investor is supposed to increase the competitiveness of the league," he continued. "If the distribution of the extra revenue is weighted in favor of the clubs who are already strongest, in order to help them compete in European competition, it would only serve to cement the existing unequal structures and make it even harder for smaller clubs to ever bridge the gap."

One of those smaller clubs is FC St. Pauli, whose supporters organized a protest march and demonstration against the DFL plans ahead of their recent second division game against Jahn Regensburg.

"One thing is clear: No one invests so much money in anything without something in return," fans of the Hamburg side said in a statement. "[The DFL's plans] could have far reaching consequences for professional football in Germany. Particularly clubs in the bottom half of the Bundesliga or in Bundesliga 2 will be most negatively affected. We don't want football like in England, where fans are merely decoration for investor-controlled sport. Fortunately, our club has a clear position on this."

That position was articulated by St. Pauli president Oke Göttlich, who told broadcaster NDR that his club would only consider discussing an investor "if it were absolutely clear what is to happen with the money, that it wouldn't just be unfairly distributed as it is now and wouldn't just further destroy the competition."

'The smaller the club, the more important the broadcast revenue'

Darmstadt president Rüdiger Fritsch however, also the only second division representative in the DFL's "Future Scenarios" working group, told Kicker magazine that smaller clubs like his and St. Pauli would actually benefit from an investor in the league.

"The smaller the club, the more important the broadcast revenue from the DFL for the annual budget," he said. "Investment in future infrastructure, such as 5G internet in stadiums or virtual advertising boards which can display different adverts to different foreign TV markets, isn't possible for second division clubs without additional capital. Even some first division clubs would struggle."

Rüdiger Fritsch, president of Bundesliga 2 side Darmstadt, is in favor of the DFL's plansImage: Hasan Bratic/dpa/picture alliance

Fritsch also believes that a partner for the league could even act as added protection for 50+1 at club level, thus preventing a "rat race" to attract the richest investor, and he dismissed fears that an unfair distribution of extra revenue would simply exacerbate an already unequal competition, or lead to fan-unfriendly developments.

"Let's keep the discussion objective," he pleaded. "We're only talking about minority investment, and key decisions such as kickoff times will remain in the hands of the DFL."

What are the alternatives?

During last week's so-called "Klassiker" between Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, both sets of supporters displayed coordinated banners describing the DFL's strategy for the future of the game as "a sell-out to investors" rather than "sustainable solutions."

What those alternative sustainable solutions could look like was outlined in proposals submitted to the league by fan groups back in 2020 and centered on a fairer redistribution of broadcast revenues, a revamped and more effective financial fair play, the introduction of a salary cap and even the expansion of the 50+1 rule to other European leagues.

The current DFL plans, on the other hand, "look like an attempt to generate fresh capital, whereby the protection of our football culture and mechanisms for sustainable, future-proof football play second fiddle to short-term revenue boosts," according to Conny Dietz, a Dortmund supporter who sits on the club's fan council.

What next?

With German fans confident in their ability to effect change following past victories over issues such as Monday night fixtures, the 50+1 rule, ticket prices and standing terraces, the protests are set to continue. But so too are the DFL's plans.

The six potential investors have been sounded out and individual discussions are taking place with representatives of all 36 clubs. Despite a warning from St. Pauli's Göttlich that it will "currently be very difficult" to obtain the two-thirds majority necessary to further the process, the DFL is hoping to achieve just that at an extraordinary general meeting planned for the end of April or the start of May, and to conclude the process by the end of June.

As Borussia Dortmund chief executive, Hans-Joachim Watzke will have had a good view of the banners at the stadium on Saturday and will have been left in no doubt as to what fans think of the DFL's plans.

But he appears determined to push on anyway, saying, "we already have more than 50% of the road behind us."