Buidling Dreams Together


Bundesliga Protests, TV Rights and the Fight Against Commercialisation in Football

In the midst of a title race that has Xabi Alonso’s Neverkusen in pole position and Bayern Munich – thirty-two time champions of Germany, eleven of those coming in an unending streak lasting since 2013 – scrambling to catch up as they travel to mid-table Vfl Bochum, play ceased after quarter of an hour. Tennis balls were thrown from the stands with fans repeating the disruption on fifty-four minutes too.

From the outside looking in, it may be some disgruntled Bayern supporters angry about the problems on and off the pitch concerning the German giants. Maybe Bochum are suffering issues too? Neither of these are the case, however, as similar protests have erupted throughout Germany for a number of weeks now, taking the form of tennis balls and chocolate coins being thrown, toy cars driving over pitches and even a bike lock being regimented to goal posts.

The outcries are directed at the DFL (Deutsche Fußball Liga, the governing body of the Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga) and their desire for private investment into the leagues.

What is the Private Investment?

The DFL have been planning to sell 8% of the Bundesliga television rights to private equity firms in order to increase the international reach of German footballing broadcasts. A deal is likely to be worth close to €1 billion.

In December, a match between Bochum and Union Berlin was disrupted by tennis balls and chocolate coins (Source: Bundesliga)

There’s two explicit driving forces behind this idea:

  • Increased revenue to share around Bundesliga teams, which would enable clubs to grow infrastructure, facilities etc.
  • Competing with the financial might of the other top divisions in Europe, namely La Liga and the Premier League.

It’s purported that this idea has been in the works for years and has only finally come to fruition in the last few months. In December, 24 out of 36 clubs in Germany’s top divisions voted in favour of granting the DFL rights to negotiate. Initially, a number of firms interested in striking a deal, though that has recently diminished to just one – the Luxembourg-based CVC Capital Partners.

That may be down to the recent protests and, despite the voting majority of clubs, that fans within the German game do not want such a deal. But why?

Borussia Dortmund’s ‘Yellow Wall’ is revered for its passionate fans and choreographies
Why Are Fans Against the Investment?

To some the Premier League is the best league in the world. It’s certainly the most watched and the richest – both of which going hand in hand. Despite the Bundesliga coming second in Europe to the Premier League in relation to its domestic TV rights value (£940 million to £1.5 billion), it severely lags behind in the international market, toasting to £170 million compared to the Premier League’s £1.87 billion (though the figure will likely pass £200 million next season regardless of the DFL’s plans).

Combine that with billionaire ownership Premier League clubs enjoy and sponsorship from increasingly spurious sources and you have an enormously wealthy and, for the most part, competitive sporting product. And while that some may believe all other leagues and teams are envious of the financial power and worldwide reach the Premier League commands, that seems far from reality.

Because through the riches it can be seen that integrity has been lost. The integrity that puts supporters over profits. And it’s that kind of integrity that German football fans are seeking to protect.

Fan culture is a massive part of German football. Cheap ticket prices, ardent ultras and unique club identities across the country make such an attractive place for any football supporter. And being able to drink alcohol during games of course. It’s also seen as a beacon of football fandom away from match days too, with the 50+1 rule.

VfB Stuttgart fans hold a banner proclaiming, “Non-negotiable! 50+1 remains!”
The 50+1 Rule

The 50+1 rule states that all clubs in the top two divisions must be at least 50% owned by their own members, including one more vote when decisions are made. The model means no private investors can take majority control of clubs, meaning the direction of each club essentially rests with its fans. Exceptions have been made in regards to Bayer Leverkusen and Vfl Wolfsburg, whose ties to Bayer pharmaceuticals and Volkswagen respectively pre-date the Bundesliga and so are seen as closely linked enough with the club cultures.

The 50+1 rule was introduced in 1998. Prior to that, all clubs were exclusively member and fan owned and so compliance to the rule is sacred in upholding that tradition. As CEO of Borussia Dortmund Hans-Joachim Watzke said, “The German spectator traditionally has close ties with his club. And if he gets the feeling that he’s no longer regarded as a fan but instead as a customer, we’ll have a problem.”

Other nations do not have such traditions. On the one hand that can lead to such fairy tales like the recent rise of Wrexham or Jack Walker propelling Blackburn Rovers to the Premier League title in the 1990s. Conversely, on the other hand, the plutocratic eras of Roman Abramovich, the Glazer family or state-funded entities, as well as clubs becoming woefully mismanaged and, at worst, bankrupt.

During a match against Manchester City, Bayern Munich protest against autocrat owners in English football

This has further benefits than upholding principles though. It means financial issues are far less common in Germany than other nations, with UEFA’s Financial Fair Play restrictions almost never having to be enforced, unlike the Premier League or Serie A. That sense of stability ensures that each club has its own best interests at heart and not at risk of falling under the spell of a Peter Ridsdale or a Dai Yongge.

This also means clubs can pitch affordable tickets and continuously serve for football rather than profit. As Watzke continued, “I don’t want the fans to be milked as is happening in England.”

Distrust of corporate control is therefore engrained in the German football psyche. So when the DFL went public with their dreams of external investiture, fans were not pleased.  Most protesters believe that once the 8% is sold that will make it much easier for German football to become commodified in the future. Because, to use the domino effect, it only takes one tile to fall for the rest to crumble.

Are the Protests Working?

As stated, it is unclear but the drop in interest from potential investors may have something to do with the backlash. Previously firms EQT and Blackstone were reported to be involved in bidding at the end of 2023, but have since left CVC as the frontrunner.

Pauses in play have certainly disrupted the players, as Borussia Dortmund’s Emre Can told Sky Sport: “As players, we are suffering from it. It’s not easy as it makes you lose your rhythm. Football wouldn’t be what it is without the fans. Everyone knows that. That’s why I hope it comes to an end soon.”

In the past the DFL has listened to similar protests, having decided to scrap Monday night fixtures because of complaints over the unsociable logistics for travelling support. Though there may be similar discontent rumbling through fanbases in England, for instance, no protests are ever significant enough to implement those kinds of concessions. In fact, one of the stipulations in the vote back in December was the assurance that no companies would have control over schedules and kick-off times.

Toy cars disrupt a 2.Bundesliga match between Hansa Rostock and Hamburg SV (Source: Tivibu Spor)

The DFL certainly has a tricky balance to strike in the coming years – striving for ambition and wanting its clubs to compete on and off the pitch with the other of Europe’s top five leagues and keeping the fan-first culture that German football prides itself on.

Bayern Munich lost against Bochum 3-2. It was a thrilling encounter that many millions of fans within Germany would have enjoyed and certainly had the spectacle to capture worldwide audiences too. The DFL’s decision will be made near the end of March. Only time will tell whether games resembling such drama will have a more international staging in coming seasons.

Written by

I write about football and I support Tottenham Hotspur.