Influx of nouveau-riche clubs a worry for Bundesliga
"One for the traditionalists," TV presenter Alexander Bommes joked when VfL Wolfsburg were drawn against second-division RB Leipzig in the round of 16 of the DFB-Pokal on Wednesday night. The mention of "Wolves," who were founded in 1945 and have been regulars in the top flight since 1997, in the same breath as Red Bull-sponsored Leipzig -- a nouveau-riche, corporate club that has unashamedly begun to gate-crash the party -- was perhaps a little unfair to VfL.
But it's not a coincidence that the Volkswagen-owned side from Lower Saxony are being confronted again with their special status as one of only two company-operated teams in the Bundesliga. Bayer Leverkusen, a 100 percent subsidiary of the Bayer pharmaceutical company, are the other. A new wave of "plastic clubs" -- as rival supporters dismiss them -- is threatening to challenge not only the existing order but also the Bundesliga's organic, relatively slow-paced way of life.
Look at the Bundesliga table. As things stand, Wolfsburg (third) and TSG Hoffenheim (fourth) would squeeze into the Champions League behind Bayern Munich and Borussia Monchengladbach. Leverkusen are fifth.
Hoffenheim are another one of those widely despised anomalies in the league. They are bankrolled by billionaire Dietmar Hopp. The software magnate has taken a fifth-division village team that he used to play for as a youngster and turned them into a top-flight side in the space of eight years.
TSG average crowds of 25,000 in the modern Rhein-Neckar-Arena, but sizable numbers rarely appear for away matches. They haven't quite been able to shake off their image as a "test-tube club," an artificial construct in the middle of nowhere, propped up by financial support other sides can only dream of. "The Bundesliga doesn't really need Hoffenheim," Borussia Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke said in 2013.
Leverkusen and Wolfsburg were set up as football teams by the workers at both plants and have enjoyed continuous support from their parent companies dating back a few decades. Thus, they have been explicitly allowed to exist as corporate teams. Hoffenheim, on the other hand, have cleverly circumvented the existing rules that prohibit investors or benefactors from controlling clubs. Hopp owns only 49 percent of voting shares, in line with league regulations.
Until recently, the Bundesliga has felt that it could live with these exceptions, despite Watzke's warning that the "whole system could collapse." But fears about the increased influence of "nontraditional" clubs have been growing. It appears that RB Leipzig, which have not only energy-drink tycoon Dietrich Mateschitz but also an entire family of football teams behind them, could win promotion to the top flight at the first time of asking.
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The Alexander Zorniger-managed club from the east of the country are currently in the third spot in the 2. Bundesliga, unperturbed by a number of stadium boycotts by rival fans. Sitting atop the table are FC Ingolstadt, from a small city in Bavaria. Ingolstadt are financially supported by local automaker Audi, the biggest employer in town. Both RB Leipzig and Ingolstadt are set up in a way that they don't contravene regulations, but they certainly violate the spirit of the rules. "Do we want a championship contested by teams from DAX [German stock market] firms?" Watzke has asked.
Ironically enough, it is the Bundesliga's effective protection of traditional structures that has caused this raft of "new" clubs in the first place. In other countries, wealthy individuals and corporations eager to invest in football could have simply taken over established clubs. The existing framework in Germany doesn't allow for clubs being sold, however. A recent relaxation of the so-called "50+1" rule, which stipulates that clubs must be controlled by their members, will enable investors to fully take over the reins after 20 years of involvement. But for the likes of Red Bull and Hopp, investing vast sums of money as minority owners to transform a small club into a big one has proved to be a more expedient option.
What's more, clubs like Hoffenheim and Leipzig, who are unencumbered by history and nostalgia, have found it easier to introduce novel ideas. "Tradition is the enemy of innovation," Hopp has said. Thomas Tuchel, the most in-demand young German coach at the moment, is rumoured to be taking over Leipzig next season, which would serve as another blow for the more storied clubs.
Setting aside debates about morality and the need to safeguard the existing ecosystem for romantic notions, there are firm financial concerns that have Watzke and others looking over their shoulders nervously. The new clubs have emerged as serious competitors when it comes to buying top talent and could negatively impact the league's bottom line.
The reason for that is TV money. Clubs without a wide fan base don't generate much revenue in TV subscriptions, and their matches typically rank very low in the ratings. All 306 Bundesliga games are broadcast live by Sky in Germany, which makes it easy to isolate viewing figures for particular clubs. The league has recognised that a plethora of new and older but intrinsically small clubs, like Freiburg or Augsburg, in the top flight might pose a problem for the TV product. From 2017 onward, it's likely that the distribution of TV money will be split in terms of league position as well as fan base.
That in itself is unlikely to stop the advance of teams with deep pockets, though. Ultimately, only the more stringent financial fair play regulations from UEFA can curtail these teams. But those regulations kick in only when a team qualifies for European football, of course. Traditionalists won't like it, but the face of German football is changing. The new clubs are here to stay.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian. Twitter: @honigstein.