What would happen if Bundesliga clubs scrapped '50+1' ownership rule?
Last month, ProFans, a lobby group of Bundesliga supporters and ultras warned that "a storm would gather, nationwide," if German professional football were to allow outside investors to take over.
The weakening or abolition of the existing "50+1 rule" that enshrines majority control of a club by their members would be "a declaration of war," the fans threatened.
There won't be a need to don flak jackets and helmets just yet when the 36 members of the Bundesliga umbrella organisation (DFL) will meet to discuss the highly contentious subject in two weeks' time. No decision will be forthcoming either way, as the clubs will only debate the setting up of a framework to look at possible reforms. It's a time-buying exercise, borrowed from politics: When things get too contentious, appoint a committee.
Nevertheless, the winds of change have picked up pace. On Thursday, Bayern Munich chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge renewed his support for the abolition of "50+1" in an interview with GQ magazine's German edition.
"I hope that the DFL will release clubs from this rule," the 62-year-old said. "Every club should decide for themselves whether they open their doors for investors, how they open their doors or not at all."
Rummenigge added that he expected the inclusion of "hard shoulders" to "smooth the transition" and safeguard the well-being of clubs.
The Bavarian giants are in the enviable position of having the best of both worlds. Three strategic partners -- Audi, Adidas and Allianz -- have bought a total of 25 percent of shares but the members are still in charge of the club by virtue of control over 75 percent of the voting rights. If Bayern were to sell equity beyond a total of 30 percent, they would have to seek the permission of the members first.
In an ideal world, all Bundesliga sides would be able to thrive thanks to such a benign dual-system but Bayern's sporting prowess make them an anomaly. Other, less successful and well-situated clubs have found it incredibly hard to attract minority shareholders who are happy to forego control. Hannover, who recently withdrew a legal challenge to the existing rules, have argued that investors can only be expected to open their purse strings if they can determine the use of their money.
The club based in Lower Saxony have also pointed to four exceptions which make it impossible for them to compete on a level playing field. Bayer Leverkusen, Wolfsburg and Hoffenheim are owned by companies (Bayer, Volkswagen) and a wealthy benefactor (Dietmar Hopp) respectively, while RB Leipzig's organisational structure pays lip service to the "50+1" rule but is set up in a way in which Red Bull calls the shots.
So what would happen if the DFL were to follow Rummenigge's laissez-faire approach and free clubs to determine if and how they want to accept the money of companies or sugar daddies? It's not an easy question to answer.
A majority of the 14 member-controlled sides would in all likelihood resist any takeovers, in line with the wishes of the supporters. In Germany, fans regard their clubs as inalienable community assets; the promise of better players and trophies by way of investment of a new owner doesn't sway them.
Their fear is, however, that they won't always be able to stop a sell-out. At Hannover, for example, the elected board has already rubber-stamped the sale of 51 percent of shares in the club to chairman Martin Kind and a consortium of investors. Only "50 +1" continues to stand in Kind's way.
Opening up to foreign ownership would help competitiveness and the league's international brand but the influx of money, foreign or otherwise, would then possibly lead to a Premier League-type arms race where big, traditional clubs are under huge pressure to auction their soul to the highest bidder. It's a dystopian vision for German football traditionalists, made worse by the probable rise of more franchise-type clubs in the RB Leipzig mould.
Resistance from members at blue-chip outfits could well channel investors' money into the setting up of new, turbo-charged clubs in the lower leagues who would soon threaten the status quo further up the food chain. Clubs created as marketing or political vehicles could spring up everywhere.
It might well be that the existing, slightly incoherent mish-mash in Germany's two professional leagues will ultimately be regarded as the lesser of two evils by the clubs in light of the perceived dangers of the model's liberalisation. But the pressure to generate money will not subside any time soon, and the resistance to any change will only become more pronounced accordingly. A storm is indeed brewing.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert. Follow: @honigstein