Hannover Martin Kind challenge Bundesliga 50 plus 1 rule
On Saturday afternoon, the noise will be back at the HDI-Arena. After weeks of offering only a token level of support for their own team, Hannover 96 ultra groups have agreed to once again cheer on the players for the home game against SC Freiburg.
The self-imposed silence had been the fans’ way of protesting the takeover bid of 96 chairman Martin Kind. But the owner of a hearing aid firm and long-time benefactor of the Lower Saxony club put his application to take formal control of the side on hold on Tuesday, in recognition of the fact that the league (DFL) were destined to turn him down. According to reports, the DFL were poised to find that his level of investment over the course of the past 20 years had not been significant enough to fulfil the exceptional requirements for an outright takeover.
In response to Kind’s demurral, the 96 ultras — who are fundamentally opposed to the idea that Kind or anyone else might one day legally own the club that is, like the majority of Bundesliga clubs, democratically controlled by its members — will put their apathy on hold, too.
But the truce might not last for long. Kind’s retreat is only of the tactical kind. By withdrawing his doomed bid and forsaking the inevitable legal challenge that would have followed the DFL’s negative ruling, the 96 boss managed to extract a promise from the DFL “to put the wording and the implementation” of the existing ownership rules “under scrutiny in the coming months.” The existing regulatory framework might yet change to make it easier for investors to wrest power in the future.
This controversy goes to the heart of the Bundesliga’s core strength and weakness. With the exception of two historic exceptions — Bayer 04 Leverkusen and VfL Wolfsburg were both set up as workers’ clubs and are now owned by their parent companies — and two sides who have skilfully circumvented the so-called “50+1” rule that stipulates majority control by the members (TSG Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig), the sides in the two professional leagues are run by officials who have to stand for election, not owners or investors. It’s a system that ensures financial prudence, transparency and accountability, as well as strong emotional ties between the club and its members.
Clubs are free to sell minority stakes but in practice, the 50+1 rule has acted as a barrier to outside investment and the sort of accelerated growth that clubs with wealthy owners have enjoyed in other leagues. The upshot is a stable ecosystem bordering on static. Bayern’s hegemony cannot be challenged by anyone anytime soon, and the clubs behind them (Schalke, Dortmund) are in turn more or less bulletproof from a sustained challenge from the lesser lights.
In addition to this structural lack of competitiveness, there’s another, more pressing problem: the Bundesliga’s principled approach increasingly puts them at a disadvantage relative to clubs elsewhere in Europe that boast deeper, investor-lined pockets. Every high-profile departure from the league puts German football’s Sonderweg (“special path”) into sharper relief, especially since Bayern are the only club wealthy enough to fend off wealthy suitors eyeing up their star players. Their relative advantage — a result of decades of sporting and financial dominance — becomes even bigger, domestically.
The DFL are naturally nervous by the prospect of the Bavarians winning their sixth consecutive championship more or less unopposed. Who’s to say they won’t win the next six too? Domestic ratings and ticket sales have not yet been affected adversely but Bayern’s stranglehold cannot be good for business in the long run. Opening the doors to external cash would do much to redress the balance but as much as bosses at league might privately welcome the sort of deep-pocketed owner who could convince Neymar that playing for Hertha Berlin would be a really exciting “project,” they’re ham-strung by the prevailing mood of conservatism among its 36 member clubs.
By and large, officials as well as ordinary supporters remain ideologically hostile to takeovers. They’d rather be noncompetitive than sacrifice their club’s democratic set-up at the altar of “the god of money,” as Freiburg coach Christian Streich would have it.
Right now, there’s no significant support to water down 50+1 restrictions, which is why the DFL’s promise to Kind to weigh up reforms can be seen as merely tactical, too. Nothing is going to change in a hurry because not enough people want it to. For Kind — and all those who believe that the existing framework makes it impossible to change the status quo — only a firm legal challenge carries a realistic chance of bringing about a revolution. Merely playing for time will not be a viable strategy for the DFL.
Chances are that the outcome will be a compromise designed to both satisfy Kind’s demands as well that of the league on whole: a bespoke deal, another exception to the rule. Fudging the issue in such a fashion will frustrate both opponents as well as supporters of a more investor-friendly regime, but there is probably no another result that all sides can live with at the moment. As long as most German fans prefer exerting control over being made into the next Manchester City by a friendly sheikh, nothing will change.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC’s German football expert. Follow: @honigstein