Football Fandom and the 50+1 rule in Germany
Germany’s fan culture and fan opposition sometimes appear to be considered the Holy Grail of football fandom. Aside from Bayern’s subscription to the top spot, the Bundesliga viewers tend to see exciting football that is always good for a surprise - and they get to do so from a safe standing terrace whilst holding a Bratwurst in one hand and a beer in the other. Perhaps most importantly though, these rights are fervently advocated for by a political and outspoken culture of active, heavily invested match-going fans. Comparing German fan culture to his own, one English participant in my research remarked: “They’ve got the power in Germany!”
Do German fans really have a hold over the capitalist forces that influence football though or is that a mere Utopia?
The main difference between German football and the other major leagues in Europe is the 50+1 rule. This clause in the league’s regulations states that every club needs to hold a majority of their voting rights. This limits the influence of external investors. Paired with a membership model that usually enables fans to become voting members of their clubs, this should make for a more fan-friendly environment than elsewhere.
In some instances, this rule has indeed proven useful. In 2011, a group calling themselves the Initiative Borussia spearheaded by former Mönchengladbach player Stefan Effenberg wanted a change in the Borussia Mönchengladbach leadership. The fans strongly opposed the move, organising a protest march and eventually voting against the motion at the AGM. It is noteworthy though that this is a somewhat unusual example. In this case fans confirmed the club leadership rather than opposing it.
For the most part, fan opposition is riddled with frustration and setbacks. The story of the Hannover 96 fans is a perfect example: The ultras and other heavily invested and engaged fan groups have spent the better part of the last decade at war with 96 president Martin Kind until he was finally ousted by the voting members of the club. The main controversy around Kind was his outspoken opposition to the 50+1 rule, which he believes needs to be abolished to ensure German clubs can remain competitive in the European market.
The German fans have celebrated other small wins, with the most notable being the discontinuation of the newly introduced Monday evening fixtures in the Bundesliga. However, even with Kind loosing visibility and traction, the topic has still not disappeared. As of late, it was Bayern president Herbert Hainer, who proclaimed that the Coronavirus crisis and resulting loss of earnings require a renewed discussion of the 50+1 rule. The financial plight of Schalke 04 is perhaps the most prominent example of a club that has been hit by the financial losses, although it should be stressed that the club already struggled before the pandemic. 50+1 obviously only protects clubs from investors that try to pull a Hicks and Gillett but not from bad internal management.
50+1 once again being the focal point of the public debate highlights the perpetual grind that the active and vocal parts of German fan culture find themselves in. German fans have some power – but it is limited and comes at a price. Finding various strategies to oppose Kind over the years has caused a rift among the 96 fans. Something similar happened at Borussia Mönchengladbach after fans disagreed over whether they should protest a derby against arch-rivals Cologne to take a stance against the governing bodies regulating the sport. For many of these fans football is more than a hobby and it is not always as enjoyable as it should be. It’s a labour of love.
For now, 50+1 remains and the Covid-19 pandemic will not change this. This has been confirmed by DFB treasurer Stephan Osnabrügge, who clearly asserted that the regulation is “not up for negotiation.” However, it only seems a matter of time before the next big fan initiative is needed. Dr Anni Pekie recently finished her PhD on football fandom, citizenship and community in England and Germany at Loughborough University.