In the first of a running feature on Red Bull’s involvement in German football, I analyse the controversial journey of RB Leipzig so far and see why their world-famous owners are frequently making the headlines
There’s an elephant in the room the top German teams go to dine. Not yet permitted to sit alongside the likes of Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund to share the riches and rewards on offer, this elephant is lurking in the shadows and biding his time, patiently waiting until he can be ignored no longer.
Rasen Ballsport Leipzig are a club destined for big things. After earning three promotions in the last five years they are now targeting a coveted place in the Bundesliga.
The way this success story has unfolded demands glancing concerns from the Bundesliga, even though a club the status of RB Leipzig would not normally warrant such attention. The status quo is under threat and the fan friendly structure moulded within the upper echelons of German football is looking decidedly unstable.
Situated in East German state Saxony’s largest city, RB Leipzig were little known lower league outfit SSV Markranstädt five years ago. Now they are the latest promotional vehicle for worldwide energy drinks brand Red Bull, who bolstered their diverse sporting portfolio when they acquired the club in 2009.
Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz began building his global football empire nine years ago and has been buying or forming teams as far and wide as Austria, USA, Brazil and Ghana ever since. The Red Bull brand is nailed to the door on arrival and the cheque book is immediately primed for use. It’s an ominous symbol of the ever-increasing commercialisation of the game and part of Mateschitz’ plan to capitalise on football’s truly global reach.
This project has not been without its challenges, with Red Bull encountering fan protests, division amongst supporters and, in the case of SV Austria Salzburg, the formation of a breakaway club. An understandable reaction considering the company’s attitude towards Salzburg’s history and tradition. Changing the team colours and transforming them from the inside out, Mateschitz went so far as to proclaim they had no history prior to Red Bull’s involvement. Not the best way to make friends.
There have been no such statements in Germany but Red Bull’s acquisition of a club in one of the world’s biggest footballing nations has still caused quite a stir. Going against the staunch principals the DFL (German Football League) has fought hard to build, fans in the country share this sentiment with the term ‘plastic clubs’ now prevalent.
In many respects, the rest of Europe casts a jealous gaze at Germany as the country that got modern football right. Whatever you might think of the continuing domination of Bayern Munich, the DFL has developed a product that places the fans – the most important aspect of the sport despite what the Premier League may have you wondering – at the epicentre of everything.
Affordable ticket prices and packed stadiums are underpinned by a crucial feature of the German game – regulated fan ownership of every club. It’s the blueprint of a successful and sustainable league that has arguably had a significant knock on effect on the national team. Aside from the Bavarian juggernaut tearing through all in its wake, it is a great time to be a football fan in Germany.
The key to attracting supporters and creating a stadium atmosphere all fans crave is affordability, and a close monitoring of ticket prices goes hand in hand with the intentions of the 50+1 Rule. In place to regulate ownership it ensures the non-profit arm of the club maintains a majority stake in the club thus preventing any single entity taking full control.
Supporters can become members for a small fee and in return become part of the majority shareholders in charge of the club, giving them a platform to have their say via board representation.
It’s an exciting model, placing fans at the centre of the decision-making process by enabling them to actively communicate their feelings towards plans for the club and, when needed, vote against developments that are not within the best interests of supporters.
The 50+1 Rule does have critical flaws though, highlighted perfectly by Red Bull’s foray into Germany. The rule restricted certain elements of the purchase of SSV Markranstädt, but it couldn’t entirely prevent it.
The main intention of 50+1 was navigated with consummate ease. Members retain a majority ownership but there are only 11 of them. In contrast, Dortmund and Bayern have over 100,000 and 200,000 members respectively, and charge around €100 to become one. RB Leipzig not only offer membership costing over eight times that, they can reject membership applications without providing a reason.
This refusal of new members is within the rules however, and Red Bull have taken advantage magnificently. With the 11 members all being employees of the company, by maintaining a majority stake in the club this giant loophole allows Red Bull to do as they please.
To circumvent the rule that forbids a sponsor’s title to be used within a club’s name they simply incorporated the RB initials excluding any direct reference to Red Bull. Clever or just downright cheeky, Rasen Ballsport Leipzig translates to Leipzig Lawn Ball Sports, which was surely the most obvious way they came up with to shoehorn RB into the name. Their nickname was also changed to ‘The Red Bulls’ to further enhance the presence of the brand.
Criticism has to be levelled at the 50+1 Rule for the ease in which it can be worked around. This exploitation has enabled Red Bull to break what looks like nothing more than a gentleman’s agreement between clubs in Germany. What’s happening at RB Leipzig flies in the face of the spirit of the DFL’s vision, but no rules have been broken.
It remains to be seen whether promotion is imminent, but possessing a budget that far outweighs their rivals in 2.Bundesliga means it won’t be long before RB Leipzig are rubbing shoulders with the established clubs in Germany.
Voices of discontent can already be heard and resistance to what’s going on at the Red Bull Arena is bubbling to the surface.
Supporters of rival second tier clubs are in the midst of ‘Nein zu RB’, a protest campaign against Red Bull’s intentions to use RB Leipzig as a marketing tool. It’s gaining traction with supporters’ now regularly displaying anti-Red Bull banners during matches. Expect these protests to multiply in both intensity and frequency should RB Leipzig make it to the Bundesliga.
Bayern Munich chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge has publicly expressed his feelings on RB Leipzig’s business model, questioning the DFL’s decision to grant them a license. If a man the stature of Rummenigge is paying attention, the glancing concerns being aimed in Red Bull’s direction are only going to increase.
Financial power aside, having a worldwide network of affiliated teams to assist with the movement of players puts RB Leipzig in a strong position for an assault on the Bundesliga.
Wages and transfer fees will not be an obstacle to success, nor will Red Bull, through sheer indifference, be limited by those they upset along the way. The disruption will have an effect as the long line of protesters and naysayers are unlikely to go quietly, but how problematic this becomes remains to be seen.
To join the giants of the German game at the table RB Leipzig may just need both of those wings a certain energy drink claims to give you. Will anyone be able to clip those wings on the way to the top?
***This post originally appeared on the blog @boxtoboxfooty. Please check it out over at http://www.boxtoboxfootball.net***