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FEATURE | The 50+1 Rule – how it works in Germany & whether it would be an appropriate model for Newcastle United to follow

Apart from the highly-anticipated match-up between Julian Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim and newly promoted energy-crazed side RB Leipzig, the first matchday of the 2016/17 Bundesliga season also gave us a glimpse of hate between two commercial German football clubs.

Hoffenheim, a club propelled to the top by billionaire Dietmar Hopp’s commercialism, wanted to take back their throne as the most hated club in German football. This fixture presented a few puzzling questions for the German football association quite early on. These are two clubs that have found huge loopholes in the renowned 50+1 rule.

A rule that would perhaps be more applicable in England than in Germany where traditional values still govern the footballing sphere, a club of Newcastle United’s stature could benefit from a model such as Hoffenheim’s as opposed to that of RB Leipzig.

For someone without German football knowledge, the 50+1 ruling may appear a little complicated. In an ideal world, fans have majority ownership of the football club. However, founded in 2009, RasenBallsport (RB) Leipzig was taken over by the company Red Bull in 2014. The energy drinks manufacturer owns 99% as of 2018, the remaining 1% is owned by the association itself. To get past the 50+1 rule in Germany, formal power lies in the association which is made up of the members of RB Leipzig.

While other German clubs have many thousand members, RB Leipzig have 17. At Borussia Dortmund, it costs roughly €60 per annum to be a member, at RB Leipzig it costs €1000. This makes the 17 voting members part of an elite group, trusted by Red Bull and club officials.

They’ve found and exploited a loophole, and smartly so. However, that certainly has not made the club more accessible for the fans. RB Leipzig is the only German club where fans have close to no power at all in its dealings and actions. They act within the confines of the 50+1 rule, but have found a loophole that furthers the Red Bull brand, but sets the fans back in terms of harbouring a genuine connection with the club, with the latter being the ultimate aim of the 50+1 concept.

RB Leipzig’s model is therefore no different to the different ownership structures of the Premier League. Fans have little-to-no power and the club is governed by wealthy board members.

Borussia Dortmund and Eintracht Frankfurt are two clubs on the other side of the vast spectrum, two clubs governed by tradition and the ways of the old. 50+1 has never been a subject of discussion at these outfits and both voted for the ruling when German clubs decided on it earlier this spring. Dortmund is a club owned by the fans, and so is Eintracht Frankfurt. At least 51% of the shares are fan-owned, who possess the utmost voting power at the annual meetings.

Dortmund, a club with circa 140,000 members and Eintracht with about 50,000 are two “anti-commercial” institutions in German football, two models of virtue in a world gone wrong.

Could Germany’s way of doing things work in England? The ugly consequence of the 50+1, as often seen in Germany with Bayern leading the way season after season, seems to be a real lack of success and competition.

Borussia Dortmund and Eintracht Frankfurt are outfits who have enjoyed recent on-pitch success, this has seldom become a habit, but a mere luxury. It is difficult to build a dynasty in a league where there are clubs with insane amounts of money and appeal, a club that lures players away from interesting projects with promises of fame and fortune, in Bayern Munich.

This works in Germany, mainly due to the well-rooted idea of tradition, something that most fans in the country would agree is more important than success. So perhaps this way of doing 50+1 isn’t really the way to go for English football, a version of the game much less interested in traditional values, but much more focused on the actual meaning of the game: success, titles and wins.

However, it is also important to consider the fact that Dortmund and Frankfurt themselves are realistically not too far from Newcastle United on a footballing perspective. Both German clubs have been more successful in the last few years than the Tyneside club, but they all share the zealous religious belief in the all-powerful God that is football. Perhaps the 50+1 model could work in the North East.

Hoffenheim’s perfected version of the rule might be the most applicable. In 2015, billionaire and club fanatic Hopp became the major stakeholder of the club. He holds 96%, as of 2018. This takeover sounds hostile, but it wasn’t.

The whole takeover was up for a vote and the fans got their chance to have their say on the outcome. Most fans voted for Hopp’s takeover, as they believed him to be the perfect person to take them forward.

To comply with German regulations, the remaining four percent still represent the voting contingent, much like Leipzig, but it is much easier and cheaper to become a voting member at Hoffenheim as it costs just as much as at any other German top tier club.

Hopp’s takeover of Hoffenheim was therefore voted for and sanctioned by the fans themselves, whilst they also kept the voting rights. The Bundesliga club has 7000 members as of 2018, which is a respectable number considering the town of Hoffenheim only has 3000 inhabitants.

Hoffenheim, in a similar vein to RB Leipzig, may be loathed by German fans, but the club itself has found a loophole, the takeover itself was sanctioned by the fans and they retained the power, whilst a passionate investor took care of their fiscal business.

A clever, sublime and seemingly perfect fit for many mismanaged English clubs. Having a fan-supported majority shareholder with considerable economic power could and should be the way forward for English teams.

The key in this version of the 50+1 rule is to keep the membership fees as low as possible, for it seems imperative to keep the fans both engaged and interested in the dealings and actions of the club, whilst still having an economic power, ensuring competitiveness on the needed level.

It also minimises the risk of absolute power in the elite ranks, making it much harder for owners like Hannover’s wannabe Martin Kind or Newcastle’s Mike Ashley to takeover. It is a clever compromise between two poles of club football, perhaps the middle-way modern football so sorely required.

By Axel Falk.

 

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