The 50+1 Rule: How German Football Puts Fans First

Football in Germany is popular for many reasons: top-quality play, the highest average attendances in world football, low ticket prices and a great fan culture. A major contributing factor in this is what's called the '50+1' ownership rule.

The 50+1 Rule: How German Football Puts Fans First
BayArena - Bayer Leverkusen

I. Introduction

Football in Germany is popular for many reasons: top-quality play, the highest average attendances in world football, low ticket prices and a great fan culture. A major contributing factor in this is what's called the '50+1' ownership rule. The 50+1 rule is a unique and important aspect of German football, which sets it apart from many other leagues in the world. The rule mandates that football clubs in Germany must be owned by their members, rather than by outside investors or corporations. This means that fans have a significant say in the direction of their club, and ensures that the club is focused on the best interests of its supporters. In this article, we will explore the history and significance of the 50+1 rule in German football.

II. The Importance of Fan Ownership in German Football

"The German spectator traditionally has close ties with his club," Borussia Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke said in 2016. "And if he gets the feeling that he's no longer regarded as a fan but instead as a customer, we'll have a problem."

The culture of fan ownership in German football has helped create a sense of community and togetherness. Fans are actively involved in the running of the club and have a say in the club's decision-making processes. The 50+1 rule, which allows fans to hold a majority stake in their club, has played a significant role in ensuring that fans are not just customers, but active participants in the club's direction.

The passion and dedication of German football fans are also reflected in the matchday experience. The atmosphere in German stadiums is widely regarded as some of the best in the world, with fans creating a lively and colorful environment that adds to the spectacle of the game. The relationship between fans and the club is a crucial aspect of German football culture and sets it apart from many other leagues around the world.

One of the main benefits of fan ownership in German football is that it keeps the focus on the long-term interests of the club rather than short-term financial gains. The fans who own the majority of the club are usually more interested in the club's success on the pitch than in maximizing profits. This means that they are less likely to make decisions that could harm the club's long-term prospects, such as selling key players or taking on too much debt.

Fan ownership can help to ensure that the club remains rooted in its local community. Because the fans are the owners, they are more likely to be invested in the club's relationship with the community. This can lead to greater efforts to involve local people in the club's activities, and to use the club's resources for the benefit of the community as a whole. This can help to build a strong sense of pride and identity in the club, and can help to strengthen the bonds between the club and its fans.

Despite these potential challenges, the 50+1 rule is widely regarded as a key component of German football culture. This has helped to create a stable and competitive football landscape in Germany, with clubs like Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, or Eintracht Frankfurt all thriving under the 50+1 rule.

III. The 50+1 Rule in Practice

The 50+1 rule gives German football fans the majority of control over their clubs by mandating that clubs must retain 50% plus one share of voting rights in the hands of their members. This means that no individual or corporate entity can take over a club outright without the support of the fans. While the rule has been in place since 1998, it has become increasingly important in recent years, as many European clubs have been bought by foreign investors, leading to concerns about the erosion of traditional club values and fan culture.

Under German Football League (DFL) rules, football clubs will not be allowed to play in the Bundesliga (or second division) if outside investors have the greatest say. The 50+1 rule has been invoked on numerous occasions to prevent foreign investors from taking over German clubs. For example, in 2011, the rule was used to stop the attempted takeover of TSV 1860 Munich by Jordanian investor Hasan Abdullah Ismaik. Similarly, in 2015, the rule prevented Red Bull from acquiring more than 49% of RB Leipzig, a club that was created as a marketing tool for the energy drink brand. However, there have been cases where the rule has been bypassed or ignored. For example, in 2018, Martin Kind, the owner of Bundesliga club Hannover 96, applied for an exemption to the rule, citing his long-standing association with the club. While the exemption was initially granted, it was later overturned by the German Football League, which argued that Kind had not provided sufficient evidence of his long-term commitment to the club.

Another exception was agreed upon in December 2014, when software billionaire Dietmar Hopp was given the green light to take majority control of Hoffenheim after investing consistently over two decades in the club he once played for as a boy. However, in early 2023, it was reported that Hopp was preparing to return his majority voting rights to TSG 1899 Hoffenheim Fußball-Spielbetriebs GmbH, granting members an overall say in the running of the club. This would return the club to compliance with 50+1, although he would still retain his position as majority shareholder. It shows both the power of fans and also that clubs can change their structure to comply.

Bayer Leverkusen and Wolfsburg are two special cases in the Bundesliga, based on the fact that investors who have had an interest in a club for more than 20 years can be granted an exemption from the 50+1 rule. Leverkusen was founded in 1904 by employees of German pharmaceutical company Bayer, which was based in the city.

Affiliated with the local auto works, meanwhile, VfL Wolfsburg was founded in 1945, just seven years after the city itself was created to house Volkswagen workers busy assembling the famous Beetle or “people’s car”. Those two clubs have always been owned by the respective companies, long before their arrivals in the Bundesliga, and are therefore exempt - not that all fan groups agree with that rule.

Despite the success of the 50+1 rule in protecting fan ownership, it has faced criticism from some quarters. Some have argued that the rule stifles investment in German football and makes it difficult for clubs to compete with wealthy foreign clubs. Others have pointed out that the rule is not absolute, and that there are ways for investors to gain control of clubs without technically violating the rule. In recent years, there have been calls for the rule to be amended or scrapped altogether. For example, in 2018, the then-CEO of Bayern Munich, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, called for the rule to be relaxed to allow clubs to sell more shares to investors. However, these calls have been met with resistance from fans and many within the German football establishment, who see the rule as a cornerstone of German football culture and a way to protect clubs from the excesses of foreign investment.

IV. The Contrast with Other Football Leagues

The 50+1 rule is unique to German football, and ownership structures in other countries vary widely. In England, for example, most clubs are owned by individuals or groups of investors, and only a handful of clubs are owned by supporters. The same is true in Spain and Italy, where clubs are often owned by wealthy individuals or corporations. In France, a hybrid system is in place where clubs are typically owned by a single individual or company, but a minority share is reserved for supporters.

While the 50+1 rule has been successful in Germany, it may be more difficult to implement in other countries. In some countries, clubs are owned by powerful individuals or corporations who may be resistant to change. Additionally, the legal and regulatory frameworks in different countries may make it difficult to implement the rule. For example, in the United States, where most professional sports leagues operate as franchises, it may be difficult to implement the 50+1 rule. Nonetheless, some clubs in other countries have already taken steps towards fan ownership, and it is possible that the success of the 50+1 rule in Germany may inspire others to follow suit.

Praise for the rule hasn't just come from within Germany, though. At the opening of the 41st DFB Congress in 2013, former UEFA president Michel Platini singled out the Bundesliga model as a golden standard: "While the rest of Europe has boring leagues, half-empty stadiums and clubs on the verge of bankruptcy, German football is in remarkable health."

V. The Future of the 50+1 Rule

The 50+1 rule has faced challenges in recent years, particularly from some of the larger clubs in the Bundesliga who argue that it hinders their ability to compete on a global scale. There have been proposals to amend the rule to allow for greater outside investment, but these have been met with resistance from supporters' groups who fear that this would lead to a loss of control and identity for their clubs.

As football becomes increasingly globalized and commercialized, there is a concern that the 50+1 rule may become more difficult to maintain. Clubs may be tempted to seek out wealthy investors from abroad in order to compete with the financial powerhouses of other leagues such as the English Premier League or La Liga. However, it is important to note that the rule has helped to maintain the competitiveness of the Bundesliga, which has traditionally been one of the more balanced leagues in Europe. The Bundesliga's emphasis on fan ownership and affordable ticket prices has helped to create a unique and vibrant football culture that is the envy of many other countries.

As football continues to evolve, it is important to remember the values that have made the sport so beloved around the world. The 50+1 rule in German football has been a crucial factor in promoting fan ownership and ensuring that clubs prioritize the interests of their supporters. Despite criticisms and potential challenges, the rule has been largely successful in maintaining this important aspect of German football culture.

While there is no denying that the rule has faced challenges and criticisms, it is important to consider the alternative. Without fan ownership, football clubs may become purely commercial enterprises that prioritize profit over the interests of supporters. This could result in a loss of the unique cultural identity that makes football such an important part of many communities. Looking to the future, it will be important to preserve the 50+1 rule and continue to promote fan ownership in German football. While potential changes to the rule may be necessary, it is crucial that any modifications do not compromise the rule's fundamental purpose. As football continues to globalize and commercialize, it is vital that fan ownership remains a central part of the sport, and that the interests of supporters are not forgotten in the pursuit of profit.