Why RB Leipzig are sending shockwaves through German football
(Guardian Web Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Only 30 fans had made the 500km journey from Burghausen in deepest Bavaria, but they had rehearsed their own choreography. Just before kick-off, supporters of the bottom-placed club in the German third division held up pieces of cardboard that spelled out 50+1 muss bleiben ("50+1 must stay"), and then, after they'd flipped them over: Red Bull vertreiben ("Red Bull go away").
The 7,000 home fans could only muster a few half-hearted boos in response. Increasingly, they are used to this kind of reception: their club, RB Leipzig, is fast on the way to becoming the most controversial club in the country. To their supporters, they are a rare beacon of hope in the bleak landscape of East German football. But their opponents fear the team's success could unravel the foundation of the Bundesliga's recent successes.
RB Leipzig used to be a fifth-division team called SSV Markranstädt that not many had heard of even in Saxony – until 2009, when the Austrian energy drink manufacturer Red Bull bought the club's license and changed the team's name, crest and kit.
In 2010 RB moved to the 44,300 seater stadium in the centre of Leipzig, which had been built for the 2006 World Cup but wasn't in regular use: Lokomotive Leipzig, the successor of the club who won the very first title in German football in 1903, are stuck in the third division, while local rivals Sachsen Leipzig were dissolved in 2011.
Two years later, the former Schalke coach, Ralf Rangnick, was installed as sporting director and was handed a transfer kitty of €100m. RB Leipzig has been gradually climbing up the leagues since. They are currently second in the third division and primed for promotion.
In a rare interview in 2011, Dietrich Mateschitz, the notoriously media-shy owner of Red Bull, said: "We are developing RB Leipzig with the aim of playing in the Bundesliga in three to five years. We also want to get into the Champions League and be successful there, which is something you can only achieve with a club that plays in one of the top leagues."
Given Red Bull's financial acumen – their annual turnover exceeded the €5 billion mark for the first time last year, a third of which they are expected to invest back into marketing – that kind of statement should have touched a few nerves not just in Burghausen, but also in Munich and Dortmund.
But Germans fans don't just worry that RB Leipzig could compete with their teams for the league title in 2020. They fear that the rise of this club could undermine the very structures that have given German club football such a good name in recent years.
The so-called "50+1" rule in the statutes of the German league association (DFL) guarantees that no investor can gain majority voting rights in club registered as a stock company, thus giving members a crucial veto over issues such a ticket prices.
RB Leipzig doesn't break the letter of the 50+1 rule – it does have a membership scheme, and it's not registered as a stock company anyway. But it does break the spirit: becoming an RB Leipzig member will set you back €800 a year, on top of a €100 first-time registration fee (for comparison, being a member of Bayern Munich costs €60 per season). On top of that, RB Leipzig reserve the right to reject any application without justification.
As a result, more than four years into the club history, RB Leipzig only has 11 members – most of them employees of Red Bull (Bayern, for comparison, has 224,000). As the journalist Christoph Biermann wrote in a recent edition of 11 Freunde magazine: "It's hard to imagine a more blatant way in which RB Leipzig could break the 50+1 rule."
Some fans dismiss such complaints as hypocrisy. They point out that other Bundesliga clubs already break the 50+1 rule, such as "company clubs" Leverkusen and Wolfsburg, or Hoffenheim, where billionaire Dietmar Hopp is said to act as a de facto owner without holding an official function. "RB doesn't break with the principles of modern football, it merely exaggerates some of its principles", said Matthias Kiessling, who writes a perceptive blog about the club.
A self-described "tactics geek and pragmatist", Kiessling argues that Red Bull are offering a more permanent kind of investment than anything Saxony has seen since the fall of the wall. Fans of more traditional clubs in the region may express their disgust with the "plastic club", but in private they'll be proud to see an Eastern German team put the frighteners on the traditional clubs from the west.
The much-lauded membership system, Kiessling reckons, only exists pro forma anyway, and workers' participation takes place via different channels now. "If you're a fan and you're not happy with the club hitching up ticket prices, you raise your voice on social media these days, not in the members' meetings."
Yet if you look more closely at how RB Leipzig is run, it's hard not to conclude that the club takes the commercialisation of football to a new level – not just in Germany, but Europe-wide. Other German clubs may be propped up by big business, but there is usually a geographical link between the companies and the region where the club is based: Volkswagen's offices are in Wolfsburg, software giant SAP is based in the next town down the road from Hoffenheim. Red Bull are based in Fischl, Austria, and owner Mateschitz has yet to attend a Leipzig match in person.
In the past, investors used to focus on propping up one club, but RB Leipzig is part of a global portfolio with clubs in Salzburg, New York, São Paulo and Sogakope, Ghana, all playing in the same red-and-white kit. (Rangnick acts as sporting director for both Salzburg and Leipzig, and one wonders what will happen when two Red Bull clubs face each other in the Champions League).
When Red Bull bought SSV Markranstädt in 2009, their bid to rename the club "Red Bull Leipzig" was turned down by the league – but Rasenballsport Leipzig, meaning "lawn ball sports", was waved through. In their merchandising, the club refer to themselves as Die roten Bullen, so that even the team's nickname already advertises the product. It's as if Wolfsburg were known as "The Beetles".
In brand management speak, this is known as "content marketing": rather than just pay to have their logo on a BMX cyclists' helmet, Red Bull organise the race. Rather than just sponsor Felix Baumgartner's parachute, they organise his spectacular skydive from space. Rather than sponsor a successful team, they help a team climb from the lower leagues into the Champions League and become part of the story.
Up until now, the league association has largely turned a blind eye to developments in Leipzig. But there are growing signs that other clubs could try to block the club's licence if they get promoted at the end of the season.
Bernd-Georg Spies, vice-president of FC St Pauli, one of Leipzig's potential opponents next season, told the Guardian: "When a new club is promoted from the third division, it's only right that the German football league association examines closely whether that club complies with the letter and spirit of its jurisdiction. St Pauli would encourage the football league association to look closely at clubs who actively hinder their fans from becoming members with a right to vote."
RB Leipzig have until mid-March to hand in their licence application. Should the league association reject it, or tighten the 50+1 rule altogether, the soft-drink giant could take the matter to court. Either way, the fundamental values of German football will be put to the test.
(c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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