German soccer rules: 50+1 explained

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 the 50+1 ownership rule. takes a closer look at exactly how and why it works…

“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 50+1 rule guards against this. In short, it means that clubs – and, by extension, the fans – hold a majority of their own voting rights. Under German Football League [DFL] rules, football clubs will not be allowed to play in the Bundesliga if commercial investors have more than a 49 percent stake.

In essence, this means that private investors cannot take over clubs and potentially push through measures that prioritise profit over the wishes of supporters. The ruling simultaneously protects against reckless owners and safeguards the democratic customs of German clubs.  

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Historically, German teams were not-for-profit organisations run by members’ associations, and until 1998 private ownership of any kind was prohibited. The 50+1 rule, which was introduced that year, helps explain why debts and wages are under control and why ticket prices remain so low compared to other major leagues in Europe.

As Watzke argued, the upshot of the system is that fans are usually not taken for granted.

Backed by Red Bull, Leipzig completed a rapid ascent to qualify for the UEFA Champions League.

– © gettyimages

“The 50+1 rule does significantly more good than harm in Germany,” Watzke told SportBild, before suggesting that most prospective private investors would primarily be motivated by profits.

“Most clubs won’t get a Roman Abramovich, who in the first place wants to see Chelsea winning. Most of the investors want to earn money. And where do they get it from? The spectators.”

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 apply for 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 autoworks, 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”.

More recently there have been challenges for the 50+1 ruling. In 2009, hearing aid magnate and Hannover president Martin Kind sought to overturn it but 32 of the other 35 professional clubs voted against the proposal. Three abstained and, following the vote by clubs in the German first and second tier, DFL President Dr Reinhard Rauball expressed his satisfaction.

“The Bundesliga is remaining true to its principles and maintaining its reliance on the factors which have made a decisive contribution to the success of the professional game in Germany in recent decades: stability, continuity and proximity to fans,” he said.

That was the same year that RB Leipzig was founded, when Austrian energy drink giant Red Bull rebranded fifth-tier team Markranstädt. Leipzig then climbed through the divisions to finish as Bundesliga runners-up in 2016/2017 and qualify for the UEFA Champions League.

But while thousands of Bayern Munich’s 290,000 members were eligible to vote to re-elect Uli Hoeness as club president in 2016, for example, a mere handful – all employees of the parent company – are afforded the same privilege at Leipzig.

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.  

“Crucial in the assessment of Hoffenheim’s request was that for more than 20 years Dietmar Hopp has provided considerable financial support for both the professional as well as the amateur teams of the club,” a DFL statement read at the time.

Kind, the most recent to seek an exemption, has now backed newly-promoted Hannover for over 20 years. Having first being appointed club president in 1997, the 73-year-old became eligible to apply for special treatment in 2017 and looks set to take a controlling interest in the club.

– © gettyimages / Lars Baron

Watch: Cologne gave away 1,500 tickets to disabled and senior fans for their clash with Augsburg in 2016/17

With foreign owners pumping billions into other leagues, some other German clubs also feel that a change is required in order to stay competitive on a global level. In September 2017, even Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said he felt it should be left to each club to decide if they open the door to outside investment.

But others favour the retention of a ruling that has helped to fill stadia and create a memorable matchday experience. Watzke told SportBild that he never wanted to see German fans being “milked” for money “as is happening in England.”

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 stadia and clubs on the verge of bankruptcy, German football is in remarkable health.

Click here for a history of the Bundesliga ball.

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