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Some fan groups in Germany are fervent supporters of the 50+1 ownership rule in the Bundesliga. - © Alex Grimm/Bongarts/Getty Images
Some fan groups in Germany are fervent supporters of the 50+1 ownership rule in the Bundesliga. - © Alex Grimm/Bongarts/Getty Images
bundesliga

Explaining the Bundesliga's 50+1 rule

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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 the '50+1' ownership rule.

bundesliga.com takes a closer look at what the rule is, and 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. The name of the rule refers to the need for members of a club to hold 50 percent, plus one more vote, of voting rights - i.e. a majority. In short, it means that clubs - and, by extension, the fans - have the ultimate say in how they are run, not an outside influence or investor.

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.

In essence, this means that private or commercial 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.

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.

It should be noted that clubs adapted to these changes in different ways, with member ownership taking various forms. Many of the teams we know in the Bundesliga are, in a legal sense, a limited or joint-stock company, created as subsidiaries of the club (many of which have other departments that include other sports and/or women's teams) to oversee the men's first team. Some are floated on the stock market. And clubs below the DFL-regulated Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2 also follow similar approaches, partly because it aids compliance in the case of promotion.

However, the bottom line is that the parent club - i.e. the members' association - retains majority control in some way.

Using the concrete example of Bayern Munich, the shareholders of the men's first team (FC Bayern München AG) are the members' club (FC Bayern München e.V. - 75%), Adidas (8.3%), Allianz (8.3%) and Audi (8.3%).

Things are organised differently at Dortmund. The members' club (consisting of 168,163 members as of November 2022) actually only controls 4.61% of Borussia Dortmund GmbH & Co. KGaA, which oversees the men's first team, reserves and U19s. Signal Iduna hold 5.98% of shares, Bernd Geske 8.24%, Evonik Industries 8.19% and the remaining 72.27% is floated on the stock market. However, the management company in charge of running the football club, Borussia Dortmund Geschäftsführungs-GmbH, is 100% owned by the members' club, ensuring control of matters and thus compliance with 50+1.

The 50+1 rule has allowed clubs like Borussia Dortmund to develop a special bond with its supporters. - Sebastian Widmann/Bundesliga/Bundesliga Collection via Getty

And, as Watzke - the CEO of Borussia Dortmund Geschäftsführungs-GmbH and therefore CEO of the football club - argued, the upshot of the system is that fans are usually not taken for granted.

"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 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 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”. 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.

Watch: The Bundesliga fan scene continued to thrive even during Covid, as shown by a Borussia-Park filled with cardboard cut-outs

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. And in 2017, he sought an exemption to the ruling, which was refused the following year by the DFL.

His initial proposal was also in the same year that RB Leipzig was founded, when Austrian energy drink giant Red Bull purchased the playing rights of fifth-tier team Markranstädt and rebranded the club. Leipzig then climbed through the divisions to finish as Bundesliga runners-up in 2016/17 and qualify for the UEFA Champions League.

But while thousands of Bayern's now 300,000+ members - the largest membership of any sports club in the world - are eligible to vote for Herbert Hainer as club president, for example, a mere handful - all employees of the parent company - are afforded the same right at Leipzig.

"50+1 stays!" - Banners in favour of (or against) the rule are a frequent sight around Bundesliga grounds. - LakoPress/imago/Lackovic

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.

"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.

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.

The 50+1 rule makes it difficult for individuals to take control of a Bundesliga club, although there are exceptions like Dietmar Hopp, who has invested in Hoffenheim for several decades since their time in the lower leagues. - Vladimir Rys/Bongarts/Getty Images

With foreign owners pumping billions into other leagues, some German clubs also feel that a change - not necessarily abolition of the rule - is required in order to stay competitive on a global level.

Former Bayern general manager and president Uli Hoeneß, whose forward-thinking approach over several decades allowed the Munich club to become the force they are now, has expressed concern that German clubs could be left behind European rivals financially, given laxer attitudes to ownership across the continent. He has said that it should be left up to individual clubs to decide if they open the door to outside investment, perhaps allowing so-called smaller clubs a greater chance to compete with most established names.

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."

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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."

A decade on, that statement still rings true, with talk of financial issues or Financial Fair Play contraventions non-existent in Germany, while news of economic struggles and FFP sanctions are common in other leagues around Europe.