Osten Deutsch Fußball™: RB Leipzig and the Bundesliga’s 50+1 Ownership Rule: Introduction to a Comparative Analysis of Corporate Ownership of Top-Tier Soccer Teams

On May 25, 1957 in Leipzig, East Germany, the Deutscher Fußball Verband der DDR (the Eastern German National Team) was handed the nation’s biggest defeat in a loss to fellow Eastern block country, Czechoslovakia. Fast forward to August 20, 2016, where RB Leipzig and former East Germany club, SG Dynamo Dresden, met in the DFB-Pokal to play a trilling match resulting in a score of 5-4 in favor of RB Leipzig. While the performance was action packed, the more trilling part of the game came when SG Dynamo Dresden fans threw a severed bull’s head, mocking the RB Leipzig club’s owners and mascot, on to the field. This act was done in protest of the club’s fast emergence into the German soccer scene and the club’s alleged manipulation of the ownership rules and regulations.

In 2009, Austrian energy drink-maker, Red Bull GmbH, purchased fifth division side SSV Markranstädt with the goal of revamping the Leipzig club into a top-flight Bundesliga team within eight years. Not only was the goal ambitious, as clubs with long histories and international cult followings such as St. Pauli or Union Berlin still linger in the second division in 2. Bundesliga, but, if successful, the new club, RasenBallsport Leipzig e.V., (“RB Leipzig”) would become the only club from located in the former East Germany to be competing in the Bundesliga.

It is not new for Red Bull GmbH to take over a soccer club with the intent on creating a presence in the domestic leagues and international competitions. With Red Bull Brasil in Brazil, RB Leipzig in Germany, Red Bull Salzburg in Austria, and New York Red Bulls in America all having various degrees of success, the Red Bull name has become associated with big investment and big ambition in international club soccer.

However, the controversy in German over RB Leipzig arises not from Red Bull GmbH’s ownership, as teams such as Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen both receive financial support from Volkswagen and Bayer Pharmaceutical respectively, but from the RB Leipzig’s break in Bundesliga “50+1 ownership model.” Currently, Bundesliga teams are regulated to require that the major ownership of Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga clubs have a majority ownerships by their fans. Specifically, the fans are required to own a majority of 50% +1 person, which is where the term 50+1 comes from.

Currently, RB Leipzig has multiple ‘fan’ share owners that are also employees of Red Bull GmbH. Critics of the team argue that this employee ownership is a manipulation of the German regulation of Bundesliga clubs. Additionally, while anyone is free to purchase a share into the club, most RB Leipzig fans are priced out of ownership as each of RB Leipzig’s share cost around €800 euros. RB Leipzig’s share price is an oddity in the Bundesliga and in stark contrast to other German teams.

To make matters more controversial, in the club’s first ever season in the Bundesliga, RB Leipzig are sitting undefeated, comfortably in 7th place with only 6 points behind league leaders Bayern Munich. In contrast, FC Schalke 04, Bundesliga veterans, who have over 112 years of history starting from the club’s founding by local coal miners, have lost every Bundesliga game this season and sit bottom of the standings in 20th place.

So this leads to the question: Is Red Bull GmbH and RB Leipzig unfairly manipulating the 50+1 regulation or are the German regulations of the Bundesliga club ownership poorly implemented and in need of updating. In the following week installments we will evaluate other soccer clubs with corporate owners and leagues with more or less restrictive regulations on fan ownership of clubs.


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