The new Bundesliga season kicks off on 18 September. One subject that never fails to spark debate in German professional football is whether the so-called 50+1 rule should be abolished - something favoured by Uli Hoeneß and others. The rule is intended to limit the influence of investors in German professional football and states that the parent club must hold the majority of its own voting rights. Dr Sebastian Björn Bauers from the Faculty of Sport Science at Leipzig University recently received his doctorate on this subject.
Dr Bauers, where do we currently stand in the 50+1 rule debate?
The Bundeskartellamt - Germany’s independent competition authority - is currently still examining whether the 50+1 rule violates German and European competition law. The company DFL (Deutsche Fußball Liga GmbH) applied to the Bundeskartellamt to have the rule reviewed. The outcome of this procedure must first be awaited before any decision can be taken at league level regarding the future of the 50+1 rule.
You and your colleague Professor Gregor Hovemann conducted research on this subject and interviewed football fans. What do they think?
In our latest survey, 90 per cent of the football fans we asked were in favour of keeping the 50+1 rule. The result was similar in our first survey, which we conducted back in 2011. This comparison suggests that people’s support for the 50+1 rule has not changed over time. We were interested in why this was the case. To this end, we conducted the first empirical survey of the arguments for and against keeping the rule from the perspective of the fans. The two most frequently cited arguments in favour of retaining the 50+1 rule were those relating to the participation of football fans and investors, specifically: ‘preservation of the possibility of co-determination by club members or fans’ and ‘prevention of external control by investors’. In addition, when comparing our survey results, it was particularly interesting to note the increasing support for the argument ‘prevention of one investor simultaneously controlling several football clubs’, which shifts the focus somewhat to the phenomenon of multi-club ownership. This result might be explained by the current links between RB Leipzig and RB Salzburg. Furthermore, the majority of respondents did not put forward arguments in favour of abolishing the 50+1 rule.
To what extent have the coronavirus restrictions - think for example of the spectator-free ‘ghost matches’ - influenced this subject?
The current situation illustrates just how important the fans are in football. Producing a football match is a team effort. It involves both the competing clubs and the fans, who contribute to the atmosphere during the match and thus to its overall appeal. ‘Ghost matches’ do away with the latter, which has a knock-on effect on that team effort. Even after the effects of the pandemic, it is still conceivable that abolishing the rule would have an adverse effect on this special relationship between clubs and fans, for example if football fans were to abandon clubs as a result of the steady advance of commercialisation and the neglect of fan interests; such examples have been seen in England, but also in Germany with the establishment of HFC Falke. In the long term, this would also risk impairing the commercial exploitation of professional football. Ultimately, we could see the current situation as a wake-up call that raises awareness of the core product and the ‘role’ of the fans.
Who benefits from the 50+1 rule and who would benefit most from it being lifted?
I would continue my previous answer and again refer to football fans, especially club members. The 50+1 rule ensures the survival of democratic structures in German professional football, giving club members the opportunity to exert influence on ‘their’ club. In contrast, abolishing the 50+1 rule would restrict the participation of association members and expand the opportunities for investors to participate by enforcing their rights of action and disposal. Regardless of whether the decision is taken to retain or abolish it, one aspect seems particularly important: the decision should be consensus-based. One way of ensuring this in the decision-making process is to apply the stakeholder approach, which is an essential part of our research. In addition to surveying football fans on the 50+1 rule, we also asked football clubs as well as current and potential investors what they thought. When comparing the empirical results, we were able to identify divergences of interest, but also some key common ground. Our next step is to develop stakeholder-oriented recommendations for regulatory measures, which DFL can use as a basis for future rules.