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Fan-Owned Clubs Can Help Democratize Football

The European Super League fiasco has sparked a heated debate about money in football, with many pointing to Germany’s fan-owned clubs as an alternative. Fan ownership is an important step — but it’ll only work if fans are organized and thinking politically.

Hwang Hee-Chan of Leipzig vies with Florian Kainz of Cologne during a German Bundesliga match in Cologne, Germany, 2021. (Str / Xinhua via Getty)

Apparently discontented with their exorbitant revenues and grossly outsized influence, on Sunday twelve of Europe’s biggest football clubs tweeted out their plans to form a breakaway European Super League (ESL). The plan seems to have failed already — with near-unanimous opposition soon forcing them to back down. Yet, more than just a humorous anecdote about incompetent billionaires’ megalomania, this experience ought to serve as a call to arms.

Rejection from fans, players, coaches, rival teams, domestic leagues, and international governing bodies like FIFA and UEFA — coupled with the ESL members’ lack of an actual plan — have staved off this attempt to submit football to further commercial domination. Even by European soccer standards, the ESL move was a more brazen cash grab than usual. And yet, it’s clear that a return to the unjust status quo isn’t an option, either.

As the football world contemplates potential solutions, a wave of envious gazes have been cast toward Germany, which is frequently seen as an outlier for its more democratic fan ownership model. Yet, what those pining for Germany’s fan-owned footy often miss is that having the right club ownership structures doesn’t automatically create a progressive sporting paradise.

Fan ownership is a key element in this equation; but its continued existence depends on constant mobilization, and German resistance to the ESL and commercialization in general is rooted in decades of fan activism. This has helped create an understanding of football culture as rooted in democratic participation, often in direct antagonism to Germany’s biggest clubs and league. If we are to be saved from the commercialization of the sport we love it won’t be through different ownership models alone — it must come from active struggle and participation from fans.

50+1 and the German Model

Fans have been jealous of the German game long before the ESL fiasco. Though not immune to the commercialization which is today so rampant, Germany’s version of the sport is at least a vaguely recognizable relative of what was once the people’s game. Prior to the pandemic, the Bundesliga was the best-attended league in the world, tickets and concessions remain affordable for the masses, and games kick off at times amenable to match-going fans.

Germany’s full, raucous stadiums are typically ascribed to the country’s fan-ownership mechanism, called the 50+1 rule. The rule decrees that at least 50 percent plus one share of clubs must be owned by their members, the fans. This means that clubs are structurally beholden to their supporters, unlike most teams in Europe’s biggest leagues. Changes at the club and league level that fans don’t approve of are inherently difficult to pass.

And while this is an important factor, giving all credit to German ownership structures papers over its flaws and misses the broader point: German soccer is closer to the grassroots because its supporters understand their relationship to their teams as a democratic, participatory one that demands accountability at all costs, not because German football bureaucracy has strict clauses on who can own a club.

FC St Pauli players celebrate after scoring during a Bundesliga match in Hamburg, Germany, 2020. (Cathrin Mueller / Getty Images)

Unfortunately, there’s all too much evidence that fan ownership doesn’t automatically transform a soccer club into a bastion of anti-capitalism. Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, driving forces behind the ESL gambit and two of the most commercialized clubs in the world, are both fan-owned, with supporters electing club presidents every four years. And one need not be an expert in German soccer to know that for all its good aspects, the 50+1 rule is laden with loopholes.

Take Germany’s most loathed team, Red Bull–owned RB Leipzig. Not allowed to name a club after corporate ownership? No problem, the RB technically stands for RasenBallsport, which translates to “lawn ball games” and is as awkward in German as it sounds in English. 50+1 dictates member ownership? Great! RB have a whopping twenty-one voting members, all of whom happen to be Red Bull employees. The Bundesliga’s next smallest club has more than ten thousand members.

Dietmar Hopp, billionaire founder of software firm SAP and another disdained figure in German football, owns 96 percent of Hoffenheim. His purchase of a majority stake in the club was allowed as an exemption to the 50+1 rule because he had spent twenty years investing in the team. Martin Kind’s  failed attempt to take over Hannover 96 on similar grounds was rejected, highlighting the often-arbitrary interpretation of exemptions to the rule.

And while most German clubs adhere to the letter of 50+1, 49.9 percent of clubs tend to be spun off into corporate entities that look no different than modern soccer operations anywhere else in the world. Current Champions League holders Bayern Munich may be fan-owned, but they still have to be competitive within the global soccer framework. Like other big teams, Bayern will splash 80 million euros on one player and rake in cash from nasty regimes bent on sports-washing.

Now a member of UEFA’s Executive Committee, Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge can reject the ESL and call for “all clubs in Europe to work in solidarity” — but he still supports the UEFA Champions League reforms that are essentially a watered down version of the ESL’s attempt to guarantee qualification for the big clubs. The same Champions League reforms that so many German fans, including Bayern supporters, oppose. Dortmund, meanwhile, are the only publicly traded sports team in Germany. Not exactly the people’s game.

Fans at War

If the structures of German football alone aren’t a model for countering commercialization, they help highlight just what it is that keeps the sport relatively grounded: an engaged, antagonistic segment of fans that understand themselves as participants and stakeholders, not consumers.

Sure, German stadiums might be known for impressive tifo displays and full-throated support for their clubs, but fans standing behind their team is never at the expense of the principles of fan power. Hardcore supporters and ultras in Germany are essentially in constant conflict against structures and actors they view as threatening their stake in the game. And it is this, not any lone set of rules or regulations, that can provide lessons for the rest of us in countering proposals like the ESL and the further reduction of soccer into a cash cow for the few.

To the extent that the 50+1 rule is effective, it’s mainly due to the tenacious protest on the part of supporters’ groups around Germany. These supporters have declared an ongoing war on the German FA and domestic leagues over rampant commercialization, helped pressure the league into rejecting Kind’s takeover of Hannover, and, in the most recent victory, got Monday night matches (great for adding another prime time slot for TV revenue but terrible for match-going fans who travel to away games) scrapped nearly immediately after their implementation.

Fan reception to RB Leipzig and Hoffenheim due to their flaunting of supporter ownership has been so hostile that in one of the most embarrassing moments in recent Bundesliga history, a match was interrupted using the league’s multistep anti-racism protocol to shield an old, white billionaire in Hopp from mean chants. Sadly, this is more thorough than the league’s typical efforts to deal with racism, where the protocol is often ignored.

It’s not as though German fans are a homogeneous block or all share the same politics, and to mistake them as being anti-capitalist activists would also be foolish. But what does unify them is their understanding that their role in soccer is participatory, and this gives them power.

When Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge postures against commercialization and the ESL, he’s not doing it just because he’s worried about his clubs annual member meeting. He’s doing it because like most club officials in Germany, he fears the supporters and their power, whether it’s expressed formally via their ownership or informally in the stadium.

This is what it’s about. England can adopt the 50+1 rule if it wants, which would certainly be an upgrade over the literal billionaires boys club that is the Premier League. But what will truly save European soccer is the conceptualization of support that gives fan ownership teeth. Otherwise, fan-owned clubs will simply resemble Real Madrid.

Finishing Our Chances

The hilarious dissolution of the ESL mere hours after it was cynically called into life should be welcomed as a victory. But it must be an opening salvo in a movement to wrest control of football out of the hands of greedy suits and back into those of the fans.

Without real change, those cheering for the collapse of the Super League are toasting a return to a grim status quo where fans are priced out of matches, rich clubs hoard resources at the expense of both smaller ones and competitive integrity, and football is largely a marketing mechanism and means for billionaires and oil states to launder money.

With most fans having little recourse, due to commercialization and alienation from the game, many of us were forced to look for help from the awful institutions that helped foster this environment. FIFA, which won’t blink in the face of the death of thousands of guest workers in preparation for the 2022 World Cup, will not suddenly defend democratic values in sports. UEFA used this moment of chaos to ram through controversial, anti-competitive Champions League reforms. Domestic leagues are dominated by the same big clubs that threatened to jump ship. The Premier League was literally founded in 1992 as a breakaway league in the name of TV revenue and commercialization. For all their lip service about solidarity and the sanctity of the sport in the past couple days, resistance from the power brokers of global football was based on a threat to their coffers and nothing more.

We cannot depend on soccer’s rotten institutions to save us. This is an opportunity to demonstrate that not only is the brazen greed of a proposal like the ESL unacceptable, but the conditions that created it must be destroyed. Here is where lessons from German football prove handy.

Calls to adopt 50+1-style fan ownership in Europe’s big leagues have only grown louder after the ESL debacle. The big clubs have had their bluff called, and now it is clear that their perennial threats to leave if not given everything they desire is empty. Fan ownership would certainly be a start (even Germany’s more money-grubbing clubs like Dortmund and Bayern were quick to denounce the ESL). But it cannot alone hold back commercialization.

Instead, fan ownership should be seen as a framework in which bottom-up, democratic soccer can flourish, so long as fans are willing to exercise their power, both formally and in the terraces. Active supporters in Germany have used unyielding protest to protect the fan-ownership framework while giving it the muscle it often lacks in other countries.

But just like socialism, fan ownership and empowerment in one country will not save us. A fan-based internationalism that stresses democratic ownership and engagement is the only solution to projects like the ESL and a rampant commercialization which is already transforming football.