This opinion piece will probably be controversial. Good. It is supposed to be. It will likely also conjure up a lot of emotions. Understandable. But the emotive consequences are not the intended goal. The point of this piece is to present a counter-argument toward those (myself included) who have griped about plastic clubs.
Let us start out with why they are bad for German football. And I say German football because it is decidedly different than the Bundesliga. German football will be around long after the Bundesliga has irrevocably changed into something we today even do not recognize. OK, first plastic clubs like Hoffenheim and Leipzig push the Traditionverein out of the way, their wealthy benefactors’ money flooding the league and drowning the sides like Kaiserslautern, Fortuna Düsseldorf, and FC Nürnberg into mediocrity and out of the Bundesliga. Just this past year, Hannover 96 and Vfb Stuttgart became the latest victims with a club founded one hundred thirteen years after the Hanoverians taking their spot in the top tier. Is it regrettable? Yes. Does is sting that 40,000 plus stadia are hosting 3. Bundesliga matches? Of course! We are very familiar with why it is bad. The naysayers have had the loudest voices. The Ultras of all sides have been very influential in setting public opinion on the matter.
Now let us look at what else is bad in this league. Since the information revolution and the age of globalization has inundated the global football market with cash. What used to be static, provincial affairs of local rivalries, club loyalty, and meager paychecks have now exploded into a scramble to collect the windfalls of the international and domestic television markets. Because Bayern München inherited a large stadium in the 1970s without having to finance it themselves, have the soundest and most ruthless business decisions over years, and were at the crest of the wave in both the sporting and business perspectives when the globalization wave broke, they left the rest of the league far behind. No one has caught them since, and since those who tried (BVB in the early 2000s) and other clubs in other major leagues engaged in risky methods to try to catch the riders of this wave (Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern), UEFA imposed the Financial Fair Play rules which placed fiscal responsibility as a higher concern than parity and increase investment. We all know that the unintended consequences (or intended if you’re a conspiracy theorist intent on proving the existence of a cabal formed of those aforementioned clubs making decisions on behalf of the rest of the footballing world in Europe) of this has essentially frozen investment structures in time ensuring the rich stay rich and the mediocre either get inventive with the accounting or stay mediocre. In England, France, and Spain, the lack of the 50+1 rule has allowed more flexibility, but in Germany which still prides itself on the club culture and values the supporters and the arena’s atmosphere, Financial Fair Play and the dominance of Bayern at the top has simply created a money gap that nothing can fix. This is the crisis. This is why the Bundesliga cannot capitalize on international TV markets like the Premier League. It has become the Bayernliga.
There are ways to fix this and none of them are good. Gab Marcotti at ESPN and Clark Whitney on Twitter have all laid out many potential avenues to bring more parity to the Bundesliga. Rescinding FFP could work, but without other changes in the 50+1 rule would open the door to just as many Leeds United and Portsmouth stories as Bournemouth and Darmstadts. Rescinding the 50+1 rule would likely destroy the club culture and passionate atmospheres that makes the Bundesliga unique. Placing salary caps would severely reduce the competitiveness of the clubs on the international level. Having inverted prize or TV money is kind of antithetical to the whole fluid promotion/relegation format. There are no good solutions. So, why the title of this piece if we haven’t even discussed the Energy Drink company’s marketing tool? Simply put, it is a solution. It is a moderate solution. It is a slow solution. It’s not great and it will likely lead others to try to emulate it. Before Leipzig, there was Dietmar Hopp and Hoffenheim, before them there were Vfl Wolfsburg, and Bayer Leverkusen. What Leipzig have done from a sporting and business perspective has been very remarkable. They have grown a club from nothing and have advanced it to the top tier of the DFL within seven years. They didn’t do it through money alone as Hopp did, but they actually have done it at all levels. They have tapped into essentially all of the former East Germany as a fan base, they play high-octane, eye-pleasing football, they sign young exciting players, they develop from within, and they likely will be a challenger to Bayern within a few more years. They also bring needed drama and narrative to the game. If attracting international markets and better TV deals to compete with the rest of Europe is a goal, then having a team that plays as well as them and is as loathed as them by the Traditionvereinen cannot but help make Bundesliga watching more compelling. Let’s face it; we are still talking about them.
We do not have a silver bullet to fix all that ails the Bundesliga. We Dortmund fans, alongside supporters of Gladbach and Hamburg all want the same thing: A highly competitive league whose top clubs fare well in European competition and the champion of which is not known even before the first kick takes place. If running the risk of having another Hannover fall into the 2e Bundesliga is the price to pay, it’s worth it in my opinion.