The Power and the Glory in the beautiful game and beyond: The Red Bull Leipzig case

Paul Hinks and Tudor Rickards

Red Bull Leipzig is one example of the way financial power is creating sporting success in football. In Germany, there has been a reaction from opposing fans on ethical and cultural grounds

Germany’s framework for sustainable football success centres on a “50+1” model where 51% of each club must be owned by its members – to date the model appears to have worked well in serving Germany’s football community.

The fans as important stakeholders

In brief, external parties (including large firms) are permitted to invest in Germany’s domestic football clubs – however they’re barred from having overall control. The boards are chosen by the club’s shareholders and its members (typically also supporters) These stakeholders directly influence how their club is run.

When Red Bull visited Union Berlin

On 21st September 2014 when Red Bull Leipzig played Union Berlin at their Försterei stadium, Red Bull Leipzig were greeted with 15 minutes of silence from the 20,000 Union Berlin spectators who were clad almost entirely in black. The Guardian provided more insight:

With permission from Union’s management, fans had handed out black plastic ponchos at the gates, along with a pamphlet headlined, “Football culture is dying in Leipzig – Union is alive”.

“Today’s opponent embodies everything that we at Union don’t want from football”, it read. “A marketing product pushed by financial interests […], players with euro signs in their eyes […], supported by brainwashed consumers in the stands who have never heard anything of fan ownership”.

A banner inside the stadium stated: “Football needs workers’ participation, loyalty, standing terraces, emotion, financial fair play, tradition, transparency, passion, history, independence.”

Not a black and white story

This not a simple story of right versus wrong, or David versus Goliath. It may be a battle between two sets of values. Berlin represents the communitarian values found in German league football. But that has to be connoted with the fact that idealism has not prevented the dominance of one club, Bayern Munich. Does this make Bayern the object of wider cultural opprobrium?
In the context of Red Bull, it has been argued [link in German] that some balancing financial power is needed to break the dominance of Bayern.

How about Real Madrid and Barcelona?

In Spain, Real Madrid and Barcelona are both financial powerhouses. Barca has a cosy communitarian image, Real the commercial and ruthless one. Again, it may not be as simple as that. Despite Barca’s splendid fan-friendly way and support of good causes, it has received favoured treatment at State level.

Power and Leadership

Despite Red Bull being portrayed as the villain by FC Berlin fans – there is something intriguing about Red Bull’s motives and what they’re aiming to achieve here. Red Bull has a track record of successful investment in other sporting franchises, so FC Leipzig isn’t some kind of new and bizarre experiment; Red Bull are following their previous blueprints for success at Red Bull Saltzberg and also at New York Red Bull.

The spirit of sport

No doubt, football romantics would prefer a vista where all are equal and everyone is given their equal chance. For Berlin’s fans to dress in black and lead a silence of 15mins demonstrates unity and belief in a set of values – values which are increasingly diluted in a football world dominated by high commercial stakes.

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