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Consumer groups threaten legal action over cashless payment systems in the Bundesliga

A number of Bundesliga clubs could face legal action because they force fans to use their own cash cards to buy food and drink in their stadiums. The practice appears to be a lucrative source of income for the clubs.

For years German football fans have complained about the fact that in some Bundesliga stadiums you can only pay for your halftime beer or sausage using a plastic card issued by the club. While some of the clubs issue the cards for free, some charge a deposit of a couple of euros. Once you have your card, then you have to load it up with money before you can make a purchase.

The practice poses big problems for traveling fans, as long queues after a game often make it difficult to return cards - to recoup unused money left on it - and catch their train home. This means a lot of away fans simply don't bother, meaning they effectively lose their deposit and however much money was left on the card.

Now consumer-advocate organizations, known as Verbraucherzentralen, have sharply criticized the practice and announced that they are preparing written warnings to be sent to three Bundesliga clubs: Bayern Munich, Augsburg and Schalke. Such written warnings typically demand that a business change its practices by a set date - and are a preliminary step before filing a legal complaint.

This comes after a number of consumer advocate workers tried out the cashless payment systems in several Bundesliga stadiums in cooperation with public broadcaster ARD. Their conclusion was that the cashless payment systems, particularly the ones where fans are forced to use the clubs' own cards, are very consumer unfriendly.

"First you have to line up to get the card, and then you have to line up to get the drinks and the food. And in the end you have to line up again to return the card and get your money back," said Tatjana Halm of the Bavarian branch of the consumer advocates organization. Not only that, but she also wondered: "What happens to the money that doesn't get returned?"

Fußball 2. Bundesliga FC Augsburg - Rot-Weiß Oberhausen (picture-alliance/ dpa/S. Puchner)

No cash accepted: In Augsburg and some other Bundesliga stadiums, fans can only pay using a card issued by the club.

According to the ARD report, in 2010 alone, Bayern Munich reported earning 2.4 million euros ($2.54 million) through funds left on expired cards that had not been returned. Bayern Munich have not reported such figures for any of the years since and as they are not a publicly listed company, they are not required to do so by law.

The two biggest football supporters' organizations in Germany, "Unsere Kurve" (our stand) and "ProFans" have called for either the clubs or the DFL (German Football League), who operate the Bundesliga, to reveal how much money they are earning in this way.

"This amounts to an interest-free credit that I am providing to the club," Rainer Vollmer of Unsere Kurve told ARD. "It would be interesting to see just how much money is being made available to the clubs," he added.

Consumer advocates in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia criticized Schalke, particularly for the fact that according to their terms of use, they can charge fans a fee of three euros for returning their cards via post, and that it can take as long as 18 months for supporters to get back the money left on their cards.

Speaking to reporters in Gelsenkirchen on Thursday, Schalke's sporting director Christian Heidel denied that the club had ever actually imposed the charge, but promised that the club would revisit their terms of use. 

The consumer-advocate organization in Hesse said they were considering action against the concessions operator at Eintracht Frankfurt's Commerzbank Arena as fans were being forced to spend too much time queuing up and had to pay a fee to return their cards. According to the ARD report, the concessions operator has agreed to take steps to correct the situation as quickly as possible.

While Bayern, Schalke, Augsburg and Frankfurt force their fans to use payment cards that can only be used in their stadiums, several others have cashless systems which also allow supporters to pay using normal bank cards. Some of these clubs had previously used "closed" cashless systems, but in a popular move with the fans they changed their ways.

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