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Selling the soul

November 11, 2011

Berlin's second football club, 1. FC Union, is reinforcing its anti-commercial credentials by selling shares in its famous Alte Försterei stadium to its supporters. Sound like a paradox? Not to the fans.

1. FC Union fans
Union is a fans' club, at least that's what the fans sayImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

"We have decided to sell our soul," said 1. FC Union President Dirk Zingler last week, in an interview with the Berliner Zeitung newspaper. "To our members." It was one of the more arresting announcements of a new money-raising scheme a football club president has ever made.

Not for the first time, an appeal for financial contribution from the fans has contrived to put the second Bundesliga in the headlines, and once again the fans are celebrating their president for his maverick, cooperative approach to running a football club. The very same stadium that the fans literally built, in a unique campaign three years ago, is now being sold to those same fans, for 500 euros ($686) per share.

Union President Dirk Zingler
Dirk Zingler wants (most of) the stadium to belong to the fansImage: picture-alliance/ ZB

For one month, from December 1-31, FC Union's members will be able to buy 10,000 shares, or a maximum of 58 percent, in the Alte Försterei stadium, where the team has played since 1920. The money raised - and Zingler is counting on five million euros - will be used to service the loans on the construction of a new main stand, a "fan house" with a bar and other infrastructure.

The creation of a joint stock company to drum up cash is of course not particularly revolutionary, and when it comes to football, the result is usually increased commercialization.

After all, football stadiums regularly get bought and sold the world over, often resulting in ugly name changes. Just this week, for instance, Newcastle United's St. James' Park in the UK became the Sports Direct Arena, while after nearly half a century as the Volksparkstadion, Hamburg's home became the "AOL Arena," the "HSH Nordbank Arena," and the "Imtech Arena" all in one decade.

In other cases, a corporation invests so much cash that they get to re-name the club itself, like Regionalliga team Red Bull Leipzig.

Anti-commercial commercialization

But such trends are anathema to Union, which has built a reputation on its anti-commercialism. In a statement to go with the sale of shares, the club derided football's modern trappings: "Flag wavers, cardboard clappers and goal music - football has become show business. And it is running the risk of becoming interchangeable and indistinguishable."

Fans building the 1. FC Union stadium
The Alte Försterei is the stadium the fans builtImage: picture-alliance/dpa

By contrast, the statement adds, Union has established, "its own, unique football culture: terraces, direct passion and unadulterated football."

It might be thought that making the stadium into a joint stock company might risk that culture. But there are, the club insists, two big differences between this and the naked greed found elsewhere.

Firstly, the sale of the shares is being tightly controlled - only club members can buy shares, and only 10 shares can be bought by any single person or sponsor. On top of that, the shareowners will get a vote in all decisions that directly affect the stadium - including naming rights. In short, the fans will decide if the stadium gets re-named, and what it would be called.

Mutterings of dissent

These are, according to club spokesman Christian Arbeit, the key points. "That means it won't be possible, for example, for a club chairman to just re-name a stadium after his own company - as happened with Newcastle," he told Deutsche Welle.

The club's fan organization FUMA also released a statement trumpeting its "unreserved" approval of the scheme, and called on its members to "support 1. FC Union in turning these plans into reality so that we can secure the future of the stadium, and so we can always say "Union - pure football!"

Hardly any fans have registered complaints. In the online fan forums, the occasional note of dissent - or indeed questioning - of the move to create a joint stock company was drowned in a wave of celebration and pride.

But some opponents are more vocal. "The club is going down a road of no return," says Union fan Thilo Bloona. "It is taking five million euros from its members and including them in the financial risk."

"The club is saying that the loan will be cheaper if there's more cash, which suggests that the banks are skeptical about the project and are trying to cover themselves with high interest rates," he added. "I have no idea what will happen if the building costs are more than expected. President Zingler has avoided the question. Probably there will be more shares for sale, and another 'we're selling our soul' campaign, followed by a 'we're saving our soul' campaign."

FC Union players celebrate
Union are having a solid season in the second BundesligaImage: dapd

It's true that creating a company is not a particularly socialist decision, but Arbeit's response is simple: "Communal property can also be created through joint shares. By keeping the number of shares per person low, we're making sure that a lot of different people have the possibility of becoming shareholders," he said. "The plan is that at least 51 percent of the stadium stays in the hands of the members."

Blood, sweat and money

Union fans have an active and very proud history of participation. In fact, the Alte Försterei stadium itself was partly built by the same fans who are now being asked to pay for the extension.

From 2008 to 2009, more than 2,000 fans invested over 140,000 hours of labor into reconstructing the Alte Försterei, as the cash-strapped club had to be renovated for the team's promotion into the second Bundesliga. It was an extraordinary undertaking, unequalled anywhere, which ended up being celebrated by media around the world.

Similarly, in harder times at the start of the 2004/2005 season, Union, lacking the 1.46 million euros in liquidity to play in the regional league, started the "Bleed for Union" campaign. Here, it called on fans to donate blood and hand over the compensation money to the club to keep the team on the pitch. Once you've given your blood and your sweat for your team, 500 euros for a piece of the stadium is, for most fans, apparently a small price to pay.

Author: Ben Knight
Editor: Nancy Isenson