Discontent over commercialization grows among German football supporters: ″The situation will escalate″ | Sports| German football and major international sports news | DW | 31.08.2018
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Discontent over commercialization grows among German football supporters: "The situation will escalate"

Supporters' groups are becoming increasingly disillusioned over what they see as the over-commercialization of German football. This promises to be another season of discontent in the Bundesliga.   

The technicians had just begun to dismantle the TV cameras at field level in Borussia Mönchengladbach's home ground near the end of last Saturday's match against Leverkusen when the fans started belting out one of their favorite chants. "Scheiß DFB!" (S*** DFB!), a chant heard in almost every stadium on Matchday 1, rang out through Borussia Park for several minutes.

"You'll be hearing from us this season," read a statement issued by ProFans, a coalition of active supporters and ultra groups from across the country. This came about a week after they announced that they had pulled out of talks with the DFL, which operates the Bundesliga, and the German Football Association (DFB) – with whom they had entered into discussions almost a year ago.

"There had once been hope for a true dialogue between the fans, the DFB and the DFL, one that would have led to actual concrete results, which would have calmed down the entire fan scene and not have left us in the bleak situation we are in now," ProFans spokesman Sig Zelt told DW.

"Later, though, it became increasingly clear that the associations (DFB and DFL) were only talking in an effort to calm things down as opposing to working toward a good result."

Monday night games in the third division

According to Zelt, what led ProFans to break off the talks with the DFB and the DFL was the news that Monday night games were being added to the third division schedule.

"This issue was not even mentioned in a meeting of supporters' representatives and the heads of the associations a few days earlier. The fan groups saw this as a major breach of trust and a step backwards," Zelt said.

However, DFL Managing Director Christian Seifert defended the move, saying it had the support of 19 of the 20 clubs affected.

Deutschland DFL-Neujahrsempfang in Frankfurt | Christian Seifert (picture alliance/dpa/A. Dedert)

Not the supporters' best friend? Christian Seifert

Bernd Sautter, spokesman for the "FC PlayFair" initiative dedicated to the preservation of fan culture in Germany, said an open dialogue with the DFB and DFL had quickly proved to be impossible anyway. 

"Both sides drew lines in the sand right from the start," Sautter told DW. "The (football) associations were not prepared to discuss the issue of pyrotechnics, while the other side refused to discuss Monday night games. So it came as no real surprise when the talks were terminated."

Germany's failure in Russia

Supporter groups have been unhappy about a lot of things in German football for some time. Last season, fans at several clubs took part in protests to express their displeasure about what they see as the increasing commercialization of German football – visible in the form of neon advertisements, halftime shows, and exclusive sponsors for things like corner kicks, yellow or red cards, and substitutions.

Then there was the sporting and marketing debacle that was Germany's World Cup in Russia. Among the turnoffs for the average fan has been the marketing term "Die Mannschaft" (the team) that the DFB has taken to using to refer to the national team. Germany's general manager, Oliver Bierhoff, told a press conference earlier in the week that the DFB would re-examine its use of the marketing term, but he rejected out of hand the suggestion that the national team had become overly commercialized.

'Youth culture brings with it an element of anarchism'

However, this remains the perception of many fans, and this in turn appears to be a big part of what has alienated so many of them from the national team. Sellouts for Germany home games have become the exception rather than the rule in recent months, and now the fans' displeasure may be affecting attendance in the Bundesliga. Last weekend, newly promoted Düsseldorf failed to sell out their first home game in the top flight in five years. Overall, attendance in the Bundesliga has fallen by around three percent over the past five years.    

"Fan culture and attending matches in person is no longer as attractive as it once was due to the business side of things. This is particularly true for a younger demographic," Sautter said.

"Fan culture, which is largely ultras-culture, is a kind of youth culture, and every youth culture brings with it an element of anarchy, which rises up against the establishment. The DFB and DFL will never be able to change that even if they try. This is an issue that has to be approached with a certain sensitivity and the associations haven't understood that yet," Sautter added.

Could a return of the hooligans be on the cards?

To see just how far the commercialization of football can go, you need look no farther than La Liga in Spain, which is planning to schedule a league game in either the United States or Canada. This is part of a 15-year contract that La Liga has signed with Relevent, the organizers of the International Champions Cup.

"When we look abroad, it's often not better, but even worse than here," Zelt said, pointing out that the Bundesliga still has one major advantage over a number of other leagues. Despite attendance being down, the stadiums are still mostly full and games involving the most popular teams, like Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund or Schalke, are almost always sold out. This is something that the DFL uses to market the league abroad.

Fußball Bundesliga Hertha BSC vs Mainz 05 | Fans (Imago/M. Koch)

Could the sight of empty seats in the Bundesliga be more common in the future?

However, the breakdown in talks between the DFB, DFL and ProFans could change that.

"It's possible that a lot of the active supporters will stop going and that we will be left with the more passive fans, something that would make for a rather sterile atmosphere in the stadium," Zelt said.

"But things could also take a completely different turn, with the hooligans gaining strength again. This could be what happens if the people, who are currently making sure this doesn't happen, stop going."

Pyrotechnics and stadium bans

FC PlayFair spokesman Sautter expects this to be a difficult season for all involved; the fans, the DFB and the DFL.

Fußball Bundesliga Relegation VfL Wolfsburg - Holstein Kiel (picture-alliance/dpa)

Pyrotechnics in German stadiums could become a bigger problem

"The result of this breakdown in dialogue will be unbridled commercialization, and the associations will no longer listen to the supporters. This can only be a bad thing," said Sautter, a fan of Bundesliga side Stuttgart.

"On the other hand, there will most certainly be organized protests, at least in the form of banners or posters. But orderly protests can evolve into less orderly protests, which can lead to something that few want to see; an increase in the use of pyrotechnics, which can result in stadium bans. The situation will escalate noticeably."

The relationship between the fans and Germany's football authorities hasn't been this tense for a long time. And according to ProFans spokesman Zelt, there will be no new talks between the two sides anytime in the foreseeable future.

"In a lot of other countries, the football associations would love to enter into a dialogue with the fans, the ultras," Zelt said. "So it is particularly regrettable that our football authorities don't see the value of talking."

Just how the hard-core supporters will express their displeasure at this season's Bundesliga games remains to be seen.

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