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European Super League: How 50+1 kept Bayern and Dortmund out

April 21, 2021

Football was rocked this week as 12 elite clubs attempted to break away from their domestic leagues and form a so-called Super League. But Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund were not involved. This is why.

Bildkombo | FC Bayern München und Borussia Dortmund

Barely 48 hours after its initial announcement on Sunday night, the proposed European Super League began to unravel on Tuesday night as the six English clubs involved began to pull out.

First Chelsea and Manchester City, then Arsenal and Tottenham, and finally the ring leaders, American-owned Liverpool and Manchester United.

By Wednesday morning, the whole project had collapsed and Andrea Agnelli, Juventus chairman and a chief architect of the coup, was lamenting shamelessly that "I don't think our industry is a particularly sincere, trustworthy or reliable one …"

Mamma mia. Anyway, conspicuous by their absence in all of this were Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.

BVB chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke was first to speak on Monday morning, saying that neither his club nor Bayern had been involved in discussions and that they "reject the foundation of a Super League." His Bayern counterpart Karl-Heinz Rummenigge followed later that afternoon before categorically ruling the German champions out on Tuesday morning.

But why? Many were quick to suggest that German football's so-called 50+1 ownership rule held Bayern and Dortmund in check, but what is the 50+1 rule and what role did it really play?

A 50+1 Bundesliga banner
'Non-negotiable! 50+1 stays!' German fans are big fans of their 50+1 ruleImage: picture-alliance/augenklick/firo Sportphoto/S. El-Saqqa

What is the 50+1 rule?

German Football League (DFL) statutes stipulate that the members of German clubs retain 50% of the voting shares in the limited companies which operate their professional teams – plus one share. This prevents outside investors from obtaining a majority stake and taking complete control.

Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund both operate different business models – BVB are listed on the German SDAX stock exchange, while Adidas, Allianz and Audi each hold 8.33% stakes in Bayern Munich – but the majority of voting rights (100% in Dortmund, 75% in Munich) remain in the hands of the parent clubs and their members. In other words: the fans.

"I believe it's one reason, although certainly not the only reason, why the German clubs didn't get involved in the Super League," says Dr. Jan Lehmann, the commercial director at Bundesliga club Mainz 05.

"Of course, they also have investors but they don't have one single majority investor whose primary aim is to make a profit. At both clubs, the voting rights are with the members of the parent clubs. And I don't know if they could have made such a strategic decision without the permission of the members.

"We certainly couldn't in Mainz. Not that anyone asked us. Not yet anyway! But even if they had, we couldn't have done it without asking our members. So, I do think it would have played a role."

The '50+1 stays!' campaign

The 50+1 rule is not without its detractors in Germany, with critics pointing out that is discourages major investment on a scale which would perhaps help German clubs compete better with Premier League sides.

There have been several attempts in recent years to have it scrapped, most recently spearheaded by Martin Kind, chief investor at Bundesliga 2 side Hannover, and Hasan Ismaik, a Jordanian billionaire who has tried to take over full control of third division side 1860 Munich.

In 2018, however, a motion put forward by former FC St. Pauli chairman and ex-DFL boss Andreas Rettig saw the German Football League commit to the 50+1 rule, following a nationwide fan campaign called "50+1 stays!"

One of the campaign organizers was Manuel Gaber, who also believes that the rule would have played a role in the thinking at Bayern and Dortmund regarding to the Super League

"There will have been several factors, but the 50+1 rule is certainly one of them," he tells DW. "In England, club owners can simply make a decision: I'm joining the Super League. But if such a decision were made in Dortmund or Munich, there would not only be protests outside the next day, but there would likely also be a motion to call an extraordinary general meeting.

"Then, via the various club structures, such a decision could theoretically be prevented by the membership and decision makers could face consequences. In the worst case, they could be voted out or lose their jobs."

Deutschland | Hannover 96 | Protest gegen Präsident Martin Kind | 50+1 bleibt
Martin Kind and Hasan Ismaik have tried to override the 50+1 rule at Hannover and 1860 MunichImage: picture alliance/dpa/P. Steffen

'Heads would have rolled'

The 50+1 rule doesn't guarantee supporters a say in all aspects of the club, and certainly not in day-to-day business operations. Each club has a slightly different constitution but, generally speaking, the members vote for the club president and a supervisory board, which receives seats on the board of the limited company in order to keep it in check.

But the legal fact that supporters do have a genuine stake makes them more inclined to act upon it, which is one of the reasons that fan protests are so common in German football, on everything from ticket prices to Monday night football to the Super League.

"As you saw over the past couple of days, our fan scene can mobilize pretty quickly on issues like this," says Alex Fischer of Club Nr. 12, an umbrella organization representing match-going Bayern Munich supporters which was involved in organizing a protest outside Bayern's Säbener Strasse offices.

"Bayern Munich remains a club, and we are the club's members," he explains. "And it was noticeable that this wasn't just the ultras or the extra active fans, the feeling was unanimous throughout the whole membership: we don't want to be in a Super League.

"There would have been consequences. Heads would have rolled. We could have called an extraordinary general meeting and voted out [club president and former Adidas CEO] Herbert Hainer. And if there were fans in the stadium, it would have kicked off."

Even in Mainz, while Mainz 05 may not have been invited to join the Super League, commercial director Dr. Lehmann says that German clubs have a better understanding of the needs and desires of their supporters.

"The clubs in other countries might be more professional organizations but the decision-makers don't necessarily come from the city and I don't believe they understand the importance of football for the local community," he tells DW. 

"In Germany, clubs are often run by people who have played football themselves, who come from the region or at least have close ties to the club. I think they know what they can do with their fans and what they can't get away with."

An anti-UEFA protest in the Bundesliga
"If there were fans in the stadium, it would have kicked right off."Image: picture alliance/dpa/M. Murat

Rummenigge's big gamble pays off

Even Bayern supporter Fischer admits, however, that it would be naïve to think that it was only concern for their members which held Bayern and Dortmund back.

"50+1 is important and the fact that we have a say will have played a role," he says. "But if they'd really wanted to go through with it for economic or political reaons, they could have forced it through."

Indeed, it was suggested to DW on Monday by sources in Dortmund that club bosses genuinely had not been involved in discussions at all. This appeared to be confirmed when German news magazine Der Spiegel published the Super League contract, which stated that Bayern, Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain were to be invited to become "additional founder members as soon as practical." Reporting by The Athletic on Wednesday also confirmed that the Germans had indeed been kept in the dark, not trusted by the conspirators.

But Bayern in particular also have their own financial and commercial reasons to keep out. The club has been less affected than most by the ravages of the pandemic and is not as desperate for Super League money as the heavily indebted Spanish clubs or the profit-obsessed owners of the Premier League sides.

Rummenigge has also long held high ambitions for himself within the European Club Association (ECA) and UEFA and has ultimately come out of this looking pretty good as one of the ECA's representatives on UEFA's Executive Committee.

"He gambled high, and he won," says Fischer. "Bayern are the big winners in all this and have been left looking like the white knights, the saviours of football, along with PSG and UEFA. Which is of course absurd."

Indeed, UEFA's own controversial Champions League reforms have also been voted through, despite bitter protests from supporters, particularly in Germany. The fans will keep fighting for their clubs because the 50+1 rule makes them literally "theirs" – but it only goes so far.