Second-division German football club Fortuna Düsseldorf have launched a novel campaign which they hope will boost attendances at homes and "revolutionize" the way the football business works in future: letting all fans in for free.
The initiative, called Fortuna for All, will see the Rhineland side slowly dispense with ticket revenues, starting with a three-match pilot phase next season and eventually expanding the scheme to all 17 home games in a future season.
Fortuna aim to offset lost ticket sales — which account on average for around 15% of clubs' total revenues in Bundesliga 2 — with €45m ($49.8m) of investment over five years from a group of major local businesses, including insurance group Provinzial, IT giant Hewlett Packard and Targobank, as well as the charity Common Goal.
In addition to compensating for lost ticketing revenue, the money will also be invested in the men's first team as well as the women's team and youth academy (20%), digital infrastructure at the club's Merkur-Spiel-Arena (20%) and grassroots sport and sustainability in the city of Düsseldorf (10%).
"We're starting out on a new path in which we will slowly give up our ticketing revenues," said club chairman Alexander Jobst at a press conference unveiling the initiative on Wednesday afternoon.
"Whether Fortuna members, season ticket holders, organized support, frequent visitors or away fans, we want to enable all fans to attend games for free. We want everyone in Düsseldorf to be able to experience football and we want to anchor Fortuna more firmly in our city.
"With the help of strong, local businesses, we can do football business differently in Düsseldorf. We have the hope, confidence and conviction that others will join us. Football belongs above all to the fans."
Fan groups cautiously welcome the idea
The move has been cautiously welcomed by supporter groups, with Thomas Kessen of the nationwide Unsere Kurve (Our Terrace) fan alliance telling the SID sports news agency: "We have long held the opinion that football should be for everyone, and that has a lot to do with ticket prices. So, given the information we currently have, we welcome the idea."
Chairman Jobst confirmed that the Fortuna for All initiative will not include the sale of shares in Fortuna Düsseldorf to investors — often a red flag for many German football fans who are protective of their member-controlled clubs. Still, Kessen is wary of what sort of influence potential new sponsors might want in return for their support.
"Perks such as the big white letter 'T' in Munich could risk damaging a good idea," he warned, referring to the Telekom logo in Bayern Munich's Allianz Arena, formed by fans in certain seats wearing white ponchos.
He also lamented that it's "a shame that this idea has come from a club whose stadium is rarely full."
Fortuna Düsseldorf: untapped potential
With 27,200 members, Fortuna Düsseldorf are the 14th biggest football club in Germany but last played in the Bundesliga between 2018 and 2020. They are currently sixth in Bundesliga 2, their promotion hopes banished for another season after defeat away to Nuremberg at the weekend.
Düsseldorf city mayor Stephan Keller insisted: "Düsseldorf is a sports city with fantastic professional and amateur clubs and a regular host of large events including the upcoming Invictus Games and Euro 2024. As state capital, it's in our interest to support our club."
Despite hailing from Germany's seventh biggest city and the capital of its most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), the club has often struggled to stand out in a region dominated by more illustrious neighbors such as Borussia Dortmund, Schalke 04, Borussia Mönchengladbach and FC Cologne. Even nearby Bayer Leverkusen, the works club owned by pharmaceutical giants Bayer and with a comparatively small fanbase, have greater European pedigree.
Cologne: 'We need our ticket revenues'
Those clubs will be watching developments in Düsseldorf with interest and caution but are showing no signs of following suit just yet.
"We'll always have a positive stance on any innovative ideas to open up an emotional stadium experience more fans," Cologne director Markus Rejek told local fan portal Geissblog. "But a viable long-term model is ultimately based on how to finance the stadium experience in professional football, and we couldn't do that without ticket revenues from our fans.
"So, it remains to be seen how the initiative [in Düsseldorf] develops and whether they can finance it for more than three games."
This season's average home attendance of almost 30,000 is the highest since Fortuna were last in the Bundesliga, but home games at the 54,600-capacity arena — which will host games at Euro 2024 in Germany next summer — are generally only half full.
Fortuna next face mid-table Karlsruher SC at home on Sunday. Tickets won't be free just yet but, on the back of the announcement of the Fortuna for All campaign, Düsseldorf will be hoping for an attendance boost.
Edited by: James Thorogood