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A meeting involving all but four of the Bundesliga's 18 clubs has highlighted the division between the "haves" and "have nots" in German football. The main bone of contention is the distribution of broadcasting revenue.
Representatives of 14 Bundesliga clubs – plus second-division outfit Hamburg – met in a conference room at Frankfurt Airport on Wednesday, summoned to what was meant to be a secret meeting by Bayern Munich chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.
Excluded from the summit, plans for which had been revealed in advance by tabloid BILD, were Stuttgart, Mainz, Augsburg and Arminia Bielefeld – the four Bundesliga clubs who, along with ten second-division clubs, had backed a recently published paper calling for a redistribution of broadcast rights income for the period from 2021/22 to 2024/25 – worth a total of €4.4 billion ($5.2 billion).
Under the Bundesliga's current broadcast deal, worth €4.64bn between 2017/18 and 2020/21, domestic and international broadcast revenue is distributed predominantly according to footballing success, a system which has the side-effect of increasing the gulf between the "haves" and the "have nots."
In the 2019/20 season, for instance, Bayern Munich were awarded €68 million ($80 million) as Bundesliga and German Cup winners. But with Bayern now having won eight consecutive Bundesliga titles, it begs the question whether this is good for the health of the league in the long term, something the redistribution proposals were designed to address.
"It must be in our collective interest for the fans to again see a competition in which they don't know the ultimate outcome before it even starts," explained Thomas Hitzlsperger, former Germany international and current CEO of VfB Stuttgart, one of the four Bundesliga clubs who signed the position paper.
During Stuttgart's 2-2 draw with Eintracht Frankfurt on Saturday, Stuttgart fans hung up a banner inside the empty stadium reading: "Distribute TV money fairly!"
The paper their club signed calls for 50% of broadcast revenue to be distributed equally among the clubs, with the other half to be distributed based on their sporting success. The idea would also be to see more revenue flow down to the second division's 18 clubs and help money flow down the football pyramid.
But Bayern chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, whose club theoretically stands to lose most from any redistribution of media revenues, said the publication of the proposals constituted a lack of solidarity and an attempt to undermine the German Football League (DFL) – before calling a clandestine meeting in Frankfurt.
"We would all be well advised not to send discussion papers around the country, as happened at other clubs," he said, accusing the four Bundesliga clubs of "throwing down the gauntlet" and issuing a condescending rebuke to his Stuttgart counterpart Hitzlsperger:
"That's not what I understand by cooperation, and I explained that to Thomas," he said, referring to a telephone call with Hitzlsperger which he believes could lead the Stuttgart CEO to alter his position. "Put it this way, there have been 'Road to Damascus' moments in the past."
Hans-Joachim Watzke, the CEO of Borussia Dortmund, the closest thing Bayern have had to a long-term challenger, also attacked the four Bundesliga and 10 second-division clubs over the publication of their proposals and defended the decision not to invite them to the meeting in Frankfurt.
"The clubs that weren't there had already made their position clear and tried to put the DFL leadership under pressure. That is not our way, we wanted to demonstrate that today," he told the Funke Media Group.
The statements are a sign that all is not quite as harmonious as some would like to portray things in German professional football, a far cry from the solidarity and togetherness proclaimed at the start of the pandemic back in March. As an old German saying goes: "Friendship ends when it comes to money."
The news of the meeting and Rummenigge's subsequent comments have prompted mixed reactions in the German media. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung broadsheet referred to Rummenigge's "keen business sense" whereas football culture magazine 11Freunde attacked what they called Rummenigge's "absurd PR stunt" and a "failed show of power."
There was also criticism from members of the Zukunft Profifussball (future of professional football) taskforce, which was established by the DFL in September with the aim of shaping the game as it recovers from the damaging effects of the pandemic.
The taskforce is made up of 36 members representing various segments of German society, including football, politics, business, media and supporter representatives. One of the latter, Helen Breit of supporters' interest group "Unsere Kurve," was surprised by Wednesday's initially "secret" meeting.
"We learned about this meeting through the press," said Breit. "From our point of view, the organizers have a duty to inform us of any issues that may fall into our remit. It is clear to us that TV revenue and fundamental reforms are needed if professional football is to be sustainable and connected to the grassroots."
"We do not claim to be a 'G15' of the Bundesliga or the DFL," Rummenigge insisted to the German DPA news agency. "We are not closing the door for the clubs that did not participate today – and we do not claim to be the exclusive voice in German football."