RB Leipzig defies German ethos

Dons Trust communications volunteer Rob Crane looks at the rise of a club in Germany that challenges that country’s tradition of fan ownership of football clubs.

German football has often been praised for its approach to supporter involvement, insisting that top-level clubs remain controlled by their members – but that approach has been challenged by the recent rise of RB Leipzig.

Until nearly 20 years ago, German football clubs were owned exclusively by their members on a not-for-profit basis, with private ownership banned. But in 1998 this was changed: in came the “50+1” approach, which allows clubs to become private or public companies but insists that the members’ associations still have a controlling stake, of at least 50% plus 1 – a simple majority.

The 50+1 approach means that, as at AFC Wimbledon, members still play a key role in the running of their club, and is widely perceived as having helped shape the ethos of German football, especially when it comes to admission prices. Last season the average ticket price for a Bundesliga match was the equivalent of around £23 – with many tickets available for much less – compared with an average in the English Premier League of £53.76.

But the spirit of this approach has been challenged by the rise of RB Leipzig, under the wings of soft-drinks company Red Bull. The company has a history of taking over football clubs and rebranding them, including the New York Red Bulls and Red Bull Salzburg, and has also bought its way into Formula One. In 2009, Red Bull set about moving into German football. That was when the company acquired the league place of SSV Markranstädt, then a fourth-tier club, and RB Leipzig was born. German football rules prohibit clubs from being named after commercial sponsors, so the club’s “proper” name is RasenBallsport Leipzig, meaning “lawn ball sports”, although all of the club’s marketing refers to “The Red Bulls”.

With Red Bull’s money behind them, the new club soon won a succession of promotions, reaching the Bundesliga this summer. This season they have enjoyed a good start and are currently second in the table, challenging Bayern Munich’s long domination of the German game.

But RB Leipzig’s lack of supporter involvement has caused controversy. From 2009 to 2014 it cost €800 to be a member – in comparison with most top-level German clubs, for which the cost was around €30–60 – and the club’s management board could reject any application for membership without having to give a reason. During that period the club is reported to have had just nine members, all of them with connections to Red Bull.

In June 2014, RB Leipzig altered its membership structure in order to meet the stricter requirements of the top two German divisions. The club introduced a new membership category that allows people to register as an official supporting member, but despite the price of the various membership options ranging up to €1,000, members can attend general meetings but cannot vote at them. Instead, they have one representative on the club’s supervisory board.

Some may say that it was motivated by jealousy of the success they’ve enjoyed on the pitch, but RB Leipzig’s rise has been accompanied by protests. In 2014, Union Berlin fans staged a 15-minute silence after kick-off in their game against the club, while at this season’s German cup game at Dynamo Dresden, home fans threw a severed bull’s head onto the pitch. Borussia Dortmund – who have approaching 140,000 members – have also refused permission for their badge to be used on a “friendship scarf”.

While their actions may be within the rules, RB Leipzig’s rise presents a challenge to German football, both on and off the pitch.

This article originally appeared in the matchday programme for the game against Port Vale, played on December 17, 2016.