AEG and the End of German Supporter Ownership?

When MLS and Bundesliga tied up a partnership last season, pretty much everyone saw this as a good thing. MLS would learn from the Bundesliga on all sorts of issues, and every forward thinking international football fan recognised MLS had picked perhaps the most supporter-friendly league in Europe to partner with.

But now it looks like the transatlantic influence will push the other way, as Los Angeles-based Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) — who own the LA Galaxy and a majority share of Houston Dynamo in MLS — push for a change that could transform the Bundesliga (via Soccer Investor):

Anschutz Entertainment Group will attend a conference this week which could pave the way for Bundesliga teams to be sold to major outside investors. Anschutz, the world’s second largest presenter of live music and entertainment events after Live Nation, leads the financial investment groups who will meet with club officials and the DFL, the Bundesliga organisation, according to the Canadian Press. Several club presidents, led by Hannover 96′s Martin Kind, have lobbied hard in recent months to open the doors for ownership by major foreign investors – whose money has helped propel the English Premier League into the world’s wealthiest soccer league. The Bundesliga is played in Europe’s largest economy and boasts the highest attendance, but in recent years has tumbled well behind the revenues of the Italian, Spanish and English leagues. Some team officials want to eliminate a league rule called “50-plus-1,” which dictates the club must have final say.

They insist major international players will demand financial and operating control for their investment. Most German teams aren’t owned and thousands of members vote on a president and board of directors. Those structures date back to about 1900, when many were formed as membership clubs. Anschutz owns or has an interest in numerous sports teams worldwide, including Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles Galaxy and the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers.

Let’s set aside the beast that is AEG pushing this — who once owned half of MLS and dragged it to survival, but who have also shown very little sensitivity to supporters at various times — and just consider the principle at stake here. We’ve seen in the Premier League in recent years the growing dissatisfaction with rising ticket prices, the over-commercialisation of the league, and the debacle of the greedy Game 39 proposal.

FC Köln vs. Kickers Offenbach by ex.relax
1. FC Köln vs. Kickers Offenbach
The Bundesliga, by contrast, has reasonable ticket prices, safe standing areas, and isn’t owned by profit-hungry detached individuals out to make a fast buck. Due to the fact clubs in Germany are effectively controlled by ordinary members, traditional supporters have been protected to a greater degree than in England.

AEG and other companies looking to invest want this changed so they can control their investments. They clearly see Germany as a massive growth-opportunity, with its huge football-mad population still riding the post-World Cup tide and impressive stadia already in place across the land. It could become a bigger cash-cow than the Premier League if market forces were fully unleashed on it.

The potential deleterious consequences for suppoerters are obvious. Just at the time that in England, the backlash against unrestrained greed has organised in opposition to Game 39 and groups like Share Liverpool FC are arguing for fan ownership, Germany could be headed the other way towards less supporter control. On the other hand, those arguing in favour will claim it’d allow more German teams to compete financially with the Premier League teams for the best players.

It’s also interesting to see that it’s the mid-level clubs like Hannover 96 pushing for this change, not Bayern Munich, who already have enough revenue to compete with the European big boys. Presumably the mid-level clubs think this opportunity will allow them to gain the investment needed to take a step-up, and of course to rake in a lot more money.

This has an echo of the Premier League breakaway in England almost two decades ago, when mid-table teams voted in favour of a league that would lead to less revenue-sharing between the bigger and smaller clubs and a rising gap between rich and poor. The smaller clubs effectively dug their own grave, as the rich have got richer and poorer clubs have found it harder and harder to break into the top four.

One could see the same happening in Germany, as the richest investors buy into the richest, most glamorous clubs and the rest are left getting relatively poorer, while the supporter experience becomes more expensive and subdued.

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