3.Liga: Germany’s Newest Professional League

On July 25, Rot-Weiss Erfurt will host Dynamo Dresden under the floodlights. In seasons past, this match, pitting two down-on-their-luck third-division clubs against one another, would have gone largely unnoticed even in soccer-mad Germany.

Things are different this year, however. When Erfurt hosts Dresden in just less than two weeks, the clubs will be playing the first match in the history of the 3. Liga, the newly fashioned, fully professional, nationwide German third division.

Kickers Emden – Energie Cottbus II 03
Kickers Emden - Energie Cottbus II 03

Up until last year, the German third division was divided into northern and southern leagues (the so-called Regionalliga), and while many players were full-timers, the less ambitious clubs kept costs down with part-timers and precocious teens. All that is no more. All 20 third-division clubs are now fully professional and (with the exception of the four clubs relegated from the 2. Bundesliga) survived a harrowing campaign last year to enjoy the fruits of the inaugural 3. Liga.

Heading into the season, however, it is unclear whether this new league, which many clubs risked life and limb to qualify for, will prove to be the land of milk and honey it was promised to be.

But before we look at the economic issues, we first need to establish that the league’s proper name is the 3. Liga. It is not the 3. Bundesliga. In practice it is, of course, but the new league is operated by the German Football Federation (DFB) not the German Football League (DFL) that runs the top two divisions, the 1. and 2. Bundesliga. It is still one soccer pyramid, but the DFB has gone to great lengths to inform everyone that the new league will be called by its proper name.

Of the 20 clubs involved in the 3. Liga(!), 16 qualified from the two-tiered Regionalliga, with the four clubs relegated from the 2. Bundesliga making up the rest of the pack.

All told, the inaugural 3. Liga(!) includes one former 1. Bundesliga champion (Eintracht Braunschweig in 1966/67); two Cup Winner’s Cup runners-up (Fortuna Düsseldorf in 1979 and FC Carl Zeiss Jena in 1981); three 1. Bundesliga reserve teams (Bayern Munich II, Stuttgart II and Werder Bremen II); four clubs from Bavaria; and five clubs from the former East Germany.

For all 20 clubs, former champions and all, the costs of competing in the new league will be a concern. The reward for qualifying for the 3. Liga was approximately 590,000 euros in revenue from the TV contract (ten million euros have been split amongst the clubs, with the exception of the 1. Bundesliga reserve teams), but the burdens the clubs face are immense: they must establish youth academies (the reserve teams are naturally exempt from this requirement), travel expenses will rise dramatically (Stuttgarter Kickers’ management estimates that travel costs for the club will increase by a factor of five), player costs will rise and stadia need to be improved.

RW Ahlen – Kickers EmdenRW Ahlen - Kickers Emden

For many clubs, the renovation of their home ground will be the biggest expense, and this has led to the greatest discord between the DFB and the clubs. The DFB requires that all 3. Liga stadia accommodate 10,000 spectators, with at least 2,000 seats on offer. (The terraces are alive and well in Germany.) But why does SpVgg Unterhaching need such a stadium when it attracted just 2,394 spectators per match last season? The last time Unterhaching attracted more than 10,000 fans per match was the 2000/01 season, when they attracted 10,906 — in the 1. Bundesliga.

Indeed, average attendance in the Regionalliga Süd last season was just 2,535, with Sportfreunde Siegen (who missed out on the 3. Liga on goal difference) attracting the most support — 6,095 on average. Average attendance in the Regionalliga Nord, on the other hand, was 5,359, with Eintracht Braunschweig attracting 14,889.

The commonly accepted view is that the 20 clubs will attract more spectators in the 3. Liga, but the average attendance last season for those very clubs was just 5,943, with only four clubs averaging more than 10,000. For example, Wacker Burghausen, the club which nearly booted Bayern Munich from the German Cup early last season, had an average attendance of 3,396 last season — less than half capacity. Even if attendance rises this season, they won’t attract anywhere near 10,000 spectators. Nevertheless, the club will have to spend considerable sums to expand a stadium that was good enough for the 2. Bundesliga just two seasons ago.

To offset these higher expenses, many clubs have called for the DFB to find a deep-pocketed league sponsor in the same way that the English Football League is sponsored by Coca-Cola. But the DFB’s response has been to make it clear that no club will be forced to play in the 3. Liga. In other words, if the demands of competing in the league are too much for a particular club, it can choose to remain in the amateur leagues.

To make ends meet, the clubs will have to do their utmost to fill seats. With such a miserly TV contract, ticket revenue will be a very important source of income, and for many clubs it will make the difference between swimming or sinking. Indeed, in the long run, the northern clubs would seem to have a competitive advantage as average attendance in the Regionalliga Nord last season was twice as high as that for its southern counterpart. The question is whether the clubs can translate this commercial advantage into a sporting one.

RW Ahlen – Kickers EmdenRW Ahlen - Kickers Emden

Attendance is also going to be an issue for the northern clubs. In the Regionalliga Nord there were plenty of raucous and lucrative derbies. Many of these will now be cast aside in favor of visits from clubs from Bavaria or Baden-Württemberg. These southern clubs not only have smaller average home attendances but also fewer traveling supporters. For example, fans of Wacker Burghausen would have to travel 1900 kilometers roundtrip to watch their club challenge Kickers Emden on the edge of the North Sea. The hardcore will undoubtedly revel in the opportunity to do so, but with an average home attendance of 3,396, Burghausen is not going to bring hordes with them to the far reaches of East Frisia.

This question of away support is one reason why only four 1. Bundesliga reserve teams were allowed to qualify for the 3. Liga – initially, at least. In the end, only three managed qualification last season, and with average home attendances of approximately 950, these teams will not be bringing many fans with them. In other words, clubs already have three dates on the calendar on which they are expecting little to no away support. Not only will this affect the atmosphere at the respective matches, but perhaps more importantly, it will affect the bottom line considerably.

Ultimately, the financial risks that these 20 clubs are taking will only pay off for certain for two of them — the champion and the runner-up, both of whom will be promoted to the 2. Bundesliga. The third-place finisher, after navigating the on- and off-field hurdles, will have to play a relegation playoff against the third-bottom 2. Bundesliga finisher. That will certainly create drama as the season unfolds, but it makes getting a return on the sizable investment made by the 3. Liga clubs that much harder.

If nothing else, the coming German third division season will be the most closely followed for some time. As the top two divisions start play in mid-August, the 3. Liga will have the public’s attention for nearly a month. To that end, a few matches will be broadcast nationally. There is a palpable concern, however, that the demands placed upon the clubs by the DFB will prove to be too much. To date, German lower-league clubs have not had to face the financial difficulties that their English counterparts have. Small German clubs have been prudent. Their ambitions have been realistic. In a drive to “modernize” the lower leagues, has the DFB fundamentally altered this psychology? And if so, is that good — good for the game, the clubs, the players, and above all, the fans? In many ways, the 3. Liga is a grand experiment. And it all starts under the floodlights in Erfurt.

Photos courtesy of Kurran on Flickr.


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