https://www.dw.com-The new head of the German Football League, Donata Hopfen, has sent mixed messages about the future of football, insisting that it must remain ‘the people’s game’, but not ruling out new commercial activities.
With the Bundesliga facing pandemic losses of over €1 billion ($1.15 billion), its clubs being outspent in the transfer market, stadiums still limited to 10,000 fans, and Bayern Munich marching towards a tenth consecutive title, the league’s new boss says she is open to anything to boost the attractiveness of the German top flight.
“Of course, the (Bundesliga) would be more attractive if there were more competition at the top,” Donata Hopfen told tabloid Bild am Sonntag this weekend. “And for me, there are no sacred cows. If playoffs can help us, then let’s talk about playoffs.”
Asked whether she could envisage playing the season’s traditional curtain-raiser, the Super Cup, in Saudi Arabia, like Spain’s La Liga did this season, she said: “We can’t rule anything out.”
‘Football is the people’s game’
The idea of playing even semi-competitive matches such as the Super Cup abroad is anathema to many football fans in Germany, who for years have felt increasingly disenfranchised by the rampant commercialization of the game, culminating in last year’s aborted attempt to form a breakaway European Super League.
But Hopfen, who succeeded Christian Seifert as head of the German Football League (DFL) in January and is the first woman to hold the position, also tempered her suggestions by insisting that “football is and remains the people’s game – it has to be our job to put the fan back in focus.”
German football’s fan crisis
Yet, whether in the stadium, in the living room or online, there is no denying that German football now has a fan crisis.
Once famed and admired for its vibrant fan culture and the highest average attendances in Europe, the Bundesliga’s clubs are now struggling to sell tickets – even at reduced capacity – with 4,850 tickets on average going unsold on matchdays 7, 8 and 9 this season, according to public broadcaster ARD.
The same research found that television audiences have also sunk during the pandemic, both on free-to-air highlights shows as well as on Sky’s live Bundesliga coverage. Meanwhile, streaming service DAZN has still increased its subscription fee.
“We have to approach fans and find out what they want,” said Hopfen. “And by that, I mean all fans: the fan on the terrace, the fan in the VIP lounge, the fan watching on TV and the fan on TikTok.”
Those fans will all have different priorities, but all would agreed that a Bundesliga in which Bayern Munich win ten consecutive titles – regardless of how much they might have earned it – is not ideal.
’50+1 is not a block to success’
The inability of the rest of the league to compete with Bayern has been blamed in some quarters on Germany’s 50+1 ownership rule, which prevents majority takeovers and thus discourages large scale investment.
Hopfen’s explicit mention of 50+1 in an introductory video message in January was met with foreboding and suspicion among the country’s organized football fans, but the message this weekend was more nuanced:
The 50+1 rule: What is it?
“Bayern Munich are one of the best teams in Europe despite 50+1, that’s a good example that 50+1 is not a block to success,” she said, confirming that since Martin Kind’s failed attempt to take over second division side Hannover in 2018, there has been no development towards scrapping the ruling.
“Perhaps things would be a bit easier without restrictions, but would that still be our Bundesliga?” she said. “I don’t think that scrapping (50+1) fits Germany’s football culture.”
‘Good to think about regulation’
Indeed, Hopfen even suggested that greater regulation of football could be beneficial, especially when it comes to the topic of player wages.
“I understand that [footballers’] salaries are now reaching dimensions which are barely comprehensible,” she admitted. “Much of the money paid for salaries, transfer fees and agents’ fees doesn’t even go back into the development of young players or professional structures. It would be good to think about regulation.”
Salary caps, fairer distribution of broadcast revenue and a commitment to 50+1 will all sound good in principle to Germany’s disillusioned football fans. But how that fits together with domestic fixtures being played in Saudi Arabia is anyone’s guess.
Based on her mixed messages so far, DFL boss Donata Hopfen isn’t too sure either.