However in 2009 things changed when energy drinks giant Red Bull went shopping for a German football team. They eventually settled on SSV Markranstädt, a near-bankrupt minnow playing to crowds of a few hundred in the fifth tier of the German game and little known even to the half million residents of the nearby eastern city of Leipzig. Red Bull were forbidden by the German football authorities from changing the name of the team to “Red Bull Leipzig” but did manage to get away with “Rasenballsport (lawn ball sports) Leipzig” allowing them to brand the team as “RB Leipzig” in their logo and corporate communications. Dressed in the colours of their new sponsor, and relocating to the 44,000 seater Zentralstadion in Leipzig (now rebranded The Red Bull Arena) which had mostly lain empty since its renovation for the 2006 World Cup, RB Leipzig went on a spending spree which would see them climb the divisions in record time.
German football has only three national football leagues with regional leagues below. Whereas in the west of the country these competitive sporting environments often feature the second and third teams of established Bundesliga clubs, football in the east has historically been much weaker. During the country’s post-war partition the Stalinist authorities were fearful of crowds lest they became a vehicle for political protest. Teams were frequently “merged” or moved, and league structures frequently “re-organized” specifically to prevent any truly popular club emerging. To make doubly certain of football’s demise, the top division was brazenly fixed in order to ensure Stasi-backed Dynamo Berlin won everything possible, thereby destroying East German football as a sporting spectacle.
Today, a quarter of a century after re-unification the Bundesliga doesn’t have a single team from the former east, 2. Bundesliga has only 4, and 3. Liga 7. Overall 45 out of 56 nationally competing clubs come from the former west.
Faced with such weak competition RB Leipzig strolled through the regional football of the 2009-10 season winning promotion at their first attempt. They missed out on promotion the following season by only four points, but annihilated all comers the following year, topping the table by fourteen points and going the entire season unbeaten. In 2013-14 and now out of the regional leagues into the national 3. Liga, RB finished joint top of the table and won promotion at their first attempt, a feat never before accomplished. As I write they currently sit seventh in 2. Bundesliga, only 4 points off an automatic promotion place to the top tier of Germany’s football pyramid.
RB’s performance and promotion in the 3. Liga sent shockwaves through German football. Red Bull’s annual turnover is more than €5 billion, a third of which is reinvested in marketing . Those sort of numbers scared everyone, even the big boys in Dortmund and Munich. Supporters groups, backed by some clubs, started to protest. When Leipzig travelled to Union Berlin in September the 20,000 home supporters staged a mock funeral and held a 15 minute long silence from the kick-off. Assisted by Union’s board, supporters distributed black plastic ponchos at the gates, along with a pamphlet headlined, “Football culture is dying in Leipzig - Union is alive”.
Critics pointed to the 50%+1 rule and noted that whilst Red Bull had abided by the letter of the law they hadn’t abided by the spirit. The entire “members association” of the club had only 9 members, all of whom were employed by the drinks manufacturer. By comparison FC Bayern, Germany’s largest membership club, has 230,000 members. New applicants for RB membership were all rejected without explanation. Red Bull was reluctantly forced to open up the association to new members but set the subscription dues at a prohibitive €800 per season, more than 10 times the €60 charged by FC Bayern. Moreover, as Leipzig’s Red Bull revenue is technically sponsorship, it is regarded as legitimate club earnings and so does not fall foul of the UEFA financial fair play regulations.
Despite accusations of debasing the sport RB does have its advocates. Leipzig have built up a surprisingly loyal fanbase which has averaged 24,700 at home matches this season, the 5th highest in 2. Bundesliga and higher than middle-table clubs in the league above like SC Paderborn 07 and SC Freiburg. For the first time since before the war a team from the east looks like a serious contender and supporters are increasingly backing their new local team, although even they tend to distance themselves from its main sponsor. Others point out that clubs from the west have a long history as company teams: 2008-09 Bundesliga champions VfL Wolfsburg are a wholly owned subsidiary of the Volkswagen automotive group, not to mention Bayer 04 Leverkusen, whose history as the team of the massive Bayer pharmaceutical company is still evident in their club name.
The likely promotion to the Bundesliga of RB Leipzig means that for the first time in European club football a first rank team from one of the “big five” leagues will essentially be one big advertisement, devoid of all history and tradition. Such a position would ideally place them for a serious chance at Champions League success in the next few seasons. Ironically, the UEFA financial fair play rules could actually aid their chances of success by limiting the spending of much of their competition. It seems probable that in the near future either the Champions league title itself becomes a commodity for sale at auction to the highest corporate bidder or UEFA will be called upon to more robustly intervene in European football’s increasingly Byzantine financial arrangements.