Former Bayer Leverkusen CEO calls 50+1 rule “a relic from the past preventing German football from reaching the next level”

5 October 2020

Wolfgang Holzhäuser
Photo: PA Images The former CEO at Bayer leverkusen, and currently working as a consultant at Sportsheads, Wolfgang Holzhäuser, are not happy with the current version of the "50+1"-rule in German football.

Wolfgang Holzhäuser was one of the key figures in implementing the 50+1 rule in 1998.

Holzhäuser says the rule needs to be modified for German clubs to be able to adapt to innovative business methods in modern football.

The former Bayer Leverkusen CEO now calls for changes if German football is to improve its international presence to help boost the value of the Bundesliga TV and media rights.

A majority of the 36 Bundesliga clubs in March 2018 voted to retain the rule – but discussions are ongoing between the DFB, DFL and the clubs.

Svend Bertil Frandsen bertil@offthepitch.com

When FC Bayern München set an astonishing number of records at the end of August and won the UEFA Champions League with an ease seldom witnessed before in Europe´s most prestigious competition, they also poured ice on a volcano about to erupt under German professional football: The 50+1 rule.

The 50+1 rule, introduced in 1998, requires at least 51 percent of a club to be owned by its members. In essence, it was designed to guarantee the continuation of the fan-based ownership model of former generations - but still allowed for investment opportunities. The rule nevertheless guaranteed that the supporters still had a direct say in matters of management – in short, 50+1 was instigated to make sure that no single entity could control the whole club.

50+1 rule a dinosaur in modern football

Today, the former CEO of Bayer Leverkusen, Wolfgang Holzhäuser - who took part in making the 50+1 rule and launching the DFL (the German League) - says the rule has been overtaken by the realities of business mechanisms in modern football.

“The rule has done wonders for German football through time. But now it has become a dinosaur and a tool for football romanticists. It has become a relic from when German football was still shaped by club culture and understood itself to be a non-profit organisation with focus on amateur football. Today the rule is outdated and illogical,” Holzhäuser tells Off the Pitch.

In 2014 the rule was slightly reformed when it was agreed that investors who had an interest in a club for more than 20 years could apply for an exemption. But according to Holzhäuser, the reform was only a cover-up for the gradual flaws that started to show in the 50+1 rule.

“They made a mistake in 2014 with the reform. They thought the 20-year limit would enable clubs to become equal to Bayer Leverkusen. But it’s a fantasy because investors are usually not capable of providing what Bayer have done for Leverkusen in 20 years or what Dietmar Hopp did in Hoffenheim. It’s too complicated. The intentions are good and it looks good on paper. But in practice it doesn´t work,” he says.

Potential investors should commit for at least three years

Holzhäuser, who today works as a consultant for Sportheads.de along with a list of former prestigious figures in German football, stresses that the 50+1 rule should not be abolished.

“I never said that the 50+1 rule should be abolished because we don´t want to end up with the same business climate and methods that you see in the Premier League; but the rule should be changed,” he says.

“Clubs should be allowed to choose for themselves if they want to give up shares, and if so, in what way. The association (DFB) or the league (DFL) should not interfere with the autonomy of the club. It should be a decision made by the members of the club if they want to bring in an investor,” he says.

Holzhäuser also believes potential investors should show a certain commitment to clubs to “be allowed into the fold”.

“Investors should commit themselves for at least three years to the club and they shouldn´t be allowed to invest in more than one club or to sell their shares on to a third party.”

The 50+1 rule makes investments very difficult because investors want to decide for themselves what happens to their money. And in that way it prevents innovation from taking place.

Not too long ago, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung calculated that an average Bundesliga football fan could attend their club's 17 home matches, buy a new home shirt, and enjoy two beers and a bratwurst per game - all for less than €500 a season.oday there are generally big concerns among German football fans that ticket prices could become subject to huge inflation if the 50+1 rule is abolished or changed to allow investors to buy up club shares. But Holzhaüser dismisses those concerns altogether.

“If I was an investor I wouldn´t even think of increasing ticket prices because the ticket prices are part of what makes the Bundesliga so attractive. And in the end ticket prices have minimal financial effect on the clubs anyway,” he says.

“50+1 does the opposite of what it set out to do”

Holzhäuser says there is a general misconception in Germany that the 50+1 rule preserves genuine football culture in the Bundesliga and prevents the rich from getting even richer.

“Along with Financial Fair Play, it takes part in strengthening and protecting monopolies which is the opposite of what it set out to do. The 50+1 rule makes investments very difficult because investors want to decide for themselves what happens to their money. And in that way it prevents innovation from taking place,” he says.

Holzhäuser says the Corona crisis should have taught German clubs not to be too dependent on short-term revenue such as transfer fees, ticket and merchandising sales as well as sponsorship deals.

“At the moment it’s difficult to see how sponsorship – and entrance fees - can be increased, but the TV market is a different matter. The influx of investors would help the value of the Bundesliga TV and media rights. The Bundesliga needs to increase its international presence, but that can only be done via success in the European competitions. Consequently we need investors,” Holzhäuser concludes.