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Protests & Progress: The Continued Rise of RB Leipzig

In September 2014, I wrote a blog about how RB Leipzig were sending shockwaves through German football as they reached the 2. Bundesliga. The team have since continued with their rapid rise, climbing into second place in the Bundesliga, only behind Bayern Munich on goal difference. Yet their ascent of German football has brought negative attention for both the club and the business model, highlighted by their recent number 1 ranking on a list of the most unlikeable professional clubs in Germany. Much of the animosity stems from the current culture and structure of German football, where fans are members and no one owner can dictate the future of a club. The Red Bull ownership model has challenged this tradition, allowing the Austrian energy drinks company to fund their rise to the top tier of German football. Opposition fans have found a variety of methods to display their resentment, including Union Berlin fans dressing in black, Dortmund fans boycotting the match, and Dynamo Dresden fans going even further, throwing a severed bull’s head from the stands. Much of the anger directed their way can be put down to their nouveau riche status and the particularly rapid ascent of the club. However, even their own stablemate, Red Bull Salzburg, has started to feel the effects of Leipzig’s success, as players, coaches and even kit have swapped Salzburg for Leipzig, whilst future investment is may also be directed into East Germany.

Out of the controversy, there have been glimmers of positivity towards the club, likely due to the emergence of a club from the former East Germany to rival the likes of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. In fact, they are the first East German club to reach the Bundesliga since 2009 and there is hope that their ascent will, in due course, lead to the development of more East German players – Toni Kroos was the only member of ‘Die Mannschaft’ in 2014 that won the World Cup.

The club has won plenty of admirers amongst footballing purists, as they play an exciting, swashbuckling brand of football, with the introduction of plenty of young, homegrown talent – the club have a policy of only signing players under the age of 24. The club has national team players at every age level and investment in their academy is aimed at creating a sustainable platform so that outward investment in players is minimal. Their progress has been overseen by Ralf Rangnick, who is respected throughout German football and has been previously touted for the England job.

Off the pitch, they are starting to gain respect too, with a number of independent fan groups including Rasenballisten - who are trying to create an identity with loyal, passionate support: “The Rasenballisten stand for football, Leipzig and fan culture, not for sponsors!” Beyond the fan groups, the club received a lot of credit for its support during the 2015 refugee crisis, supplying 60 containers from its training centre as emergency accommodation, a donation of €50,000, with the players even donating clothing to the cause. The success of the team has also led to an improved economic outlook for the city and local area, with €35m invested into the RB Leipzig academy facilities, a regularly sold out sports venue and thousands of jobs created within the local community. The Leipzig Chamber of Industry and Commerce estimated that, in 2014, the club generated €50m for the city and surrounding areas, a figure that will now surely rise following their promotion to the top division.

The controversy remains however, and it’s a journey that has caused a good deal of reflection within football communities in Germany. One self-proclaimed ‘football philosopher’, Wolfram Eilenberger, has argued that fans are venting their frustrations over their own club’s failures: “He who hates Red Bull (Leipzig) hates himself”. There will be many neutrals who would like to see Bayern’s dominance dismantled and it is interesting to see Bayern President-in-waiting Uli Hoeness state that “if it works, it is good for all football, not just for the East”. Whilst not all are enamoured by RB Leipzig’s success, there is much to admire about the progress of the club. Red Bull’s support of football clubs in Austria (est. 2005), Brazil (2007), Germany (2009), Ghana (2008) and USA (2006) points to solidarity and continued investment, which is not to be taken for granted...and something which many football fans would welcome at their club.

Whichever side of the divide you stand, it seems likely that given the financial support and sustainable model overseen by Rangnick, RB Leipzig will be a regular name in the Bundesliga for years to come.

Red Bullies? Why Red Bull’s Ownership Model has Caused a Stir in German Football

RasenBallsport Leipzig may translate to ‘lawn ball sport’, but once you factor in their club crest (shown below), stadium (Red Bull Arena), and owners (Red Bull GmbH), it is quickly apparent that they are not your average lower league football team.

RB L

The club, owned and run by the Austrian-based energy drink company, is the fifth club to join the Red Bull stable of professional football clubs, and has caused a stir within German football since transforming the fifth division team SSV Markranstadt in 2009. After purchasing the licence and re-naming the club (which is abbreviated to RB Leipzig), the club colours were changed and the team moved to a new purpose-built stadium, with the goal of reaching the Bundesliga by 2016.

Opposition fans and teams have been quick to voice their displeasure, with 15 minutes of silence from 20,000 Union Berlin fans the most recent example. The reason for this is the apparent threat to the current, strict 50+1 structure of club ownership in Germany, whereby clubs are owned by members. At Bayern Munich, for example, adidas (€75m), Allianz (€110m) and Audi (€90m) all have 8.33% stakes, but the 75% majority is controlled by the members. Having progressed through the divisions so quickly, RB Leipzig have been criticised for making club membership expensive and hard to obtain. This is supported by the fact that the club currently only has 300 members, compared to approximately 250,000 members at Bayern Munich.

Nein zu RB

Multinational franchises aren't the exclusive domain of Red Bull though, with City Football Group taking controlling ownership of New York City FC and Melbourne City – formerly New York Metrostars and Melbourne Heart respectively - and a minority stake in Yokohama F Marinos. Many feel that being able to own more than one club is anti-competitive to other teams with fewer resources, and that it also restricts the opportunities for home-grown players. UEFA legislation stipulates that clubs with the same owner cannot participate in the same competition, a distinct possibility in the near future, were RB Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg to both qualify for the Europa or Champions League.

Of course, Red Bull is now a familiar name within the world of sport, owning two F1 teams, ice hockey teams, and a wide portfolio of both extreme sports and more mainstream athlete ambassadors. Within the space of 10 years, Red Bull F1 has won the Constructors’ Championship four times, yet there has been comparatively little backlash against the company. Red Bull's creation of extreme events such as the Air Race, Cliff Diving and Flugtag series has also captured the imagination of many, and has widely been praised, so why the backlash in German football?

Historically, club ownership has been tied to the local area, and it is this nuance that allows a couple of Bundesliga teams to be owned by multinational corporations. VfL Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen are owned by Volkswagen & Bayer AG respectively, but this is permitted by the Bundesliga, as the clubs were formed from company factory staff. TSG 1899 Hoffenheim are the other club that RB Leipzig highlight in defence of their model, pointing out the role that major investment has played, and a growing acceptance of the club in recent years.

VFLWolfs

Certainly, Red Bull have a way go to quell the backlash from the majority of the football-supporting German public, but advocates would argue that the success of the model makes the league more competitive. Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund have won 16 of the previous 20 Bundesliga titles, and a new ‘challenger’ within the Bundesliga may actually be a benefit to German football, in the same way many feel - with justification - that Red Bull has enhanced Formula One.

It would be interesting to see how the English public would react should Red Bull turn their attentions to these shores, as rumoured in 2013. A Red Bull-owned Premier League team would undoubtedly bring worldwide recognition, prestige and controversy; something that Red Bull do not tend to shy away from, but I suspect that prohibitive costs and regulation may prevent investment. Given the UEFA legislation and relative cost for English football teams, I would imagine growth markets of Latin America or Australia are more likely sites for a sixth member of the Red Bull football family.