English football can learn a lot from the Bundesliga – both on and off the pitch

Anyone with even a passing interest in football will have had their eyes on Bayern Munich and Borrusia Dortmund on Saturday night as they battled it out for the most prestigious prize in club football. English clubs, none of which made it past the quarter finals of this year's Champions League, could learn a lot from watching Bayern and Dortmund in action.

Champions League

Matthew Whittley is a recent graduate, Labour party member and works as a researcher for a Midlands-based housing association

Anyone with even a passing interest in football will have had their eyes on Bayern Munich and Borrusia Dortmund on Saturday night as they battled it out for the most prestigious prize in club football. English clubs, none of which made it past the quarter finals of this year’s Champions League, could learn a lot from watching Bayern and Dortmund in action.

But perhaps the most important lessons can be learned off the pitch.

Many have heralded the Bundesliga’s success as  just reward for doing things the right way. While the Premier League has become a playground for thrill-seeking billionaires frittering  away millions in huge wages and transfer fees (to the detriment of many working-class people who have become priced out of attending games), German clubs have invested in youth academies and the clubs are run by, and in the interests of, the fans.

Priced out of the game

Take ticket prices. A ticket to watch Arsenal play cost £5 in 1989/90. The cheapest ticket for a ‘category A’ game at the Emirates stadium is now £62. If wages had increased at the same rate as ticket prices, average earnings would now be £165,000. In England, football has been operating in its own bubble that bears no semblance to economic reality.

Football has become unaffordable for large sections of society. A family of four would have to shell out the best part of £200 to watch Arsenal play a category A game, that’s before you factor in travel costs. In Germany, however, tickets for Dortmund’s Gelbe Wand (yellow wall) terrace are available for as little as £9. That’s less than it cost to watch Guiseley AFC host Halifax Town in the Conference North this season.

The maintenance of low ticket prices in the Bundesliga links directly to the fact that clubs are owned and run by the fans. The ’50 per cent + 1′ rule states that over half of the club must be owned by members. This prevents outside parties from obtaining a controlling stake and means that fans are heavily involved in the management of their club.

This system is not only more inclusive and democratic than the Premiership, where foreign billionaires have become the norm; it also provides financial stability. 14 of the 18 Bundesliga clubs registered profits during the 2011/12 season, compared with only five in the Premier League. During the same year, Dortmund recorded a pre-tax profit of €37m and spent less than €80m on wages, while Manchester City lost £99m, running up a wage bill of £202m.

Playthings of the rich

And of course it’s not only on wages where insane sums of money are spent. Even in these austere times top English clubs continue to pay outrageous sums in transfer fees. Between 2002 and 2012 Premiership clubs spent £4.4bn in transfer fees. Chelsea, owned by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, have been the biggest spenders, splashing out more than £650m.

In total, Abramovic has plunged approaching £1bn of his personal fortune into the club. Chelsea have achieved success on the pitch, but they are now totally dependent on one man, who could trigger financial meltdown at the club when he decides to walk away.

In the Bundesliga, the situation couldn’t be more different. Rather than splash the cash on obscene wages and transfer fees, clubs have invested heavily in youth academies, opting to nurture and develop local talent. Of the 22 players that started last night’s final, 13 have progressed through German academies.

Strict financial controls help to ensure the stability of German clubs. Debt levels are closely monitored and clubs must submit financial projections for scrutiny by the football authorities at the start of every season before they can receive a license to compete.

There is also a solidarity fund, which redistributes money from the professional leagues to the amateur game and provides financing to smaller clubs with high quality academies, helping them to meet the costs of running them. Bundesliga clubs pass on two per cent of their match day profits, and the DFB (German Football Association) receives three per cent of the revenues generated from TV rights. The DFB also has its own academy programme with over 350 centres across the country.

The growing gulf between fan and club

There was much to admire about Bayern and Dortmund’s performances on Saturday. Their combination of technical ability, tactical nous and sheer power has elevated European football to a level that English clubs have, despite all the money spent, failed to match this season. But clubs here are not just playing catch-up on the pitch.

The current state of English football – fans priced out of the game, clubs saddled with debt and propped up by foreign billionaires – is unsustainable.

While German clubs – through their ownership structure and affordable ticket prices – remain closely tied to their communities, English clubs are now investments to be bought and sold by the global rich, and the gap between fan and club continues to widen.

This year’s Champions League shows that success doesn’t have to be bought and that an alternative model exists – one that is inclusive, democratic and sustainable. The Premier League should take note.

2 Responses to “English football can learn a lot from the Bundesliga – both on and off the pitch”

  1. Paul Oliver

    If the cheapest ticket for a ‘Category A’ game at Arsenal is £62, a family of four would have to pay nearly £250, not ‘the best part of £200’. I assume you didn’t major in maths, Mr Whittley.

    Overall, the German model of club ownership is one that England (and maybe a few other European countries) would do well to copy. When clubs as far down the pyramid as Guiseley charge more than the second-best team in Germany and Europe, there’s something badly wrong with the English system. I stopped going to footie in 1988, because I needed my money for other things. Now, I can’t afford to think about buying tickets.

    Unfortunately, nothing will change here, because the people in charge of the FA, the Prem and the individual clubs only think about how much money they can make, not what’s likely to help the game as a whole.

  2. Logic

    Children’s tickets are cheaper than adult tickets so the total cost is better described as “the best part of £200”.

Leave a Reply