What are the Fan Protests in Germany All About?

23.02.2024 11:52:27 Craig Simpkin
Borussia Dortmund Fans

You have to hand it to football fans in Germany: they certainly don’t do things by halves.

In the midst of the greatest wave of supporter-led outrage the German Bundesliga has seen in decades, they’ve used bicycle locks, planes and even remote-controlled cars to get their message across. In short, football is not for sale to the highest bidder.

In an age in which English football has been plundered by oil barons, sheikhs and private equity firms, none of whom, you suspect, giving a hoot about the club they have acquired beyond the financial bottom line, the German game has kicked back to ensure that they don’t follow suit.

Their 50+1 rule is designed to achieve exactly that, ensuring that key decisions are made by the ‘football people’ at a Bundesliga club, rather than those armed for battle with calculators and spreadsheets.

But the new wave of protests relate to the sale of TV rights: resulting in one of the most impassioned shows of supporter dissent anywhere around the globe.


What is the Bundesliga Trying to Do?

The German Bundesliga is operated by the Deutsche Fußball Liga (DFL), which translates literally as German Football League.

That enterprise owns the TV broadcast rights to Bundesliga games, giving them the power to decide who is allowed to show the games on television and how much the broadcaster(s) will have to stump up for the privilege. 

That’s not been a huge problem over the years, until 2023 that is, when the DFL announced that they wanted to sell a portion of the media rights to a private investment firm, with a figure in the region of £860 million mooted.

They started welcoming bids, with CVC Capital Partners who brokered a similar deal with the Spanish LaLiga for more than £1 billion. They  are the frontrunners to get the gig.

It went to a vote and the 36 teams that make up the German Bundesliga and Bundesliga.2 gave the nod to the DFL to sign an investment deal, knowing that finances being pumped into the game would be a good thing for them.

But it would not be a good thing for fans who might be forced to pay more for TV subscription packages if the deal with CVC, or whoever it might be, went through. Such a deal would give the media rights owner the power to recommend that DFL approach new broadcasters for a more lucrative deal.

So rather than getting mad, German football fans got even.


Remote Controlled Madness

The German Bundesliga and its second tier, observe a winter break, returning later in January to a full fixture list.

And since the season got back underway, games in the top two divisions of German football have been beset by protests and disruption.

Those ranged from the comical to the more serious. Borussia Dortmund’s fans threw tennis balls and chocolate coins onto the pitch during their 3-0 win over Freiburg, with play delayed by as long as ten minutes while a clean-up operation took place. In the end, players including Emra Can were asked to plead with supporters to stop chucking objects onto the field.

“It's everyone's right to protest” commented Dortmund keeper Gregor Kobel. “I just have to be careful when marbles and rubber balls are thrown in my penalty area.”

In Bundesliga.2, Hamburg fans got onto the pitch and attached bicycle locks to the goalposts during their contest with Hannover, before opposition supporters unveiled a banner which showed an image of the club’s president, Martin Kind, literally in the crosshairs of a gun.

Hamburg had previously been involved in shenanigans during their game with Hansa Rostock. They managed to smuggle a convoy of remote-controlled cars into the stadium, which were then driven onto the pitch with smoke bombs lit on the back. Cue the rather comical scene of stewards trying to chase down and tackle the toy cars, with minimal success….

While the protests have been of a light-hearted nature at times, the message behind them has been very serious: fans will not allow German football to be ‘sold out’ – particularly when it’s their experience that is ultimately most likely to be impacted.

The Deal’s Off

There are ramifications to such protests.

They can cause games to be delayed, meaning that some contests will finish after the final whistle has sounded in others. Where the protestations are severe, it can lead to the game being abandoned all together with a resumption required at a later date.

That can affect the integrity of a league, particularly as we begin the long climb to the business end of the 2023/24 campaign. Some teams are likely to gain an advantage be it deliberate or otherwise. Finishing a game after that of a rival, knowing what kind of result they need in relation to those of the teams around them in the table is of course an advantage.

That is one of the reasons why the DFL have ultimately decided to end negotiations with private investment firms. They’ve called off the deal to preserve the integrity of the Bundesliga and Bundesliga.2 seasons, despite what DFL executive committee spokesperson Hans-Joachim Watzke refers to as an ‘entrepreneurial necessity’ for Bundesliga clubs to make more money.

In terms of commercial revenue, the Bundesliga falls way behind the Premier League and LaLiga hence why private investment would not only be good for the balance sheets of German clubs, but also to aid their competitiveness in the Champions League and other continental competitions.

“In view of current developments, a successful continuation of the process no longer seems possible,” Watzke confirmed. 

That’s not to say that DFL chiefs won’t revisit the idea in seasons ahead, presumably rushing through a deal during the summer months when there’s no football to be disrupted.

The overriding message is clear: German football fans don’t want their game to be taken over by overseas investors with little interest in the beautiful game. It’s a shame that Premier League supporters hadn’t taken a similar stance as the capitalist hordes descended on the English top-flight….



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