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Can the Bundesliga ruin itself?

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Over the last few years the Bundesliga has garnered a lot of favourable press internationally for its cheap ticket prices, fan culture and stadiums filled to the rafters. The Germans have got it right has been the theme of many articles penned all around the world. In most cases those who know the league and have followed it over the years were happy to agree with those statements. Finally German football was getting the press it deserved. However, over the last couple of years the winds have shifted and the league itself has now become synonymous with Bayern München as the Bavarians take home the Bundesliga trophy every year it seems. The lack of excitement at the top of the table certainly keeps the casual observers and those on the hunt for a new favourite league to follow away from the Bundesliga.

That doesn't take away from the fact that the level of youth players making it into first team line ups is impressive and the experience of going to a Bundesliga match is still great. However, underneath all of that the discontent among the fans seems to be growing. In a study called FC FairPlay conducted by the German institute of sport marketing published in May of this year several of the answers given to a questionnaire by the over 17,000 fans participating in the study make for alarming reading for the officials at the top.

Yawn – The Bundesliga has turned into a three class society

In the past the Bundesliga was known for its massive upsets and outsiders suddenly launching into title winning campaigns. VfL Wolfsburg in 2009 and VfB Stuttgart in 2007 were massive outsiders at the start of the season, but in the end they wrote history through great team spirit. However, these days that is not enough if one wants to win the league. The economic powerhouses that are Bayern, Leipzig and Dortmund are likely to overshadow the rest of the 15 Bundesliga teams. These days being in second after 7 match days is considered to be a crisis for Bayern München.

Karl-Heinz Rummenigge stated that the best championship the club has won was the heartbeat final of the 2000/01 season when a free kick goal by Patrick Andersson decided the championship only moments before the final whistle of the last match day. The powerful man at Bayern says he wants more finishes like these to happen in the future as well, but given the financial discrepancy between the three sides mentioned and the rest of the league that sort of event occurring seems more and more unlikely.

According to the research in the FC FairPlay study most fans blame the Champions League for the ever growing divide between the table toppers and the rest of the league. These days Bundesliga fans consider the league to be society of three classes, making any movement up the table harder and harder as the teams at the top have secured massive financial advantages through their participation in European competitions. As many as 55.3% of the fans questioned stated that they found the Bundesliga boring.

As things stand the most exciting questions ahead of the season concern who is going to grab the fourth Champions League slot and if any team can spring a surprise by getting into the Europa League. Compare that to the day and age of Stuttgart winning the title and a stark contrast becomes apparent.

However, it would be unfair to blame the DFL and the clubs in the league entirely for the current situation. The ever greater amount of money generated by the Champions League have given the clubs at the top a massive economic edge, resulting in such an uneven playing field for which shrewd transfers and the hire of a good unknown coach can't compensate. Once big clubs like Werder and Stuttgart are now going into the season holding a hand of a 2 and a 7(unsuited) compared to the pocket aces held by Bayern. A whopping 80% of the fans state that the competition is uneven because the big clubs get their hands on too much money from various different sources.

Commercialism – The death of the Bundesliga?

Finding new revenue streams is one way of how the rest of the league can make up for the gap between them and the top clubs. However, the fans themselves think that this development has gone too far already. Despite German football's reputation for cheap ticket prices, almost half(49.3%) of the fans think that ticket costs are too high. Even more alarming, 72.4% of the fans think that the current development around the beautiful game in Germany has gone so far that the fans interests are suffering.

Those numbers should make for alarming reading for the men in charge. Whilst the headlines from 5 or 6 years ago were about how Germany had gotten things right, these days the German fans themselves feel like the development in the league is heading in the same direction as it did elsewhere a 15 or 20 years ago. Furthermore, it should also be noted that the clubs at hand should be careful in the way they try to even the gap. Whilst 66.5% of the fans agreed that marketing is necessary, an even more overwhelming 69.3% of the fans stated that the commercialisation of the league should have reached its limit by now. If this trend continues, 51.1% of the fans state that they would walk out on the Bundesliga.

Oversees trips to Asia and America at the start of the season and during the Winterpause have been criticised by the fans in the past, alongside ever increasing ticket prices and the kick off times. Most German football fans agree that the match day is broken down into too many different kick off times(73%). However, the DFL counts on ever increasing TV revenue from new markets, which in turn could lead to more Monday night kick offs and a fewer matches on Saturday afternoon. Walking that tightrope is going to be the biggest marketing challenge facing the DFL in the coming years.

Another eyesore for the fans are the growing amounts of investors who have found their way into German football over the last few years. These days there are strong voices coming from within in the league to abolish the 50+1 rule. More investors could make the playing field more even according to the likes of Eintracht Frankfurt's sporting director Fredi Bobic and others. However, only 14.6% of the fans find that to be a good idea.

The fans solutions

As things stand there seems to be an ever growing divide between the fans and the officials running the league. A massive 78.4% of the fans agreed with the statement that money itself was more important to the officials rather than football itself. The study itself questioned the fans to possible solutions to the problems at hand. The five best ways of solving the current problems were according to the fans:
1. Professional football needs clear financial rules.

2. A fairer distribution of the TV revenue could lead to more competition within the league

3. Players salaries should be limited

4. More fan friendly kick off times

5. To further the interests of the fans, football clubs should include at least one fan representative in their supervisory bodies
Niklas Wildhagen

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