Hannover 96 and the battle for the soul of German football

The fight for ownership of Hannover 96 is proving to have wide-reaching implications for the long-admired culture of the German game

(Hannover 96)

The Bundesliga’s biggest story this season is happening off the pitch in various offices, meetings, assemblies, and rulings around Germany. Call it the Martin Kind and Hannover 96 saga. At stake is the future of the Bundesliga’s fabled supporter-friendly values, culture, participation, as well as the broader relationship between fans and clubs. Martin Kind’s saga has become the crucial crossroads, after which various alternative futures for German football are possible.

Basically, our tale revolves around the incredibly rich Martin Kind attempting to become the main owner of Bundesliga club Hannover 96. In achieving this goal, Kind would join Dieter Hopp at TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, Bayer Healthcare Pharmaceuticals at Bayer Leverkusen, and Volkswagen at VfL Wolfsburg as owners of Bundesliga clubs exempted from the league’s famous 50+1 rule. This rule stipulates that at least 50+1 ownership shares (i.e. a majority) of a club must belong to the fans, who, in turn, exercise a voting majority at each German club’s annual Mitgliederversammlung, or general assembly—an event with ultimate voting power in all club matters.

The rule originated in 1998 when German football clubs transformed themselves into limited companies (for attracting bigger and better sponsors, as well as TV deals), apart from the larger parent sporting club. As a compromise, football clubs were allowed to become limited companies, but had to adhere to the 50+1 rule in order to guarantee that football clubs remained supporter-owned and tied to the local community, as well as larger parent club organization. A main reason the rule exists is to prevent foreign owners from (quickly) buying and selling Bundesliga clubs or stripping the clubs of their supporter-centered values and cultures.

An exemption to the rule allowed clubs with long-standing (i.e. 20+ years) owners to be grandfathered into the Bundesliga. Hence, Bayer Leverkusen and Wolfsburg were allowed to remain in the league, despite not being majority owned by fans. And in 2015, Hoffenheim was granted similar status after software tycoon and club president Hopp had invested 20 years of significant time and financial support into this boyhood club.

So it was no surprise that Hannover’s president, hearing aids entrepreneur Martin Kind applied for the exemption early last August, as he reached the 20-year involvement mark with H96. Kind had been talking about this move for years, and major protests were already rocking the club as the date drew close. The club’s advisory board approved Kind’s decision on a 3-2 vote, as protesters marched outside, despite the deal preventing Kind from ever selling the club to foreign investors. While Kind awaited an eventual DFL decision, protests have occurred through these last six months.

However, on February 5, Kind withdrew his application from the DFL (the German FA), and the association seemed on the verge of rejecting it anyway, amid significant legal challenges made by the Hannover supporter group, Pro Verein 1996, who submitted a 50-page document to the DFL challenging the legal grounds of Kind’s application. Previously, Pro Verein had lost a regional court decision trying to block Kind’s application, and had held protests around Hannover (“Kind muss weg!” or “Kind must go!”) condemning Kind’s plan.

However, Kind has been thinking about own presumptive ownership for a long time. In 2011, it was Martin Kind who pushed through a rule change that opened up the 20-year exemption to other Bundesliga clubs, if they could meet the same criteria as Leverkusen and Wolfsburg. This rule change enabled Hoffenheim’s Hopp to successfully apply for ownership of his club, and is the same rule change Kind himself was hoping to benefit from last fall. In a double irony, the DFL seems to find that Kind technically doesn’t meet the criteria of his own rule change(!). At least, the DFL assented to this argument put forth by the Pro Verein group, who argued that Kind failed to provide continuous involvement and significant financial support to Hannover 96 these last 20 years. Pro Verein noted that Kind stepped down from the H96 presidency in 2005-06, and that his financial contributions didn’t match those of the club’s main sponsor (as stipulated in the 50+1 rule exemption), and that Kind contributed only a fraction of what Hopp, his Hoffenheim counterpart, contributed. Deutsche Welle’s Matt Ford reports that Hopp has contributed $435 million to Hoffenheim, while Kind reportedly has only invested a fraction of this amount. Finally, Pro Verein pointed out that Kind’s application was not approved during the club’s April 2017 Mitgliederversammlung (in fact, a theoretical Kind takeover was actually voted down then). Although Kind himself claimed that the 50+1 rule exemption gave him legal standing to bypass the general assembly, a legitimate courtroom showdown loomed between Kind and H96 supporters, given the various cross-purposed rules and debated exemption-criteria language at stake.

Hence, Kind withdrew his application.

However, as good as this latest development of the Kind saga is for many Hannover supporters and adherents to the Bundesliga’s 50+1 rule, Kind seems to be applying a “losing-the-battle-to-the-win-the-war” strategy. Namely, Kind withdrawing his application now forces the DFL to totally reform the 50+1 rule. The DFL said as much on Monday, formally calling for a fundamental debate about the rule and its possible alteration.  

From an ideological and legal standpoint, this reform is long overdue. Ideologically, the rule’s meaning has been drained by the three current exemptions, as well as RB Leipzig, who’ve famously made a fool of the rule, adhering to its letter, while gutting its application of any substance whatsoever. Leipzig’s example demonstrates that the rule’s spirit can be totally circumvented with bureaucratic cleverness. However, the rule stands on even shakier legal grounds. For years, consensus has emerged that, if lawsuits were filed (both in German and EU courts), the 50+1 rule would be struck down on EU competition law grounds. Regardless, unreformed, the rule’s future looks shaky, without even considering Kind’s threat to sue the DFL, if it formally denied his application.

It’s little wonder that Kind would call the DFL’s recent news about reforming the 50+1 rule a “partial victory,” since although Kind lost the battle over his ownership application, he’s still gunning in the larger war to eventually take down the 50+1 rule. Above all else, Monday’s events leave basically the entirety of German football at a significant crossroads. Kicker’s editor-in-chief Rainer Franzke argues that, although the DFL calling for a fundamental debate about reforming the 50+1 is a nice gesture, there might not be enough time as German courts are moving to hear president at the bankrupted 1860 Munich Hasan Ismaik’s lawsuit against the DFL, which could force the issue anyway. Franzke also fears the Ismaik case could create a split in rules and values for the top flight and Germany’s 2.Bundesliga, further complicating any attempts to reform the 50+1 rule.

Speaking of reform, the most popular idea being floated around comes from Eintracht Frankfurt’s president, Axel Hellmann, who’s proposing four specific reforms: 1) that investors must never move the club to different city (e.g. no MK Dons or American-style sports franchises), 2) that investors must never change the club’s crest and colors (e.g. no Cardiff City colors debacle or Leeds United badge disaster), 3) that investors must respect the supporter culture by not raising ticket prices too high (e.g. no Emirates-style prices), and 4) that investors must fulfill their contractual obligations and that the club decides on succeeding owners.

Although rules 3 and 4 are admittedly vague, rules 1 and 2 are near and dear to supporters’ hearts, while the last two rules at least move reform in the right direction. Hellmann’s reforms attempt to satisfy deep-pocketed foreign investors, who, with the doing away of the 50+1 rule, would now be incentivized to invest significant money in Bundesliga clubs, while the reforms still acknowledge the unique features of Bundesliga supporter values and culture. Because, let’s face it, without its unique supporter culture, the Bundesliga’s cache would collapse to near zero, so the league and all stakeholders should necessarily be committed to preserving it.

Currently, imagining a Bundesliga without the mechanisms of the 50+1 rule is a weird exercise. So much meaning and identity has been predicated upon the rule. At the very least, regardless of whatever reforms occur, a Bundesliga without the 50+1 rule will have an initial identity and values vacuum.

Perhaps this initial vacuum will (paradoxically) inject even more authenticity into Bundesliga supporter culture, given the current charade of exemptions and rule-circumventing draining the 50+1 rule of its meaning. In this sense, having no 50+1 rule would be a relief, providing a genuine chance to re-establish football culture.

Or perhaps the initial vacuum will expose Bundesliga clubs to the harsh tradewinds of global capital, as foreign investors look to cash-in on passionate fanbases like Borussia Dortmund, Schalke 04, and 1.FC Köln (although the club passed a moratorium of any potential and hypothetical foreign investors) to potential investors, these German clubs—and others—would be attractive centers of rich supporter traditions and meanings, ripe for pumping in investment and pumping out profit.

Ironically, Bayern Munich might have the most to lose in this future, as the 50+1 rule has inadvertently prevented its domestic competitors from keeping apace with revenue. The Bavarian giant was the first to monetize itself through sponsorships and professionalization in general, all while later perfectly adhering to the 50+1 rule. Other Bundesliga clubs are literally decades behind Die Roten. Removing the 50+1 rule could accelerate closing the gap between Bayern and everyone else. Although, who’s to say that Bayern won’t also immensely benefit from potential foreign investors?

Because German football professionalized itself (1963) very late among its peers, the country and league is already playing catch up to Europe’s other footballing powers, especially England, Spain, and increasingly, again, Italy. Angst about the league’s slipping status, as well as Bayern’s recent ironclad dominance (the club is seeking its sixth straight Bundesliga title), has certainly softened resistance to doing away with or significantly reforming the 50+1 rule. The general will in Germany certainly favors some kind of change. So the debate formally (and finally) begins in earnest. but will there be enough time to discuss everything? Or, more significantly, is German football willing to pick a horn in the dilemma of keeping up with the European Joneses (Hello Premier League! Hello foreign investors!) or strengthening and deepening its communal and supporter-centric footballing culture?


Follow Travis on Twitter @tptimmons