As Newcastle United’s ownership problems continue to rage on throughout another barren January transfer window, and talk of new owners does little to inspire confidence, it begs the question of whether a solution may be found slightly further afield than initially considered.
What I am referencing by that statement is Germany’s rather unique 50+1 rule over football club ownership.
A product of how German professional football developed, the ruling in its most basic sense prohibits football club owners from owning more than half – and therefore a majority – of a particular football club. Instead, the majority shareholder in any club must be made up of fee-paying club members. Or, in other words, fans.
This creates a really unique dynamic of power among German clubs and is one of the reasons that, unlike much of the rest of Europe’s top leagues, German top-flight football is still seen as relatively cheap to attend, stadiums are regularly entertaining near full capacities and alcohol is still served among the terraces.
That is all still the case because it is what the fans wish. And as the individuals who hold the majority in the club, they have the power necessary to actually ensure their desires and beliefs are heard and acted upon.
Now, that’s not to say there aren’t clever ways to get around the 50+1 rule, as RB Leipzig in recent times have proven (ensuring that membership fees are extortionately high and therefore only held by a minuscule group of people – all of whom happen to also be employees of parent company Red Bull). But, in doing so, they have also ostracised themselves within German football and are pretty vehemently hated by a large number of other clubs’ supporters.
Now, how’s all this relate back to the situation back here in the north-east of England, you might be asking at this stage?
Well, quite simply in fact. I know personally as a fan, and I think most on Tyneside would agree, that the sound of having control of our football club and having a meaningful say in how its ran sounds pretty nice.
While the vast majority of issues and day-to-day running of the club would be handled effectively the same way, when more contentious situations arise and fans feel they are being left shortchanged – a depressingly common feeling at St. James’ Park in recent times – they would actually have the power to do something about it.
Newcastle’s fans are a passionate bunch. We will holler from the rooftops whenever we see our club suffering an injustice, or when it is not getting the treatment it deserves, but in the current system all that shouting really does is waste a lot of oxygen. Under 50+1, those very same fans can suddenly do a significant amount more. They, through consensus, have the control and fix issues relating directly to fans, as well as policing poor ownership of one of England’s historic clubs.
With all that said, there is one very real reason 50+1 will never likely come to England. Money.
The rule emerged in Germany because up until that point, only as far back as 1998, private ownership of any degree was banned by the German Football Association. When allowing this new private ownership, and the money that came with it, into the clubs they set a precedent to help retain their historic, amateur roots and ensure that the fans groups that previously owned them still maintained a voting majority.
There were some exceptions to these, namely works teams like Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen, where the companies that founded them and had held them for a long period of time could have majority ownership but these were rare cases. Hoffenheim later joined this list of exceptions, but given the work that owner Dietmar Hopp did in turning what was then basically a youth team into a top-flight side very few typically complain at this.
The one downside to not letting private individuals and businesses own football clubs like they do in England, Spain, France and Italy to name a few is that it also reduces the money involved in the game. Even in the modern climate, most transfers occurring in the Bundesliga and most wages seen for players are not astronomically in comparison. Germany has remained relatively frugal in terms of the finances of football.
That is also the reason that the world’s stars no longer seem to flock to the Bundesliga in the same degree as they once did. Now, their eyes seem set of England in particular, where they can earn much higher sums of money.
It would be genuinely brilliant to see the 50+1 rule implemented in England for clubs like Newcastle United, as fans can take back power from an often distant owner, and there are many more clubs throughout the Football League who would likely feel similar.
However, given that it would also directly impact and prevent the likes of the ownership structures we see with Manchester City, Chelsea and the other top sides, I cannot see it ever being retrospectively introduced to English football.
Sadly, the 50+1 rule – as much as it may be the exact kind of ruling needed to save Newcastle once and for all – it seems destined to remain permanently on this football fan’s wishlist and never fulfilled.