The Bundesliga is one of the best leagues in the world. It has the healthiest attendance in Europe, some of the best coaches and a great pool of talents, which altogether leads to exciting football, and, thanks to the 50+1 rule, without a ton of investors who can screw around with the teams. But the Bundesliga also has one big problem: we know who’s going to win it even before the season has started.
This is not a text about how bad and evil Bayern Munich are (because mostly they just aren’t). Neither is this about how I have all the solutions to make the Bundesliga competitive or the most fun league in the world. No. This is about how I’m worried there’s no plausible way to end Bayern’s hegemony, and that it can’t possibly be a good thing for the Bundesliga’s future.
Football is a business. Money doesn’t score goals, but having more money increases the chances of winning massively.
— Archie Rhind-Tutt (@archiert1) October 5, 2015
Bayern fans will argue that it’s best to win every game there is and they’d be the happiest if they could win all 34 games (and they’re most probably right about that), but a lack of domestic competition could weaken them on an international level. There’s not only the danger of losing focus and not being prepared for top-flight opponents, but also the danger of falling behind financially compared to other big clubs and leagues in Europe.
Who wants to invest in a league without a title race?
While Bundesliga fans (myself included) will tell you how exciting the relegation battle and the race for the European spots are, that’s not what gets you the big bucks from international marketing. Ask the Premier League. While many see their football as inferior, at least on a tactical level, to the Bundesliga, they still have a very interesting title race most of the time.
The Bundesliga – and especially the international fans of the Bundesliga – are hungry for a high quality rivalry. After Dortmund had a few good seasons the Bundesliga’s marketing guys and media even started to make up a name for their encounters with Bayern, naming the game der Klassiker (THE classic). A desperate attempt to make it look like Bayern had an actual rival on a similar level unfortunately worked out. The term is now widely popular among international Bundesliga fans and the games between Bayern and Dortmund are televised in more than 200 countries. Even after Dortmund’s horrible 2014/15 season, a few consecutive wins were enough to revive the term.
Both Dortmund and Bayern made long trips for marketing reasons in the last off-season, trying to gain popularity in Asia and America, which are the two big new markets in football. While two big factors for the success of international marketing are star players (ideally you would have a star player from the respective country), and success in the Champions League, the third big factor is a competitive league. And with competitive league I mean: there’s an actual competition for the first place.
It’s easy to say that if you want to have a title race, the other teams just have to start playing better. But the differences in squad and finances are just too big at this point. Dortmund are playing some of their best football in a long time and the league is still over after the eighth match day.
Margin for error
The problem is: you can’t even blame Bayern for any of this. They’re one of the best run football clubs on earth and haven’t made many mistakes in the last few years. Although Bayern are one of the richest football clubs on earth, there are no crazy transfer fees and even when they misjudge players or a coach they get back on their feet quickly. Of course, being very rich helps with that.
Outside of Bavaria there’s very little room for errors, and, unfortunately for the Bundesliga, too many teams made too many mistakes. A few teams were once up there challenging Bayern and have then fallen from grace. Hamburg, Bremen, Kaiserslautern, Stuttgart, and Gladbach to an extent have all been up there and aren’t quite there anymore, for different reasons.
Also Dortmund have made a few errors quite recently. Losing Lewandowski and buying Immobile and Ramos wasn’t the best idea in hindsight, Klopp wasn’t able to implement a successful possession game at the end of his reign, and so on. It has to be said that the market at that time was extremely heated and hardly any good strikers were available for a price Dortmund were able to pay.
It also didn’t help that Bayern recently signed two of Dortmund’s best players in Lewandowski and Götze, but who would really blame them? Being on top of the food chain you’ll want to defend your place there, even when you have to play a little dirty sometimes. It’s Bayern’s right and perfectly understandable that they’ll do what’s in their power to prevent any club coming too close to them. But this contributes to their image as the bully of the Bundesliga (which is not entirely wrong) and as I mentioned earlier, this might become a financial and sporting problem for Bayern as well. They’re still part of the “product” Bundesliga. A product which won’t be easy to sell without competition on top of the table. Since television contracts and international marketing become increasingly important sources of income this might hit them pretty hard at some point.
Other clubs might feel the consequences of Bayern’s dominance a little earlier than that. Top players will think twice about a transfer to a Bundesliga club which isn’t Bayern, because the chances of winning a title are basically non-existent. For most other Bundesliga clubs it has to be about being creative and trusting their youth academies, as Lewis Ambrose put it nicely in his piece.
Many people argue that those discussions and articles are pointless without solutions. Although I disagree and think it’s important to get a topic like that on the map at first, I have thought of a few possible ways to improve the situation. Unfortunately only one of them is even remotely realistic, and many fans won’t like it.
But let’s start with the other options. The first one would be play-offs like in most American sports. For example: after the regular season ends, the best six teams face each other. The first plays the sixth, the second plays the fifth, and so on. This would increase the chances of a different champion, because in one game there’s a lot more room for surprises than over the course of an entire season. Although it seems rather unfair that the first placed team might have won the regular season with a gap of 20 points, and then not go on to win the title because of one bad game.
Another idea lent from American sports is the draft, but since youth academies are run by clubs and not schools it seems impossible. Also those youth academies are a big chance for lesser clubs to make money with selling great talents or keep them for themselves and improve the team. One could also think about regulating how many players in the starting eleven have to be homegrown talents, but wouldn’t that just lead to bigger clubs buying talents even younger? Then you’d have to regulate that as well…you know the deal.
To complete the three-peat of American sports concepts here’s another one: the salary cap. Meaning that all teams would only be allowed to spend a certain amount of money on the players’ wages. This system seems like a great solution, but it would have to be applied for all the big leagues in the world. Otherwise the star players would just all leave to a league without a salary cap. It’s highly unlikely that this will ever happen, but at least on paper it seems like a good solution.
The most socialist solution to the problem would be a reverse distribution of prize money. The teams qualified for the Champions League would get the least, Europa League teams would get slightly more, midtable teams even more, and newly promoted teams would get the most money. But since this stands totally in contrast to the way modern football works and would seem unfair for many people, it doesn’t seem to be a very viable option.
The only remaining option for other teams to catch up with Bayern seems to be to put an end to the 50+1 rule, which says that a club must hold a majority of its own voting rights to get a license in the Bundesliga. Only when a club is funded by a person or company for more than 20 years, the rule doesn’t apply. That’s the case for Leverkusen (Bayer) and Wolfsburg (VW). Putting an end to the 50+1 rule would mean losing many of the hardcore fans, which make the stadium atmosphere so special in Bundesliga games. The vast majority of those fans wouldn’t like investors coming in and use their beloved football clubs as a very expensive toy. But since it might be the only option to catch up to Bayern, fans, clubs, and the entire league will have to choose their poison.
What happens when Guardiola is gone?
None of those “solutions” seem very realistic, especially not in the next few years. Is there any hope remaining that we might see a different Bundesliga champion soon-ish?
At the moment it seems impossible, because Bayern aren’t only the richest club and have the best squad, their coach is also one of the best in the world. To beat a superior squad, you have to outcoach their coach and the chances of outcoaching Guardiola are very slim.
There might be chance of a different Bundesliga champion once Guardiola is gone, but those will continue to be the exception. In the last 30 years Bayern have won the title 17 times and this number is likely to increase in the next 30 years, unless RB Leipzig run riot and Mateschitz invests as heavily as he did in Formula One. But who really wants that?
As dark as this piece might be, unfortunately it’s the sad reality of the Bundesliga and it seems like there is no nice way to change it.