The 50+1 rule is not something that a casual football fan will know much about. Indeed, there will be big fans of the game who either do not know or simply do not care about the rule itself. However, the creation and use of this rule has seen more than one football fan question how their club is structured and run.
After all, there are far too many clubs in the world of football and sport that seem to be run solely for the gain of their owners, rather than their fans and players. While not in a footballing sense, the woes of Premiership Rugby side Worcester Warriors serve as a worrying tale to all fans and teams in any sport about what can happen when a team is not run correctly.
This makes the use of the 50+1 concept in football even more appealing, but what is it? Well, if you feel you have seen ‘50+1’ written too often without knowing what it means, or the talk in the pub has really searched the breadth and depth of football to this point, then read our guide to the 50+1 concept and how it works.
What Is ‘50+1’?
The 50+1 rule is an informal term that refers to a clause in the German Football League. It states that a club must either own the majority or the entirety of its association football team in order to obtain a license that will allow them to play in the Bundesliga. If it is majority ownership, then the team is operated as a separate company with 50% of the votes along with another one vote belonging to the parent club. The rest of the votes belong to investors.
The whole point of this is that the members of the club retain overall control of the team. As is common sense, if members owned 50% and investors owned 50%, then neither would have a majority. By giving members 50% of the overall shares +1 share, they then have the majority and can make decisions that they believe are in the best interests of the club, even if the investors that hold 49% do not agree with.
While it is all well and good in an ideal world hoping that outside investors will have the best interests of the club at heart, this is not always the case. Meanwhile, members will usually only want what is best for the club, meaning the team is protected from outside investors in that regard.
History of the 50+1 Rule
Before 1998, German clubs were owned entirely by members’ associations. This basically meant that all clubs were not-for-profit organisations, with any form of private ownership against the rules. The DFB (German Football Association) decided to change this in October 1998, with clubs able to be converted into public or private limited companies. However, this was caveated with the club having to own at least 50% plus one extra share of the football company. As mentioned, this means that the members still held a majority.
Are There Criticisms of the Rule?
Yes, as with anything in football and sport, there are a number of people that have a problem with the 50+1 rule. One of the biggest critics of the rule is Martin Kind, who was the Hannover 96 president, who argued that the rule could be in breach of the competition law of the European Union. In 2009, he tabled a motion to change the rule but, in a show of real solidarity towards the 50+1 rule, 32 out of 36 clubs rejected the proposal. Kind was eventually ousted from the club in 2019. The club had 2100 members at the time and they voted in favour of replacing him. Kind is still the main financial backer of the side but his ability to make major decisions has been curtailed.
As we will go into more detail later, there are also issues with outside investors coming into a club they do not have control over, especially if they are pumping money into it. This can then see competition in the league itself dry up as not sides are able to bring in outside talent, thus seeing viewership from outside that country also declining.
Are There Other Countries That Have Adopted the Rule?
Sweden has adopted a ’51-per cent rule’ that allows only non-profit clubs to play in the Swedish league system. If the club owns a company that is handling economic activities, the team must own a minimum of 51% of it. This rule is valid for all sports.
Could the European Super League Cause More 50+1 Ownership?
The idea of 50+1 could work, in theory, but the powers that pull the strings behind the biggest league and some of the biggest teams in football are unlikely to want to switch to this structure. Just look at the European Super League.
Twelve of the biggest teams in the world tried to form a breakaway league that would kill competition by creating a closed league. This saw Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham joining the biggest teams from La Liga and Serie A in proposing a new system in which these teams would play one-another. What did they stand to gain? A lot of money and safety knowing that they would always likely remain in that league as the founding members.
What did everyone else stand to lose? A lot of money, and the best teams from the biggest domestic and European competitions. While everyone loves seeing an underdog do well in the Champions League or Premier League, imagine a Champions League where Real Madrid no longer take part. Similarly, think of a Premier League where City, Liverpool and Chelsea have no part in playing for the title.
After a lot of resistance, the six Premier League clubs decided to pull out of the Super League and remain in the Premier League. Coming back disgraced and with their tails between their legs, the big six knew that they would be allowed back as the Premier League and all of the clubs playing in it need them. Ultimately, while there will be people that enjoy watching Leicester, Everton and Wolves play, they will not bring in the same worldwide audience as City, Liverpool, United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs.
While the Premier League is seen as the pinnacle of competition in domestic club football, it almost made a mockery of everything it is meant to stand for. That competition and the history and fairness was all at risk as the biggest sides in the world looked to line their pockets with even more than they already make.
Why Were No German Clubs Involved in the Proposed European Super League?
One major point to come out of this move was the fact that no German sides were involved in the proposed ESL. Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund are among the best sides in Europe and would definitely make a ‘big 12’ ahead of the likes of Manchester United, Tottenham, Atletico Madrid and AC Milan when it comes to what they have done in recent years.
However, no German team was part of this move and even if they were approached, it would surely be unlikely that teams that are run for the good of the fans, club and football, would decide to turn their backs on the Bundesliga in favour of a European Super League. After all, Bayern and Dortmund are hugely successful sides, but the two would be nothing were it not for the German Football League.
The opinion of the fans is clearly something that is incredibly important to the teams. It is not just a case of the supporters enjoying goals and trophies or having to put up with defeats and relegation like in most leagues. Instead, if the members of a club think change is needed or the right decisions are not being made, then they can do something about it.
Why Is the Rule Not Universally Used?
Football is a game that looks to continually move towards new ideas and innovation on the pitch. Some of the greatest players of all time have done things those of the past would not ever have dreamed of. This helps to keep the game moving forward, allowing it to remain popular and entertaining. However, not every idea catches on in each country that plays the game. At the time of writing, the 50+1 rule is unlikely to be implemented in most of the successful leagues in the world for one major reason, and that is money.
The likes of Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and PSG in France have benefited massively from investment that has swelled their squads with world class talent. The likes of Erling Haaland, Mohamed Salah and Kylian Mbappe all spring to mind when it comes to major transfers, but would this be possible in the 50+1 format?
Possibly, but where is the fun for a billionaire investor to throw money at a side only to be told that their huge investments mean little when it comes to the big decisions at the club? Ultimately, even as 49% stakeholders, they will always be outnumbered by members.
While teams do then run the risk of a billionaire coming in and buying the club in its entirety, it is a risk most would take. After all, Roman Abramovich could have decided to change Chelsea to a basketball team when buying the Blues in 2003. While this was incredibly unlikely, it was the risk Chelsea and their fans took, and look how they were rewarded on the pitch. Triumphs in the Premier League, Champions League, Europa League, FA Cup and League Cup during his reign as the owner saw Chelsea winning at a scale beyond their wildest dreams back in the early 2000s.
On the flip side of this, you may then have owners that decide to come in and make decisions that do not seem to be with the best interests of the club at heart. While we will not go into the Glazers at Manchester United, it suffices to say that fans of one of England’s truly great football teams would likely go back and take a completely different set of owners or even a 50+1 setup if given the chance.
Could the System Work in the Premier League?
Yes, of course, it could, but do the benefits outweigh the pitfalls? Teams would no longer need to be scared of potentially being run into the ground while the fans would, at last, have a major say in how their beloved teams operate. In conjunction with this, it means that the mere notion of a breakaway European Super League would be far less likely. Alongside this, the 50+1 structure can help to keep ticket prices down as the overall decision on how much fans would pay would be made by the fans themselves.
All in all, it may help to stop the major disconnect that feels like it is growing with every season. After all, if fans feel that the owners and those controlling the clubs are only lining their own pockets instead of providing those that pay week in and week out with the best experience and players they possibly can, then discontent will fester.
On the other side of the coin, few investors will want to put money into a team in which they do not have the overall say. A lack of competition can be created if clubs are unable to bankroll new talent in their squads too. Just look at Bayern in the Bundesliga. Their dominance is down to their fantastic squad, but they are rarely truly challenged as the investment for the teams around them is not on the same scale as it is in the Premier League for example.
If fans do want to have the ability to have a real say in what happens at their club and would switch to a 50+1 system, then they will likely have to forget about all the mega-money deals they have become so accustomed to. Investors will still look to back the biggest teams, but they will surely be less likely to bankroll a club if they do not have the final say.
While we still maintain that the 50+1 system is unlikely to be implemented any time soon, perhaps if the notion of a European Super League rears its ugly head again, then the fans may change their minds rather quickly.