What Is the 50+1 Rule & Will We Ever See It in English Football?

Bayern Munich fans
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Football club ownership is rarely a topic that spends too long out of the limelight. Whether it is a pending takeover, one that has gone wrong or rumours of a sale, ownership is a hugely important, and often controversial topic. Fans often long for a rich new owner to come in and turn their fortunes round but there are plenty of clubs that have seen this approach achieve little, or even make them worse off.

Within English football, we have become so accustomed to multi-millionaire or wealthy consortium buying a majority stake in clubs and then taking the club in whatever direction they like. There is another way though, the 50+1 rule, a system that ensures fans retain the majority of power. Most notably a system used in German football, there are many that wish to see the concept spread but how likely is it to ever make it to English shores?

The 50+1 Rule Explained

There is nothing too complicated about the 50+1 rule. It is simply means that the ‘club’ (and by extension its members/fans) must always have the majority stake in their football team. It does not have to be a large majority, hence why it only needs to be 50+1 (which is to say, over 50%). In some instances though, you do have clubs where the members are in completely control. What this also means is that private investors, so those wealthy millionaires looking to snap up a football club, can never take more than a 49% share in a team.

Only able to ever acquire a minority stake in a team, private investors can have an influence but they never have the power to independently determine the future direction of a club. This ensures clubs stay relatively democratic too as it is the fans that always have the largest say in terms of voting rights.

What Does It Mean to Have a Majority Stake?

Football ownership

It is worth mentioning at this point that just because club members hold a majority stake does not mean they run the club. It simply means that when it comes to voting rights, at least 50% plus 1 share must be held by club members, rather than them being heavily involved in day-to-day activities. Since the 1990s, Bundesliga clubs have operated with a fairly professional structure, having moved away from the members’ association model, similar to what you see today with Real Madrid and Barcelona.

While it is possible to have a larger club member involvement with the 50+1 rule, what you are more likely to find is a current-day Bundesliga approach. With this, clubs partition some of the running of the club into different corporations, while still retaining the majority of the voting rights in that company. If the company makes an unpopular selection or is led by a distrusted figure, club members have the power to vote them out.

Effectively, what this results in is a system where senior staff, as high as the chairman/chairwoman, run the club on behalf of the club members and it is this group they are held accountable by. They do not own the club so they are simply well-paid employees that can be replaced should they prove to be unfit for the post.

Benefits of 50+1

Although the 50+1 system is also present in Swedish football, it is the Bundesliga that is seen as its biggest case study. Ask German football fans and you would find that the sentiment is overwhelmingly in favour of the rule for a variety of reasons. One is that because of their large stake in their club, fans feel simply feel like fans rather than consumers the club is always trying to exploit for financial gain.

Affordable Ticket Prices

This is one of the reasons why ticket prices for Bundesliga matches are relatively cheap and subsequently, why attendances are so high. In the 2017/18 season, stats were compiled looking at the most well-attended clubs in Europe. Of the top 30, 10 came from Germany, beating second-place England with seven. Without an owner, whose primary, or even sole motivation is to increase revenue, it is little wonder why football is Germany is generally more affordable than it is in England.

Even in 2022, all Bundesliga teams offered a season ticket under €250, including at the likes of giants Dortmund and Bayern Munich. Waiting lists are extremely long in many instances but better to have a long list of people queuing for an affordable ticket than a short-queue because only the rich can afford it. Another, even greater benefit of 50+1, is clubs are not going to fall foul to some corrupt or incompetent owner that ends up bankrupting the club.

Fans Never Cede Control

In English football, there have been many instances of owners spending far more money than was available, putting the club into financial turmoil and often relegating them. German teams are not immune from financial problems due to the 50+1 system, but there is less potential for something to go wrong as the fans never cede control. There is also a general method of spending sensibly, which is why the Bundesliga only had a net spend of -£221m between 2018 and 2022. This figure was much lower than La Liga (-£484m), Serie A (-£923m) and the Premier League (-£4.5bn).

As no rich individual can ever gain a majority stake under a 50+1 system (exceptions can be made, see the likes of Hoffenheim and Wolfsburg) they do not tend to make for attractive purchases. You will still find some individuals that take up a sizeable minority stake but these tend to be people in the local area or extremely wealthy fans. An added benefit of this is that large minor shareholders tend to be well-known figures, rather than distant names that have no real connection to the club or area.

Limitations of 50+1

Bayern Munich fans
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So far, the 50+1 rule must sound like something of a dream to many English football fans but it does not always play out in reality as well it is looks in theory. For one, elections may not always be truly fair within a club as outsider candidates may not always be made available for nomination. Instead, you can have cases where the club simply names a single candidate with the entire process something of an inevitability.

Unrealistic Expectations

Additionally, for those that are elected into lofty positions, many are not given the time to make sensible long-term decisions if they lead to some short-term upheaval. One Bundesliga official quoted in The Athletic said “If you are struggling there is always an opposite side that tries to eliminate you from the club. Without short-term success, you’re gone”. It is fair to say football fans are not the most patient bunch and there is a real demand for improvements to be made in a short, often unrealistic, space of time.

A good example of this can be found with Barcelona members who overwhelming voted in favour of selling off future revenue for an immediate cash injection. It gave them the capital to sign and register the likes of Robert Lewandowski and former Leeds United star, Raphinha, but put them in a considerably weaker position in the long term. The boring but sensible approach would have been to restrict the sale of future earnings to a minimum (some were required) but such an approach rarely resonates with fans, especially ones accustomed to success and watching Real Madrid continue to stack up thee silverware.

Lack of Outside Investment

Depending on your viewpoint, you may also consider the lack of outside investment to be an issue of the 50+1 rule. For some, it is a large perk but it does mean that leagues can struggle to compete on a continental level. This is because teams abroad can get huge cash injections from people seeking a majority share while 50+1 clubs have to slowly and organically increase revenues. It is possible to generate good profits under a 50+1 system but it requires lots of consistent success on the pitch and savvy management. If things start to go wrong, there is no big investor who will swoop in to save the day, as they will not be satisfied with a minority share of the club.

In terms of attendances, the Bundesliga is one of the best leagues in Europe and sometimes it posts the leading figures on the continent. Despite this, Bundesliga clubs, with the exception of Bayern, who are something of an anomaly, have not enjoyed much success in UEFA competitions. If looking at the last 25 editions of the Champions League and Europa League (1998-2022), from the 50 combined champions, a mere four came from Germany, three of which were Bayern. Without the 50+1 rule, it is a fair assumption to think that this number could be significantly higher.

What About Bayern Munich?

It would be easy to look over to Germany and think that the 50+1 rule is a poor system because it leads to one team dominating the league. English football may not be evenly balanced but has lacked huge periods of dominance from one side. In the Premier League era, as of 2022, no club has successfully defended the title on more than two consecutive occasions. By contrast, Bayern have been crowned Bundesliga champions 10 years running so there is a huge gap when it comes to competitiveness there.

The 50+1 rule is not to blame for Bayern’s dominance though, or at least not fully. It is partly at fault because it prevents other teams from being bought out by wealthy investors who could massively improve the squad through new players. There is nothing inherent in the system though that should lead to a one-team system. Bayern simply became masters of boosting profits in the 1980s and this has led to a cycle of continued success.

To prove that the 50+1 system is not doomed to create an unstoppable giant in the league, cast your eyes over to Swedish football which has the very same rule in place. Since 2008, there have been eight different champions of the Allsvenskan division and in this time no team has lifted the title on more than two consecutive years. How is that for a competitive league?

Will the 50+1 Rule Ever Come to England?

English football fans

Generally speaking, football fans love the idea of the 50+1 rule. So often, clubs are bought out by unpopular owners who make poor decisions and make the fans feel like customers. In today’s increasingly profit-driven world, being able to have a stronger say in how your own club is run offers a great deal of appeal. It would avoid situations like you see at Manchester United where you have regular protests against the club’s owners, protests that largely fall on deaf ears.

It is an increasingly popular idea in the age of the ‘European Super League’ too, as the vast majority of fans do not wish to see a continental breakaway league and vehemently oppose it. In 2021, a formal UK Government and Parliament petition collected over 100,000 signatures calling for the enforcement of the 50+1 rule. The idea was debated in parliament but it is difficult to see any major changes occurring even if there is appetite for it within government.

Not Easy to Take Control from Current Owners with Majority Stake

The issue is you cannot simply take control from the owners that currently enjoy a majority stake in the club. In some instances, they will have paid hundreds of millions, or even several billion pounds, for the privilege so you cannot suddenly turn around and say they have to give that up. English football is in far too deep with rich owners for the 50+1 rule to become viable anytime soon. Germany has operated with this system for over two decades and prior to that clubs were owned exclusively by members’ associations, making it an easy transition.

So, although the 50+1 rule will probably never be enforced in English football, this is not to say that certain clubs cannot follow a member-led model. Newport AFC, Exeter City FC and AFC Wimbledon are three professional clubs that are majority owned by their supporters. Portsmouth were for a while too, between 2013 and 2017, before Pompey Supporters Trust members voted to sell the club to the Tornante Company, headed by Michael Eisner.

This will be the ideal model for most clubs but raising enough revenue to purchase a majority stake can be challenging, especially in the top two divisions. If you look at all the fan-owned clubs in England, most of them play outside of the EFL system. When Newcastle fans were deeply unhappy with former owner Mike Ashley, a Supporters’ Trust created a fund hoping to raise £3m so they could buy just a small stake in the club. Ashley sold the club soon after, for a price of £300m, a figure that shows just how unobtainable fan control is at the top level. In addition, one also has to remember that even if fans were able to raise a much larger figure, there is no obligation for the owner to sell the club if they do not wish to.