THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE ECONOMIST ON MAY 25th 2016
ou do not have to know a lot about football to understand that in Germany, one team dominates. Bayern Munich have won nearly half the domestic league titles since the formation of the Bundesliga in 1963, taking home 13 of the last 20. Bookmakers give the Bavarian side an 85% chance of winning their fifth championship in a row next year. Not content with losing just two league games all season, Bayern triumphed in the DFB-Pokal, the German knock-out competition, for the third time in four seasons on May 21st. Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer could have spent the first third of the 2015-16 campaign on holiday: had Bayern Munich conceded all of the shots against them from their first 13 games in the Bundesliga, they would still have been top of the league.
It is easy to sympathise with fans of Borussia Dortmund, the closest thing that Bayern have to a challenger. Losing to Bayern, as they did in the DFB-Pokal final on May 21st, is a familiar activity. So too is watching key players move to Munich, as club captain Mats Hummels did on May 23rd, the following Monday. He is the third Dortmund star to make the journey to the Allianz Arena in four years, following in the footsteps of Mario Götze and Robert Lewandowski. If this one-way movement of talent between the top two teams in the Bundesliga were not enough of a sign of Bayern’s dominance within German domestic competitions, then Mr Hummels’ transfer also demonstrates their international credentials. He is the eighth member of the German starting side from the 2014 World Cup final to have played for Bayern.
Clubs in other countries have enjoyed spells of supremacy, such as Italy’s Juventus, England’s Manchester United and Spain’s Barcelona and Real Madrid. But none have been as dominant for so long. That such a monopoly on footballing talent should have been created in Germany is perhaps surprising. As recently as the late 1990s, Bundesliga clubs were required to be owned exclusively by their fans, denying wealthy outsiders the possibility of investing heavily. Even when these rules were relaxed in 1998, the 50+1 rule ensured that supporters had to own a majority of shares.
Yet these ostensibly egalitarian intentions have actually had the opposite effect. With clubs shielded from external investment, financial resources within the Bundesliga were scarce. Subsequently, any side with substantial revenues could quickly outstrip its rivals, as Bayern did in the 1970s: located in one of Germany’s wealthiest areas, their home venue the Olympiastadion boasted a capacity twice that of their closest rivals, Borussia Mönchengladbach. They hoovered up three of the nation’s brightest young players—Franz Beckenbauer, Uli Hoeneß and Gerd Müller—from other youth set-ups. That trio, along with three other Bayern players, won their country the World Cup in 1974 and their club three consecutive European Cups from 1974 to 1976. In the years since, Bayern have won more than four times as many domestic trophies as any other German side.
Is such concentration of power a good thing? German fans seem to have grown accustomed to it. Beyond the one-horse race that the title challenge has become, there remains enough competition amongst the other 17 teams to pique interest amongst local supporters. Thanks in part to some of the cheapest tickets in European football, the average attendance in the Bundesliga last season was 43,000, greater than any other national league. As for the international game, Bayern’s recent ascendency in the Champions League—they played in three finals between 2010 and 2013, winning the last—coincided with a renaissance of the German national side, which culminated with lifting the World Cup in 2014. While this resurgence is more directly attributable to Das Reboot, by which the organisational structures of German football were overhauled in the wake of their failure at the European Championships in 2000, the presence of so many Bayern teammates in the final may have helped. Having familiar combinations in key areas of the pitch also benefited Spain in 2010, with seven Barcelona players in the starting side that won that year’s World Cup final.
Yet while Bayern’s dominance might have been advantageous to the national team, and domestic interest in the Bundesliga has yet to wane, a lopsided league has not endeared itself to fans overseas. Fox Sports, which screens German matches in America, one of the largest football audiences outside of Europe, has reported disappointing viewing figures for the Bundesliga this season. According to the Swiss Ramble, a football finances blog, international television revenue for German league football will be €162m ($180m) next season, barely an eighth of the £968m ($1.4 billion) that the English Premier League is expected to rake in from overseas viewing, and less than La Liga’s projected takings from a new deal which will give it the second-highest overseas broadcast income of any franchise.
Catching up won’t be easy. On any given weekend, overseas viewers have games in multiple countries to choose from. Matches in Germany frequently clash with those in Spain and England, where multiple teams have a good chance of challenging for the title: bookmakers’ odds suggest that six teams (none of which are Leicester City, this year’sunlikely champions) have at least a 10% shot at winning the Premier League next season, while there’s a roughly 45% chance that someone other than Barcelona will triumph in La Liga. If Bayern establish a hefty lead early next season, rendering many Bundesliga fixtures irrelevant, those that could decide title races elsewhere may become more attractive. With the €278m ($310m) they brought in last year from sponsorship and merchandise—more than any club in Spain or England, and nearly double what any other side in Germany can muster—the Bavarians will certainly have the opportunity to add more talent to their squad, beyond the acquisition of Mr Hummels. And after bidding farewell to Pep Guardiola, Europe’s most revered young coach, on Saturday evening, fans can look forward to the arrival of Carlo Ancelotti, the only living manager to have won the European Cup three times. The Bayern supremacy looks set to continue.