Austrian energy drink giant Red Bull has pulled some remarkable marketing stunts over the years – indeed, it’s probably the only company with advertising gimmicks that are more popular than its product. From the famed Red Bull Music Academy, a project that, remarkably, has an abundance of musical credibility, to the time it funded Felix Baumgartner’s reality-defying space jump, it’s one of the few brands that has managed to build its myth without insulting the intelligence of consumers.
Part of that process of myth building has involved buying up global sports teams in numerous sports as varied as Formula One, extreme sailing, aviation, and, of course, soccer (or football, depending on where you are in the world). Starting with the acquisition and rebranding of SV Austria Salzburg as “Red Bull Salzburg” in 2005, the caffein-peddling conglomerate has purchased a total of five professional football teams across the world over the past 12 years in the U.S. (New York Red Bulls), Brazil (Red Bull Brazil), Ghana (Red Bull Ghana) and Germany (RB Leipzig).
By injecting them full of cash, Red Bull has elevated three of these teams – New York, Salzburg and Leipzig – to unprecedented levels of sporting success, but the latter pair has also attracted the ire of rival soccer fans who see it as yet another example of the ever-growing hyper-commercialization of soccer – a sport that has traditionally been associated with the working classes, but has been rapidly gentrified over the past 25 years by business interests.
By re-naming these teams and changing their traditional crests and colors, Red Bull has effectively erased the sense of tradition that soccer fans consider holy, thus opening themselves up to fierce hostility. But nowhere is that hostility more pronounced than in the case of RB Leipzig, a team that is now widely regarded as the most hated in Germany.
Based in the east German city of Leipzig, RB Leipzig used to be called SSV Markranstädt before Red Bull bought its playing license in 2009 and rechristened it under its current name, which, believe it or not, doesn’t actually stand for “Red Bull”. No, because German soccer has strict rules against corporate influence, sponsors aren’t allowed to buy up teams and stick their name on them.
To get around this, Red Bull has stuck its initials on the club and used them to denote the term “RasenBallsport”, which translates to “lawn ball sport”. This is both spectacularly cynical but also impressively shrewd, a coincidence of linguistics so unlikely that it almost feels like divine intervention – which is probably why it was given a pass by the German Football Association.
When Markranstädt was transformed into RB Leipzig for the 2009-10 season, the team was languishing in the fifth tier of the German soccer pyramid. Indeed, this was part of the reason why Red Bull purchased the club in the first place: it was an anonymous black canvas with no history or sizable following. The company could rebuild the club in its own image without really pissing anybody off. It also made strategic sense: Germany’s top division, the Bundesliga, is dominated by teams from the much more affluent west of the country. If Red Bull managed to lead RB Leipzig all the way up to the top it could become a regional powerhouse. The city itself was a selling point as well: Leipzig has rapidly gentrified in recent years, with many labelling it “the new Berlin”.
The effects of Red Bull’s patronship were immediate and RB Leipzig finished top of the division in its very first season, winning promotion up to the German fourth tier. Over the next six years, tens of millions of euros would be invested into the club, propelling it up the divisions until the club finally reached the Bundesliga at the beginning of the 2016-17 season, where it would play European giants like Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. While most newly-promoted clubs struggle to keep their head above water and tend slip back down to the second division within a year or two, RB Leipzig thrived, winning their first seven matches and eventually finishing the season in second place – three points ahead of Champions League quarter-finalists Dortmund.
But while this sort of footballing Cinderella story would normally attract adoration, RB Leipzig is reviled throughout Germany. The reasons for this are obvious: Red Bull’s ownership of the club has tainted it. Everyone knows that the team would be nowhere without the many millions that the Austrian energy drink giant has pumped into it. And they’re right: everything about the club feels as contrived and artificial as a suburban Burger King outlet. Its name, its crest, the Red Bull branding plastered on everything from the team’s stadium (Red Bull Arena) to its shirt bring marketing to the forefront and relegate sport to a side note. The team exists to add prestige and generate publicity for the Red Bull brand. Victories and style are simply a means to achieving that end. Ultimately, RB Leipzig is more of a ball-dribbling infomercial than a traditional soccer club.
Soccer is hardly a sport built upon mutual understanding, and its long history of hooliganism and verbal abuse are testament to that. But the level of vitriol directed at RB Leipzig goes far beyond the mutual antipathy that purveys fan culture and no single club is as widely loathed.
Borussia Dortmund supporters boycotted their team’s away match in Leipzig because they didn’t want the cash from their tickets going into Red Bull’s coffers. Their club, meanwhile, refused to license its logo for a half-and-half “friendship” scarf. When RB Leipzig travelled to the German capital to play FC Union Berlin, they arrived at the stadium to find that Union’s supporters were dressed entirely in black ponchos and had coordinated between themselves to stage 15 minutes of complete silence before kickoff. The symbolism of this was to create a funereal atmosphere. At the stadium gates before the match, Union ultras handed out pamphlets that read “football culture is dying in Leipzig – Union is alive”. Last September, during a cup match against local rivals Dynamo Dresden, opposition fans upped the ante by throwing a severed bull’s head from the stands.
The reason why German soccer fans hate RB Leipzig so much goes far beyond the usual anti-corporate sentiment that’s so prominent among the sport’s traditionalists. Putting aside its brief flirtation with fascism in the ‘30s and ‘40s, Germany has a long tradition of left-wing politics and is probably the finest example of social democracy outside of Scandinavia. This leftism is present in its football, too: all football clubs in the country are majority fan-owned and the “50+1 rule” stipulates that half of the club’s board, plus one, must comprise supporters who get to vote on major decisions that affect them. Anyone can buy themselves a membership, which is effectively a share in the club that prevents German clubs from being purchased by shady Russian oligarchs or human rights-abusing Middle Eastern sheikhs. It also keeps clubs rooted in the community rather than the vanities of the ultra rich.
Red Bull, as you’d expect, has found a sly way of subverting this regulation. Where Borussia Dortmund has some 140,000 members, RB Leipzig only has 17. Bayern Munich charges between €30 and €60 for a membership, while RB Leipzig intentionally prices supporters out by sticking an initial €100 joining fee and a €800 annual charge for the right to vote on club matters. As such, those 17 members are almost exclusively Red Bull employees or corporate partners. While this technically fits within the legal framework, it’s thoroughly dishonest and shows a brazen disrespect for the values of German soccer culture. Red Bull hasn’t even been subtle about it and are effectively sticking a fat middle finger up at everyone that genuinely cares about the game and its traditions. That’s hardly going to win you much empathy.
There are some who say that this hostility towards RB Leipzig is hypocritical. After all, there is hardly a more corporatized sport in the world than professional soccer and most German teams pimp themselves out to sponsors in a variety of ways.
Twelve of the 18 teams that contest the Bundesliga, Bayern and Dortmund included, have sold the naming rights of their stadiums to brands. Three of those clubs, Wolfsburg, Bayer Leverkusen and Hoffenheim, are also corporate owned – by auto manufacturer Volkswagen, pharmaceutical giant Bayer and tech billionaire Dietmar Hopp, respectively – although the first two were actually founded as teams for company employees decades ago. There are those who defend RB Leipzig for its approach to the sport itself: the club is known for nurturing young players rather than splashing cash on superstar mercenaries, and they play an attractive brand of soccer. If you ignore the controversies surrounding the Red Bull business model, RB Leipzig is precisely the sort of team that football fans usually adore.
These are all valid points, but they ignore the fundamental reasons why Red Bull FC inspires such antipathy: by undermining the 50+1 rule, soccer fans fear that RB Leipzig will act as a precedent for other billionaire owners to do the same, thus neutering one of the few barriers that protects the game from the sort of ever-growing corporatization that most fans despise. Clubs in other countries, particularly England, often treat supporters as contemptible cash cows, exploiting them for the irrational love that they feel for their clubs. German football fans don’t want to see their own teams and football association go the same way. As we can see in America, Britain or any other rampantly neoliberal country, when capital is allowed to do as it pleases, it’s always human beings that lose out. So it’s not so much RB Leipzig that people hate, it’s what the club and its owner represent.
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- Lead image: goal.com