Six years ago this month, in August 2017, Uli Hoeness made a typically bullish pronouncement.
“No player in the world is worth €100 million,” the then Bayern Munich president opined to SportBild after watching Paris Saint-Germain splash €222m on Neymar from Barcelona, €135m of which the Catalans then sent Borussia Dortmund’s way for Ousmane Dembele.
“I wouldn’t buy a player for €100m even if I had the money,” he continued. “That would be a waste of money.” A year later, with Bayern celebrating yet another Bundesliga title on Munich’s Marienplatz, Hoeness repeated his mantra, insisting: “We won’t be making a €100m-transfer this year either.”
In the ten years since Real Madrid first broke the €100m transfer fee barrier, spending €101m on Gareth Bale in summer 2013, eight further clubs have followed suit, representing each of Europe’s top leagues. Except the Bundesliga. Except Bayern Munich. Until now.
By agreeing to pay Tottenham Hotspur up to €117m for England captain Harry Kane, Bayern have done just that, finally becoming the tenth member of the hundred club.
“It is the first time that we have paid on that level for a player,” board member Andreas Jung told Sky UK on Friday ahead of the official confirmation of the deal. “For us, it is something special. It shows we are competitive with the others. We will have a team that has the chance to win in every competition.”
Bayern Munich’s Zeitenwende
That such a commercial juggernaut as Bayern should historically have been characterized by such financial prudence may seem paradoxical, but it’s a paradox which is has always been at the heart of the perennial German champions’ identity.
Bayern may be 24.99% owned by Adidas, Audi and Allianz; but they’re 75% controlled by their 300,000 members. Bayern may have offices in Shanghai, Bangkok and New York, and may have just returned from a pre-season tour of Tokyo and Singapore; but players and officials still don their Lederhosen each year to celebrate Oktoberfest in Bavaria.
Former CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge may stalk football’s corridors of power on UEFA’s executive committee; but it’s Hoeness who pulls the strings from the banks of Lake Tegernsee.
And there, in the serene, conservative foothills of the Bavarian Alps, opinions have been slowly changing. After Bayern replaced head coach Julian Nagelsmann with Thomas Tuchel in March, with an 11th straight Bundesliga title looking anything but certain, Hoeness said: “I can certainly imagine a player coming for €100m.”
To coin a German phrase which has recently entered the global vocabulary for other reasons, this is Bayern Munich’s Zeitenwende. But while Kane – the second-most prolific goal scorer in Premier League history – may be exactly what Bayern need on the pitch after a year without Robert Lewandowski, Bundesliga bosses will hope that the 30-year-old has an impact off it, too.
Kane can’t reverse the talent drain
But that is far from certain.
As the 2023/24 Bundesliga season gets underway with the traditional, semi-competitive Super Cup curtain-raiser between Bayern Munich and cup winners RB Leipzig on Saturday night, German football finds itself in a difficult position.
Not only is the German Football Association (DFB) in the firing line after its women’s national team suffered the same fate as the men at the World Cup, the German Football League (DFL), which operates the Bundesliga, is trying to ramp up interest in a competition which, at least for many observers, is less attractive than ever.
Borussia Dortmund’s failure to beat Mainz on the final day of last season didn’t just hand Bayern Munich an 11th consecutive league title; it also saw Jude Bellingham become the latest top talent to follow Erling Haaland, Jadon Sancho and others off the Westfalenstadion springboard.
Kane may have arrived from the Premier League, as did Sadio Mané before him, but, generally, the direction of travel is clear: Moussa Diaby has left Bayer Leverkusen to join Aston Villa, Marcus Thuram finally departed Borussia Mönchengladbach to join Inter Milan, and Randall Kolo Muani is likely to follow Daichi Kamada (Lazio) and Evan Ndicka (Roma) out of the door at Eintracht Frankfurt.
RB Leipzig have hemorrhaged the most talent, and all to the Premier League: Dominik Szoboszlai to Liverpool, Christopher Nkunku to Chelsea and Josko Gvardiol to Manchester City.
The financial firepower at the disposal of foreign clubs — especially from the Premier League — is simply too great for most Bundesliga clubs to say “nein,” and two recent attempts at addressing that imbalance have fallen flat.
First, a DFL proposal to sell a share of future Bundesliga broadcast rights revenues to a private equity investor in exchange for an immediate billion-euro cash injection was rejected by clubs following widespread protests from supporters, who feared such a deal would also entail increased investor influence in their member-controlled clubs.
And then when Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund resorted to their traditional method of boosting their profile and revenues abroad on pre-season tours this summer, they were frustrated to find they were the only ones, as the rest of the Bundesliga stayed at home.
The irony for Hoeness, Rummenigge, their Borussia Dortmund counterparts Hans-Joachim Watzke and Carsten Cramer, and the current interim DFL chief executives Marc Lenz and Steffen Merkel is that the one of the Bundesliga’s undeniable unique selling points is also the element putting the brakes on their commercial endeavors: its fans.
Despite Bayern’s continuing domination and the annual departure of top names, the Bundesliga still boasts the highest attendances in Europe, with average crowds of around 43,500 per game every season over the past 15 years. In comparison, average Premier League attendances only rose above 40,000 for the first time last season.
Large, modern stadia, often built or expanded as recently as the 2006 World Cup, obviously play a role, but so does a German football culture which is notably more affordable, more socially inclusive and more vibrant than in the Premier League — a direct consequence of the 50+1 rule which ensures that Bundesliga clubs generally remain under the control of their members rather than falling into the hands of sovereign wealth funds, oligarchs and assorted venture capitalists.
This gives the fans agency and influence to hold their clubs to account, ensuring that cheap standing terraces remain in place, that kick-off times aren’t simply moved to suit television audiences – and that the league can’t simply enter into billion-euro private equity deals without due diligence and discussion.
And that includes Bayern Munich, for whom the signing of Kane comes just one month after the club bowed to member pressure and opted not to extend a shirt sleeve sponsorship deal with Qatar Airways. Clearly, that particular partnership wasn’t of quite such existential financial importance after all.
Bundesliga: questions to answer
Nevertheless, as the new season begins, the Bundesliga can’t necessarily fall back on its fan culture, either. After Schalke (average attendance: 61,133) and Hertha Berlin (53,652) were relegated and replaced by Darmstadt (stadium capacity: 17,500) and Heidenheim (15,000), Bundesliga crowds are set to drop.
Second-division fixtures involving Hamburg, Kaiserslautern, Karlsruhe, Hannover, Nuremberg, St. Pauli, Magdeburg and Hansa Rostock will all attract higher crowds than Augsburg, Wolfsburg or Hoffenheim, and the arrival of Harry Kane won’t change that.
Bayern have flexed their substantial muscle and got their man, but the Bundesliga still has big questions to answer. Does it really want to imitate the outright commercialization of the Premier League, competing in vain in the “rat race” that even Karl-Heinz Rummenigge admitted recently that it can’t win? Or is there actually something to be said for the values of Germany’s football culture?
On his balcony overlooking Lake Tegernsee, Uli Hoeness at least has shown that he’s capable of changing his mind.