The Bundesliga advertises itself as one of the most economically sound leagues in Europe. But how much insight do the clubs actually provide into their finances and is the call for more transparency justified?
Despite clubs claiming to be financially sound, more transparency is being demanded in German football.
"At the end of the day, you have to ask if economic stability is a criterion for our sport. We answer that question with: 'yes'." Sentences like these were always part of the rhetorical repertoire from Christian Seifert, the outgoing chief executive of the German Football League Association (DFL). Over the past 15 years, the Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2, which belong to the DFL, regularly advertised that they were more sensibly managed than other top leagues in Europe.
But that façade has since developed cracks. "Regulations urgently need to be introduced in the first and second divisions to restore more economic common sense. Obviously, some clubs have lived well beyond their means in the past," said Michael Ströll, managing director of FC Augsburg, a few weeks ago.
At many Bundesliga venues these days, people are pointing out that the COVID-19 pandemic has left big holes in the coffers. As valid as this argument may be, debt levels at some clubs had already risen considerably before the crisis began. For years, several clubs from Germany’s top two tiers have had very little equity. Some even have negative equity.
However, the reasons behind the details of those financial developments are often not public knowledge. Calls for more transparency, for example from fan associations, are heard regularly. This is intended to counteract the growing feeling that decision-makers are acting in secret or even keeping quiet about undesirable developments.
"First of all, it should be noted that professional football is considered closed compared to other business sectors of equal importance. It is difficult to gain a precise insight, as the industry and also the associations do not like to show their cards," says Henning Zülch, Professor of Accounting and Auditing at the HHL Leipzig Graduate School of Management.
In his view, the Bundesliga is neither better, nor worse than the other top European leagues in terms of financial transparency. In England or Spain, for example, clubs are required by law to publish their financial statements. Premier League clubs go as far as publishing their economic data six to nine months after the end of every fiscal year. In the Bundesliga, 15 of the 18 clubs have to publish their balance sheets given that they act as corporations.
In addition to legal regulations, there are also sporting statutory regulations that exist in Germany. In 2018, the 36 professional clubs under the umbrella of the DFL at the time decided that in the second quarter of the following year — when the licensing procedure reaches its conclusion — the financial data for the past fiscal year would be disclosed in its entirety. The 2018 decision was intended as a commitment to greater financial transparency.
The advantage of the DFL regulations compared with the Premier League or La Liga is that the figures that are published are then broken down according to predefined categories and are therefore comparable. In other countries, clubs release the data as they see fit. Critics of the status quo, however, stress that the statutory publication requirements distort the level of competition.
"In terms of legal entities, we have almost every form represented in the Bundesliga, from registered clubs with minimal disclosure requirements to stock exchange companies with maximum financial transparency. No comparison is possible in a timely manner," says Zülch. The ‘company’ mentioned is Borussia Dortmund, who have to inform shareholders of all financial information due to the transparency requirements of the stock market.
Borussia Dortmund are publically listed on the stock exchange and therefore have to conform to a separate set of regulations
Most recently, BVB announced the pending transfer of Jadon Sancho with the exact transfer fee via an ad hoc announcement before the Englishman's move to Manchester United was finalized. Other Bundesliga clubs can agree to keep the financial details of transfers confidential which can allow them to keep a low profile.
"A so-called level playing field and thus equal information requirements for all, do not exist. In a way, this can also be seen as a distortion of competition," says Zülch.
As laudable as the DFL's efforts are, there is not yet sufficient financial transparency across the board. Experts emphasize, however, that dealing openly with financial situations is not a disadvantage, but creates more credibility. Fans, the media and even potential donors gain greater insight into the state of the club's health and can see, for example, in a crisis situation, what measures are being taken by management and the board.
Schalke 04, for example, has shown itself to be quite open to fans and members despite liabilities of over 200 million euros ($234.7 million) and has thus been able to regain trust, at least to some extent.
In some Bundesliga locations, the search for new investors or premium sponsors is underway as a result of the pandemic and also any misguided developments in previous years. Here, too, the motto should be: Transparency pays off. But this has not yet been realized.