31 January ~ Last week the Bundesliga announced a record high revenue for its 18 clubs during the 2010-11 season, with a turnover of almost €2 billion (£1.7bn) and an overall profit of €52.5 million. On the same day, UEFA revealed that more than half of its top 650 clubs lost money during 2010, despite the threat of exclusion from European competitions under its looming financial fair play regulations. What is Germany doing right that the rest of Europe is doing wrong?
A few years back, Bayern Munich were making noises about landing their own television deal so that they could break free from the Bundesliga's collective and relatively egalitarian financial structure. The club would then become richer and compete better in the Champions League. Liverpool's managing director Ian Ayre last year clamoured for the same thing in the Premier League, whose distribution of TV income is even more socialist than the Bundesliga.
Bayern then realised that if they overly dominated their domestic league, the knock-on effect would be severely detrimental to the Bundesliga and German football as a whole. The current table is a perfect illustration of the beneficial effects of financial stability, built on long-standing rules that prevent moneyed individuals completely taking over a team and saturating it with transfer cash – or debt.
One point separates the top four teams, with Bayern, Borussia Dortmund and Schalke all on 40 points, and Borussia Mönchengladbach one point behind in fourth place. Hoffenheim are in eighth position with 23 points, only five points clear of the relegation zone.
There is no zone of mid-table obscurity. Clubs are either fighting for the title, a European place or the right to stay up. This season is not at all unusual. In the past five campaigns there have been four different champions – Dortmund, Bayern (twice), Wolfsburg and Stuttgart.
Bayern remain the team to hate and the team to beat, but they willingly play up to the role of the devil while having recognised that it is not in their best interests to win the league by 15 points every year. Despite being top of the league right now, they have already lost five games this season. At the same time, the league's relative parity allows for a team like Mönchengladbach to rise from being last season's relegation play-off escapee to potential title-winners.
Attendances were up again last season too, averaging just over 42,000 per game. The Bundesliga remains the best attended in the world. The retention of standing areas in most stadiums means there is more space (even though someone like Franz Beckenbauer pipes up for their abolition every time there is crowd trouble), the atmosphere is switched on, admission prices are still sane and the competitiveness makes almost every game meaningful.
In terms of actual quality, the Bundesliga is no doubt a step below the Premier League and La Liga on their best days. Those leagues have overspent to attract the best players, and the top-heavy competition means that only a limited number of games are of interest. In Spain, it is arguably down to the two clásicos every season, with the rest a sideshow. It is no coincidence that Barcelona and Real Madrid negotiate their own fat TV deals at the expense of the rest of the league.
In the long term, the Bundesliga is the only viable model for the modern game. Its sensible 34-game season – with no league cup and no German cup replays - benefits both the players and the clubs. During the past decade many of its teams have prioritised developing youth over importing an abundance of overpaid and more experienced players. This has been fruitful both for a club like Mönchengladbach, and Joachim Löw's young, attacking national team.
No set-up is perfect, of course. Mönchengladbach will lose their prolific 22-year-old striker Marco Reus to Dortmund this summer for just under €18m. No one is pretending that money doesn't still play a major role. For many purist local fans the Bundesliga has already become way too commercial.
The German game is also still dealing with recurrent fan violence. Earlier this season I saw running battles at a third division game between Erfurt and Darmstadt fans that took me straight back to 1970s England. Dynamo Dresden have been banned from next year's German cup because of violent behaviour by a section of their visiting supporters in Dortmund last autumn.
Still, just yesterday the German football association announced that its foreign broadcast rights will bring in €71m per year in the period 2012-2015, up from €47m. It is not much compared with the Premier League (which receives eight times as much) and the Bundesliga may not boast the flash and glamour of the Bernabéu. But its canny finances and open competition make it – in many respects – the most attractive league in Europe. Ian Plenderleith