The Fritz-Walter-Stadion, feared by visiting teams for its atmosphere, has been a financial millstone for the club and is losing its reputation
25 November ~ Kaiserslautern are approaching Sunday’s derby fixture against struggling Karlsruhe in positive mood after a recent upturn in results, but serious economic issues continue to overshadow on-field progress.
New trainer Tayfun Korkut seems to have found a settled side after a poor start to the season and while the club hope that the improvement in form will lead to increased ticket sales, larger crowds will only go a small way to solving the club’s financial woes.
The Fritz-Walter-Stadion is visible for miles around, perched on the Betzenberg hill above the train station in the centre of Kaiserslautern. Revered as the home of truly passionate fans and feared by visiting teams for decades, the stadium was renovated and extended for the 2006 World Cup and now boasts an official capacity of just under 50,000.
However, the ground has become a financial millstone for the football club, and the thousands of empty seats at matches in the 2. Bundesliga mean that the once-fabled atmosphere struggles to make itself felt.
Regular management changes and a failed transfer policy mean this founding member of the Bundesliga have spent eight of the last ten seasons in the second tier, and there are few indications that this campaign will see the Red Devils challenging for promotion.
Of course, the rebuilding costs and rental payments for the stadium were calculated with sell-out, top-flight crowds in mind but the number of paying spectators in the 2015-16 season was the lowest for 25 years. The annual rental payments of €3 million (£2.6m) would be crippling for most clubs, and rumours of temporary insolvency regularly surface in Kaiserslautern, only to be scotched by whoever is in charge at the time.
The financial situation is complicated by the €6m Betze-Anleihe (a fans’ bond issue), which will be due for repayment in 2019 – with 5 per cent interest. Various solutions are being discussed as all concerned seek a way out of the mess, but neither hiving off the football club into a separate entity nor shutting down the under-23 side would be popular with fans and club members.
The previous board, headed by former German international Stefan Kuntz, made much capital out of a campaign to generate regional support for the club and set out to balance the books by finding and selling on talented players. However, accounts for last season reveal a loss of €2.6m and the club have taken out a €3m loan to plug the gap.
Speaking at the club’s AGM in November, new chief financial officer Michael Klatt admitted that “[we] can’t keep muddling on as before” and declared that “we are not a top-flight club on holiday in the second division”. As so often, the first employees to feel the effects of this new reality were the ten people who have lost their jobs at the club offices. John Van Laer