By now, every international football fan has heard that FC Bayern Munich clinched its historic tenth consecutive Bundesliga title. The club set the record for number of times a team has won a championship in one of Europe’s major football leagues, though it does not hold the world record. The result was unsurprising, as Bayern Munich has won the league by 10 points or more in eight of their last ten seasons. Only the 2018-19 season represented a true fight for the top of the table with Bayern Munich winning the title with two points over Borussia Dortmund.
The club’s dominance raises several questions: Is Bayern Munich that good? Is the Bundesliga simply not competitive? Or is the club simply able to pay the price tag of a title over and over again while smaller clubs can’t keep up?
Ten championships in a row make it hard to argue that competition within the Bundesliga hasn’t been… lacking. Ten championships with only one being a competitive title race makes that near impossible. But if one looks at the rest of the table, it’s hard to ignore some compelling, competitive storylines.
For example, the difference between fourth and fifth place over the last ten seasons has been, on average, 4 points. The top four teams in the Bundesliga qualify for the Champions League, which comes with the ability to win prize money, even if a club does not advance all the way to the final. The tight races over the years keep fans engaged and interested in their club’s chances, even if that race isn’t for the top of the table. Twelve different teams have occupied the fourth and fifth places over the past ten years, with different results each year. Meaning, of course, that the middle of the table is highly volatile and anyone’s game, proving that the league is competitive, just not at the very top.
Similarly, the fight to avoid relegation, while not necessarily a positive, does provide compelling storylines and interesting football. In the Bundesliga, teams in 17th and 18th place are relegated to the second tier, Bundesliga 2. The team in 16th place plays in playoff-style, home-and-away series against the team in third in Bundesliga 2 to determine if they will be relegated. During Bayern Munich’s reign, the average difference between the 16th and 17th place team was three points, meaning one loss could have condemned a team to relegation instead of the opportunity for a playoff. The difference between facing a playoff and being safe from relegation was also an average of 3 points, though it came down to goal differential on two separate occasions.
It’s not that there are no interesting and competitive storylines within the Bundesliga. It’s that what’s supposed to be the most interesting storyline of any season instead feels like a foregone conclusion, one that becomes increasingly more of a certainty early in the season, robbing the title race of any sense of surprise, excitement, or adventure. Instead, fans of other teams look to other parts of the table for the compelling football, full of unexpected twists, that the title race is supposed to be.
So, what makes Bayern Munich that impossible to catch?
The disappointing answer, of course, lies in the fact that there is no salary cap in European football, meaning that wealthy teams may pursue superstar talent at whatever price, while teams with smaller bankrolls miss out. It feels like taking the easy way out to say that money determines team success, but with Bayern’s 10th title, the way that wealth affects the game cannot be ignored. And price tags go far beyond recruiting the best players: things like training facilities, hiring club managers, and advertising are all key aspects of club development that money can buy the best of. Not to mention that money begets more money: qualifying for the Champions League brings a windfall of money for teams, but often those spots go to the same four or so teams, preventing others from accessing the extra dollars.
An interesting twist in this high-dollar-equals-winning equation is that, unlike the Premier League, the Bundesliga has a 50 + 1 rule that, in most cases, requires that fans own the majority voting stake in the club. This prevents private interests from swooping in and investing billions of dollars in a club of their choosing while also ignoring fan voices. While there are exceptions to the no-private-ownership rule, those investors have to demonstrate sustained interest and support of the club over 20 years, before applying to receive private ownership—submitting an application that does not guarantee that the German Football League will rule in favor of the investor. As recently as 2018, Martin Kind, a German investor who had been club president of Hannover 96 for over twenty years, had his takeover bid rejected.
However, even public ownership hasn’t kept price tags similar across the table. For a comparison, Bayern Munich operates with an annual budget of $340 million dollars. The team that finished second this year, Borussia Dortmund, operates with $270 million. From there, budgets get progressively smaller, making it harder for teams to sign high-profile players, or retain the stars produced from their own academies and development systems. As the dollar signs add up, clubs bow-out, unable to match the flashy price tags that Bayern consistently can.
Signing high profile talent obviously garners attention, excitement, and buzz, but it is also one of the primary ways that wealth within football is examined. The quality on the field makes analyzing player contracts and which clubs have money to spend a worthwhile pursuit, but manager contracts also play a role in showing how money can build a team for success.
Bayern Munich pays manager Julian Nagelsmann a base salary of 10 million euros, averaging to a weekly wage of 205,000 euros. The next highest manager salary is Dortmund’s Marco Rose, with a 7-million-euro base salary and 150,000 euros per week. Bayer Leverkusen and RB Leipzig both pay their managers a base salary of 5 million euros and so it goes down the table. The lower the manager’s salary, the lower the team is on the table.
Just like how big paychecks incentivize top talent players to sign contracts with clubs, a three-million-euro difference can lure top managers from one club to another. Across the entire table, the difference in base salary from the first place team to the last place team is 9,500,000 million euros. Attracting top manager talent means that player development can continue at a high level and can also serve to recruit players who want to play with top level managers—the price tag once again covers added incentives.
WHERE DOES THE LEAGUE GO?
Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy the infrastructure, coaching, and players needed to win ten championships in a row. The Bundesliga isn’t without competition, but it does find itself separated into tiers with Bayern Munich undisputedly at the top, and not likely to go anywhere. With the growing perspective that the Bundesliga is becoming boring, alternative solutions are being explored to reintroduce an element of unpredictability, as well as to redirect money in order to reduce wealth’s influence.
Two possible solutions are worth looking at. One is the recent consideration of changing the championship into a cup tournament. The four teams that qualified for the playoffs would then play elimination games to determine the league champion. Rather than radically restructuring the financial landscape, this plan would give chance a larger role in determining the champion. A mistake in a 34-game season usually matters very little. A mistake in an elimination game means a lot and would create the kind of excitement and unpredictability that the last several seasons haven’t had.
Interestingly, of the teams that usually finish in the top four, only Bayern Munich’s representatives were receptive to the idea of changing how the championship was awarded. The club endorsed the idea of change from the perspective of fan engagement, while others highlighted how the current model is the fairest. The proposal has little support and is unlikely to be implemented or seriously considered in the near future, but is on the table to start a conversation meant to increase excitement around the championship.
A second proposal tackles the financial part of the equation and was generated by the fans. Wealth redistribution takes a number of different appearances, all of which are hindered by the fact that for any sort of financial changes to occur, the rest of European soccer would likely have to follow suit in order to avoid a mass exodus of players from the Bundesliga. Within the league, a redistribution of UEFA money is the most likely to be implemented (given the issues with salary caps and taxing sports teams), but even that would fail to address the root of the wealth inequality within German, and inevitably, international football.
Bayern Munich represents a case study in international football, where a confluence of talent, competition level, and money come together to remove the element of surprise from the sport. In economics, there’s a law of diminishing returns: the more one does something, the less the profits or benefits are to the action. Bayern Munich and international football prove that untrue on one level: the more money one pours into a club, the greater the odds of winning, and continuing to win (see: The Club by Joshua Robinson and Jonathon Clegg). On the other hand, the constant question of fan excitement proves that the more championships won, the less exciting the experience is for fans, especially without a period of drought in between victories.
Ten league championships are no small thing. Ultimately, the credit goes to the players and the effort they put in. It’s historic, and those players represent the best in the Bundesliga and European football. But the role of money in procuring those ten wins prove how difficult it would be for a team to replicate Bayern Munich’s success, at least under the current financial regulations in German football.