The German Bundesliga has a problem. Its name is Bayern Munich. And as it lifts yet another Bundesliga trophy with over a month to spare, nobody is quite sure what to do about it.
The Bavarians clinched their sixth consecutive title on Saturday, but their triumph wasn’t particularly newsworthy. It wasn’t dramatic or exciting, two things sport must be to entertain. It looked familiar. It was routine. It felt inevitable. It’s therefore a source of concern.
Some will argue it isn’t a problem at all; that dominance is preferable to parity, and often less permanent than it seems. But the thousands of viewers tuning out would implicitly argue otherwise.
Fans are bored. Bored by Bayern’s unrelenting, exclusive dominance. And bored by a league that, in conjunction with other underlying influences, doesn’t seem capable of interrupting it.
The problems are plentiful. The wealth gap between Bayern and others is wide and widening. The wage gap, and therefore the talent gap, reflects that. Mid-tier German clubs can’t prevent their best players from joining the evil empire. They can’t compete with Bayern for foreign stars. The rich get richer, the insurgents hopelessly scramble for antidotes, and they mostly come up empty.
Inequality in soccer isn’t just a German phenomenon. It’s an international phenomenon. In fact, its less of one in Germany than elsewhere.
But whereas in England there is a six-club ruling class, and whereas in Spain there are two giants, the gap in Germany is between one and the rest. It’s wider and seemingly more self-sustaining than the gap in Italy. Bayern hasn’t just won titles for the past half-decade; it’s won them by an average of almost 16 points – an average that will likely rise this year.
The gap is a threat to the very ethos of German soccer, whose top division went over 100 years without a four-time defending champion before Bayern’s current run. And the potential solutions? They’re either unconvincing, controversial or both.
But there are some. Some that attempt to address the symptoms. Some that attempt to address their root causes.
Addressing symptoms: Playoffs
One way to interrupt a pattern of dominance is to inject randomness. Soccer as a sport already has a ton of randomness, but 30-plus-game league seasons siphon off much of it. A natural solution, then, would be to cut down on the portion of the season that determines the champion.
The most extreme option is American-style playoffs. We’ve written about the concept before. Some former Bundesliga managers support it. As long as the playoffs are relatively exclusive – four teams, maximum – there are ways to maintain the importance of the regular season and still reward dominance.
One possible system: A four-team playoff that pits first vs. fourth and second vs. third in semifinals. Each would be a three-game series, with the regular-season champion hosting all three games against the 4-seed and the 2-seed hosting two of three. Regular season points, not a penalty shooting, would break a third-leg tie. The final would follow the same format.
This would keep the regular season intriguing, with the home games making first place significantly more attractive than second, second more attractive than third, and so on. It would also ensure the title is decided in May.
But it might be too extreme. It might fail to reward the most deserving team with the title too often. So perhaps there’s a middle ground between playoffs and the current system?
Addressing symptoms: The Effenberg Plan
There is. It was proposed by former German midfielder Stefan Effenberg earlier this year. His suggestion: Split the Bundesliga in half – in two different ways. Turn it into two divisions and two mini-seasons. Conduct a draw in July or August to divide the 18-team league into two groups of nine. Within each group, each team plays 16 games between August and Christmas.
At the end of the first mini-season, the top four from each division, plus the fifth-place team with the highest point total, qualify for the top tier in the second mini-season. Point totals reset, and this time, the 16-game double-round robin in the top division determines the title and Champions League qualification; the second mini-season in the bottom tier determines relegation.
It’s an idea that was met with plenty of skepticism, but the thinking behind it is borderline brilliant. Bayern would still be a heavy title favorite under the current balance of power – much more so than it would be if playoffs were introduced. But, as Effenberg wrote, “the championship cannot be decided in February or March.” The intrigue would extend through at least April. A rocky start, like Bayern’s this past season, couldn’t be so easily overcome. The Bundesliga likely would be more exciting.
The issue is that the root cause of Bayern’s dominance – its commercial clout and economic superiority – would live on.
Addressing root causes: Revenue distribution
Decades of top-flight soccer evidence has shown just how much of a club’s league position over time can be explained by both revenue and wage-spending. And in both departments, Bayern dwarfs its domestic rivals. It took in $720.8 million last season compared to Dortmund’s $407.8 million and Schalke’s $282.3 million. Its average player salary was $6.74 million, compared to $3.56 million at Dortmund and $2.15 million at Schalke.
With differences like those, it’s no surprise the Bavarians are winning big and winning consistently, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if they continued to do so.
One way to address root inequality, theoretically, would be to distribute money from the Bundesliga’s new $1.42 billion-per-year TV deal more evenly among the 18 clubs. But in reality, the Bundesliga’s revenue sharing system – which allocates shares based on four criteria – is more equitable than all others in top leagues aside from the English Premier League’s.
And anyway, the TV money isn’t what sets Bayern apart. It accounted for only 25 percent of the club’s 2016-17 revenue – and that includes Champions League prize money, an inequality amplifier that the Bundesliga can’t control. Bayern’s wealth is a function of its global popularity and business savvy. It makes more commercial revenue than any other club in the world – $420.6 million in 2016-17.
So the Bundesliga can’t do anything about the money Bayern brings it. Could it instead do something about where that money goes?
Addressing root causes: A luxury tax
If Bayern’s commercial power is unshakable, is its wage spending similarly so? Yes – under the current system. But could the Bundesliga change that?
What if it implemented a luxury tax, or “competitive balance tax,” like the one in place in the NBA?
Salary caps aren’t feasible in European soccer leagues, because clubs compete for players in a global marketplace. Unlike in the NFL, if the Bundesliga limited the wage spending of its teams, players could simply leave Germany to go earn their worth elsewhere. A cap would be detrimental to the league, and especially to clubs hoping to compete in the Champions League and Europa League. Any salary cap would have to be legislated and enforced by UEFA or FIFA.
But the idea of a luxury tax is a fascinating one. With a luxury tax in place, a team like Bayern would be able to spend however much it pleased. But for every dollar it spent above a certain threshold, set in advance by the Bundesliga, it would owe a corresponding amount of money to the league. The league would then pass that money (or some portion of it) along to clubs below the tax threshold. It’s essentially a mechanism to re-distribute wealth from the top to the bottom, and curb inequality. It seems like it’s worth consideration.
But its efficacy is questionable; there might not even be a realistic system that would disincentivize Bayern spending and/or allocate a meaningful amount of money to other clubs; and Bayern would surely fight any such rule tooth and nail.
There might just not be a realistic way to address the wealth gap. The Bundesliga’s best bet, then, might be a radical change to its competition structure. Or maybe it’s to simply ride out Bayern’s run, and hope the dominance is more temporary than it seems.
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