This year’s Bundesliga title race is unusually contested, with fourth placed Borussia Mochengladbach only six points behind league leaders Bayern Munich with a game in hand. In third place is Borussia Dortmund, and in second… RB Leipzig?
For fans unfamiliar with the Bundesliga, this may come as a shock. For a club that didn’t exist 10 years ago to rise to the highest levels of German soccer is astonishing, which begs the question of how this team succeeded where so many other lower division teams failed.
In 2009, Red Bull acquired the right to fifth-division team SSV Markranstadt, to the outcry of many German soccer fans. This mirrored the pushback of fans of the Austrian club SV Austria Salzburg, which Red Bull similarly took over in 2005, as supporters felt a lack of connection with their beloved team now in corporate hands. These concerns were only heightened by Red Bull’s sidestepping of the German league restriction on in including corporate sponsors in the club name. Where Salzburg was outrightly renamed Red Bull Salzburg, SSV Markranstadt was renamed to RasenBallsport (RB) Leipzig, which translates to “Lawn Ball Sport”.
However, the hatred towards RB Leipzig primarily stems from Red Bull’s handling of the German “50+1” rule, which gives controlling power over the club to the members of a club, traditionally fans. Red Bull implemented a €800 fee to become a member of the club, which resulted in just 17 members, many of whom were associated with Red Bull. By comparison, the fee to become a member of Bayern Munich is €60.
Yet despite the overwhelming and incessant hatred directed towards RB Leipzig, a focus on player development has yielded impressive results, leading to promotion into the Bundesliga in 2016, and now a credible title challenge in 2020. Red Bull has taken advantage of its many teams to create a system that “promotes” the most promising players to better showcase their abilities, often leading to multiplicative increases in the player’s valuation. Players such as Sadio Mane, Joshua Kimmich, Erling Haaland, and Naby Keita have come through the Red Bull system, and the current squad boasts names such as Timo Werner and Dayot Upamecano, who are both 23 or under and worth around €75 million and €50 million, respectively, according to Transfermarkt.
Also complicating matters is the East German heritage of RB Leipzig. The Bundesliga has historically had very little East German representation, and RB Leipzig has proven to be a well-run club despite the controversy it generates. Now with East German soccer on the rise, it remains to be seen whether Red Bull will be as successful in managing the club’s public image off the pitch as it has been in creating an attractive product on the pitch.