New Bundesliga CEO faces COVID-19 challenges amid sustainability push

The new Bundesliga CEO Donata Hopfen faces major challenges as she must undertake the most ambitious transformation in her new league's history. [DFL]

For one of the world’s largest football leagues, 2022 has been the stage of massive changes: the Bundesliga finally has a new CEO, Donata Hopfen, who must now tackle the massive tasks that await it.

The announcement that the German Bundesliga had enshrined sustainability criteria in its statues had made big waves. Once again, Germany had charged ahead in the race to make the football industry climate neutral.

As her league continues its preparatory works to make its grand ambitions a reality, it is beset by troubles caused by the COVID-19 pandemic as it must navigate an increasingly troubled epidemiological situation.

“We want to fill the topic of sustainability with life,” explained Hopfen in her first speech as Bundesliga CEO on 14 January. German football stirred reactions in December 2021 as it added a clause committing clubs to ecological sustainability in its statutes.

The media expert with previous experience at German tabloid Bild was nonetheless forced to address the pandemic elephant in the room.

“Since we have cancelled the New Year’s reception due to Corona, I am doing this today in digital form for the time being,” the first female CEO of the male-dominated German football association DFL said during her first address.

“The COVID-19 crisis has been the dominant topic in professional football so far,” she highlighted. For the football industry, “getting the fans back into the stands” should be a top priority.

 “Tickets are an important source of revenue,” she added.

But Hopfen is low on time and high on significant issues requiring her attention. 

While she noted the DFL’s push for sustainability as a major item on her agenda, other and bigger things appear to be her main priority, at least right now.

She must not only battle the financial and cultural impacts of the pandemic on her league, but the DFL is also entertaining discussions on a rule that is integral to the culture of German football and faces a tough renegotiation of the terms with Germany’s football governing body DFB.

“Then, of course, there are the really big issues like the 50+1 rule and the renegotiation of the basic agreement with the DFB,” she noted.

The so-called 50+1 rule stipulates that at least 50% and one share of German football clubs must be in the possession of fans. It had recently come up for discussion as more financially capable clubs funded by wealthy majority owners continue to outbid German clubs in the global player markets.

On the other hand, the regular renegotiation with the DFB is a major challenge. Hopfen had little time to build up her influence and negotiation position, unlike her predecessor.

These debates that are so focused on both the cultural and monetary aspects of German football come at a time as Hopfen must prepare the league’s first steps towards a mandatory and well-enforced sustainability framework, as her predecessor Christian Seifer announced in December.

Her focus on these other issues would not mean less time spent on working towards making the DFL more sustainable, a DFL press officer told EURACTIV. The process was ongoing and very complex, the press officer added.

“We are talking about a participant in the Champions League as well as a promoted team from the 3rd league,” former CEO Seifert had said on 14 December, highlighting the stark contrast between possibly affected teams.

The stark financial difference between different clubs has observers concerned. The DFL must be “prepared to support the financially weaker clubs,” explained Greens EU lawmaker Michael Bloss in December.

“Otherwise, there is a danger that the gap between rich and poor clubs will widen,” he told EURACTIV.

The DFL regulates both the first and second leagues in German football, meaning that the rules currently in development would affect both Bayern Munich and FC Magdeburg.

For 2022/2023, the DFL said it would present a pilot programme to test the water for selected clubs before beginning to phase in the sustainability criteria in the 2023/2024 season.

Afterwards, the DFL would begin to “impose appropriate conditions and sanctions” on clubs that fail to meet the criteria.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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