The game of football is becoming more and more of a corporate venture that treats fans as little more than sources of revenue. Rather than expressions of community pride, teams now often fill the need of various oil magnates, arms dealers, international conglomerates, and even energy-drink companies to satisfy their ego, control real estate, or provide debt or advertising vehicles.
While the German Bundesliga has been an oasis in the sea of commercialism, lately cracks have begun to appear even in that bulwark. But in the small town of Saalfelden, Austria, Bayern and Germany stalwart Christian Ziege has become the key man in attempt to move the game back towards the fans.
Ziege served Bayern and the German national team and is well respected as both a player and a coach. So how has he ended up coaching an Austrian third-division side near Salzburg? Because two American entrepreneurs want to turn FC Pinzgau Saalfelden into a purely fan-owned football club. And it looks like they are succeeding.
Inspired by the Green Bay Packers community ownership model, an American group has purchased the club and intends to sell memberships to fans, particularly in the United States. They also plan to list the club on the stock market in due course. Their marketing pitch makes their approach clear: namely, that while in the United States most sports franchises are owned by corporations and billionaires, this club will be directly fan-owned.
The choice of this particular Austrian side was not random, but rather carefully planned out in a calculated fashion. The town is beautiful and the team plays in a stadium for which the Alps and a castle serve as a picturesque backdrop. But, more importantly, entry costs are reasonable and the potential to get on the big stage quickly is there. While an MLS franchise might cost $350 million, the purchase price here is much lower.
And Austria is in the sweet spot in European competition. The market is still small enough to be reasonably priced, yet the country is ranked high enough (above Holland) to offer several chances to compete in European competition, which is the dream of the ownership group: to pit their fan-owned club against the heavyweights of Europe. FC Pinzgau has already earned a spot in the promotion play-offs, so they are close to taking the first step.
Ziege is key to the whole project. His reputation as a coach is attracting players to the squad whom they would never see otherwise. Loans from MLS teams, particularly Real Salt Lake, are underway based on his reputation and accomplishments.
Ziege came up the hard way, growing up in Berlin in the 80’s and learning to keep his passes tight and low by practicing against the Berlin Wall: if the ball went high he lost it. He played seven seasons for Bayern, winning the Bundesliga twice and the UEFA Cup once. He also played for Inter Milan, Liverpool, and Tottenham. Capped 72 times for Germany, Ziege was a winner in Euro 96 and played for Germany in two World Cups. A telling interview with him can be found here.
Moving to this small Austrian club was initially a culture shock for Ziege. When he first went to the fridge in the dressing room, he found it stocked only with beer. He gave the squad one day to finish is all off and then switched it to water. But he has settled in nicely, turning the team around and now having his son play for the club. He is all-in on the Fan Owned Club project and his goal is to lead the club into the Austrian Bundesliga and eventually Europe.
Ownership packages for the club will be available shortly. The Athletic reports the following:
The minimum buy-in is $1,000, which gets you access to those exclusive peeks behind the curtain, plus a scarf, a discount to the team store, two free tickets to any home match (travel costs to Austria not included) and an invite to the annual owners’ meeting. An extra $500 gets you extra shares, plus a jersey and access to the owners’ suite at the stadium. The most expensive package ($9,999, prices subject to change), features four travel vouchers for airfare and six nights in a hotel for a Pinzgau match next season, plus guaranteed tickets to any home or away Austrian Cup or future UEFA matches.
The team also plans to offer unprecedented access, including live-streaming every game with English commentary, exclusive pre-game and post-game meeting access, and even special Skype calls with the coach and executives, on which they will explain and discuss their in-game decisions, player development, and transfer strategies. It’s a fan’s dream.
To get on the waiting list for their share purchase package you should visit their website here.
It remains to be seen if a Austrian third division side led by a tough German coach can catch American interest and climb into European competition, but anyone who believes in fan-centric football should be cheering for them. I know I will be.