The act of sportswashing is defined as “when a corrupt or tyrannical regime uses sport to enhance its reputation”. This modern phenomenon is an intersection between sports and politics that I have written about before on TPIN, looking at Manchester City’s sanctions here, and the ongoing Newcastle United takeover here. That said, the etymology of the word sportswashing is derived from the term brainwashing, an act of indoctrination, which at times, takes place against one’s own will or knowledge. The question I will be asking in this article is whether we should redefine the term sportswashing; should we broaden the definition to include not just corrupt and tyrannical regimes, but also private companies? To understand this further, I will be using the Austrian energy drinks company Red Bull and their ownership of multiple football teams as a case study. So, grab a can of Monster, and settle in...
The Red Bull Football Franchise
The founder and minority owner of Red Bull GmbH, Dietrich Mateschitz, on a 1982 business trip to the far east, bought a can of a drink called Krating Daeng (translated: Red Bison). After a long international flight, Mateschitz was jet-lagged, but after drinking Krating Daeng, he noticed his jetlag was gone. Upon his return to Austria, he began modifying the flavours, before putting it to market at first in Austria, before expanding across Europe, and finally into the U.S.
Today, we are all aware of the Red Bull name, the flavour of the drink, the logo, the can design, your preferred alcoholic accompaniment (it's either Jägermeister or Vodka), and perhaps, you’re aware of their sponsorship of virtually every extreme sports event. What you may not be aware of, unless you are a keen follower of football, is that they own multiple football clubs too. In fact, they own a whopping six football clubs across three continents. In chronological order from Red Bull takeover:
· FC Red Bull Salzburg, Austria (2005- )
· New York Red Bulls, U.S.A. (2006- )
· Red Bull Brasil, Brazil (2007- )
· Red Bull Ghana, Ghana (2008-2014) [Club now extinct]
· RB Leipzig, Germany (2009- )
· FC Liefering, Austria (2012- )
· Red Bull Bragantino, Brazil (2019- )
Side note: RB Leipzig’s full name is not Red Bull Leipzig. German sporting regulations prohibit clubs from containing sponsorships or brands in their club name. Instead, the “RB” stands for “Rasenballsport”, which translated into English means “Lawnball sport”. However, it allows them to put an RB in their name, which most people assume stands for Red Bull.
If you are a fan of football, you may recognise some of these clubs. Salzburg, NYRB, Leipzig and Liefering are all clubs I had heard about before researching this article. However, the two Brazilian clubs, and the Ghanaian club, I had never heard of. Dig a little deeper into the history of these clubs and you’ll find that, with the exception of RB Salzburg and to a lesser extent, RB Bragantino and NYRB, these clubs were amateur or semi-professional until Red Bull bought them. Even RB Salzburg (formally known as Austria Salzburg) and Bragantino had accrued very little domestic or continental success prior to the Red Bull takeover.
The objective for the Red Bull corporation was not to buy an already successful club, with loyal supporters and heaps of tradition. The objective was to build a network of clubs that would rise through the ranks together, acting as a cohesive unit for one another.
For example, RB Salzburg, the network’s original club, now has what’s known as a ‘farm club’ in FC Liefering, who play in the division below Salzburg. This allows Salzburg to send younger, less experienced players to go and play in the division below, picking up valuable first-team game time, while not detrimentally affecting the Salzburg side. This is not unheard of in football, and many clubs have informal agreements with local clubs to give them preference in loan deals, but to have a formal setup in which the clubs wear the same colours, train at the same location, and effectively act as one club with two sides, is strange.
However, I mentioned this is a network – not just a two-club agreement. There has grown a hierarchy amongst the Red Bull clubs, in which players are funnelled through from one club to another, depending on their playing ability and each club’s requirements. At the top of the Red Bull footballing food chain, is Lawnball sport Leipzig, who plays in the 1. Bundesliga in Germany, and regularly compete for Champions League places. The second in the pecking order is RB Salzburg, who play in the Ö. Bundesliga, in Austria. Salzburg wins the league every season with very little competition, so they effectively act as a finishing school for future Leipzig players.
Below them come NYRB, who play in the MLS in the United States. They tend to get the leftovers, the players coming to an end to their career and the former young players from Leipzig and Salzburg who couldn’t quite cut it. The two Brazilian clubs are slightly more detached from the northern hemisphere of the network, only really sending young Brazilians to play for the European Red Bull clubs for cut-price deals.
However, the end goal is not for Leipzig to win the 1. Bundesliga, or the Champions League even. The company doesn’t care that Salzburg has just won their 7th Ö. Bundesliga title in a row. They truly do not care. Why would a successful, multinational, billion-dollar corporation decide to push millions-upon-millions of its revenue into a sporting economy which is infamous for its failure to turn a profit?
It is very obvious. If the Red Bull corporation plasters its name across the world, attaching itself to football clubs with flashy players and other successful brands like Adidas and Nike, they are bound to soak into the sports-viewing public’s consciousness. Over the years, Red Bull clubs have employed players like Thierry Henry (NYRB), Sadio Mané (RB Salzburg) and the world’s hottest footballing property Erling Braut Håland (RB Salzburg). Having players like these pictured, either having their last hurrah in the MLS (Henry) or making their breakthrough season in the European game (Mané & Håland), all the while the Red Bull logo remaining fixed across their chest, means images of these players becomes synonymous with success and ingenuity.
Red Bull Gives You Wings
The popular Red Bull company slogan is no truer in its footballing practices. Following the takeovers of Austria Salzburg and MetroStars, later RB Salzburg and NYRB, the philosophy behind acquisitions seemed to be “get big names who are past their best years, but still have massive name recognition”. It is undoubtedly a legitimate direction. One could even argue that is the recruitment idea behind whole leagues. The Australian A-League, Chinese Super League and American MLS are often seen as ‘retirement’ leagues.
Following their acquisition of RB Leipzig, the recruitment strategy dramatically shifted away from older players with big names, and towards younger prospects with whom they hoped to guide to success within the Red Bull network. When Red Bull took ownership of Leipzig, they were sat in the 5th tier of German football. Instead of bringing in big names, like that of coaching legend Giovanni Trapattoni at Salzburg, Red Bull invested in both youth player scouting and development as well as coaching development across their main clubs.
As of today, many players in the current RB Leipzig squad have been with them since a very young age, some of them even played for the club when they were in the lower leagues of German football. As the club grew, the players grew too. Red Bull gave them wings.
Complications and Controversies
As I have noted, the Red Bull franchise seeks to develop players and coaches organically. However, the presence of Red Bull has never been far from controversy. In the case of NYRB, many fans still attend games in old MetroStars shirts, the name of the club before Red Bull’s investment. This is an act of defiance, with fans disappointed at how their once beloved club has become a second-rate cog in an international footballing development machine.
Perhaps the biggest controversy of late regarding the NYRB, is their former Manager, Jesse Marsch, an American coach who left the club mid-season, with the Red Bulls at the top of the league, to go and become the Assistant Manager at RB Leipzig. Marsch has since left Leipzig, moving to Salzburg, to become their Manager, where he has enjoyed plenty of success. However, this shows that the Red Bull board would rather sacrifice their New York club to see a talented coach gain experience in Europe. Naturally, NYRB fans were unhappy with this move, but it feeds right into their wider footballing business cycle; buy low, develop talent, increase brand awareness, sell high.
The 50+1 Rule
If you thought the New Yorkers' response to hosting a corporate club was bad, take a look at what the Germans did. Unsurprisingly, German football culture is deeply entrenched in its wider culture. What’s more, the German attitude towards football is completely anathema to the modern concept of corporate clubs and sportswashing ownerships. German football is the only major footballing country that maintains an ownership regulation rule: The 50+1 Rule.
The 50+1 rule is set in stone by the DFL (German Football League) and dictates that the supporters of a club must own 50% of a football club’s shares, plus 1 share (i.e. a majority). This means that no owner can buy a club outright and turn it into a faceless corporate shill. There are some caveats to this rule. For example, clubs VfL Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen are owned outright by the Volkswagen car manufactures and the Bayer pharmaceutical companies respectively. This is because the clubs were founded by workers from those companies and have maintained long-standing ties between the company and club for over two decades. After 20-years of continued investment and minority ownership of a club, an external entity can offer to buy the remaining shares from supporter trusts, as transpired with TSG Hoffenheim after continued investment by local billionaire and former youth player Dietmar Hopp.
If fans must own a majority of the club, how do RB Leipzig even exist?
Well, in the initial years, the 50+1 rule did not apply to RB Leipzig. The rule only applies to clubs that exist within the DFL divisions (the 1st, 2nd and 3rd tiers of Germany). As you may remember, when Red Bull took control of the club, they were in the 5th tier. However, as they ascended through the divisions, they were forced to confront the problem of the 50+1 Rule. Their solution? Ingenious or devious; depending on your outlook.
Essentially, whereas typical DFL clubs will charge supporters a fee of €10-€60 per season for a voting membership of their 50%+1 share stake of the club, RB Leipzig decided to charge a €100 entry fee, before an €800 annual fee, making a club membership prohibitively expensive for average supporters. This means that the number of Leipzig ‘supporters’ with full voting rights and owning a majority of the club, amounts to a whopping 17 fans. Most of those 17 ‘fans’, are Red Bull employees.
This bending of the rules was seen by the German football community as a complete desecration of their beloved 50+1 Rule, which seeks to maintain Germany’s uniquely supporter-centric culture. As a result, many club’s supporters refuse to attend away games in Leipzig, meaning that RB Leipzig loses out on the ticket revenue from travelling fans. However, fellow former East Germans from the nearby city of Dresden, with whom Leipzig share something of a rivalry, took these anti-Red Bull protests a step further, by throwing a severed bull’s head onto the football pitch during the middle of the game. Needless to say, Red Bull are not the most popular owners in New York, nor Germany.
What about Salzburg?
Unfortunately, there are also stories of disregard shown by the Red Bull ownership towards former supporters of Austria Salzburg following their 2005 takeover. The previous rendition of the club, Austria Salzburg, wore violet coloured kits. Following the takeover, the Austria Salzburg supporter’s association told the new Red Bull owners that if they keep their violet colours for the away kits, they would be open to supporting the newly refurbished Salzburg club.
Red Bull preferred to change both the club’s home and away colours to correspond with the wider Red Bull marketing colouring, but after extensive deliberation, the RB Salzburg owners told the supporters they would be willing to allow the goalkeeper’s second kit’s socks (and only the socks) to be violet, with all other traces of the original Austria Salzburg to be erased.
The supports of the former Austria Salzburg have defected from RB Salzburg to start their own, non-profit club called SV Austria Salzburg, who play in violet. Good luck to them.
Sportswashing and Red Bull
So, can we say Red Bull are sportswashing, or are they advertising? I would say there is certainly scope for discussion there. However, it doesn’t have to be one or the other. Sportswashing is a fairly modern phenomenon and we are still watching it unfold. We do not know the forms it can take, and perhaps this is one. Sure, Red Bull is not a state (yet), but it pours a lot of its marketing resources into sports, of which football is arguably it’s biggest and most influential.
The Red Bull-backed Directors of the respective Red Bull clubs across the globe have shown little concern for their supporters, preferring to nurture talent and grow their name recognition through positive association. The clubs can afford to make huge loses because they are backed by a multi-billion-dollar marketing machine. The aim of the game is not to be a great footballing club – that is just a means to an end – the end is to grow the Red Bull brand. Is that sportswashing, is it advertising, is it both, or is it neither?
For me, it is sportswashing. That said, it is not as malignant as the form it takes in the case of Manchester City, PSG or potentially Newcastle United. Perhaps, going forward in both commentary and academia, we can divide sportswashing into state-sportswashing and corporate-sportswashing; one more menacing than the other, but equally as cynical and corrosive to the morality of the sport.