Would a Red Bull-Owned Team, Like RB Leipzig, Work in England?

Graham Ruthven@@grahamruthvenFeatured ColumnistDecember 1, 2016

Leipzig's fans celebrate with football scarves after the German first division Bundesliga football match between RB Leipzig and Mainz 05 in Leipzig, eastern Germany, on November 6, 2016.  / AFP / John MACDOUGALL / RESTRICTIONS: DURING MATCH TIME: DFL RULES TO LIMIT THE ONLINE USAGE TO 15 PICTURES PER MATCH AND FORBID IMAGE SEQUENCES TO SIMULATE VIDEO. == RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE == FOR FURTHER QUERIES PLEASE CONTACT DFL DIRECTLY AT + 49 69 650050
        (Photo credit should read JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images)
JOHN MACDOUGALL/Getty Images

The Bundesliga, for so long the epitome of footballing self-assurance and sometimes self-righteousness, isn't so comfortable in its own skin right now.

Supporters still swill beer while swaying in masses of choreographed unity, having paid less for their tickets than most Premier League fans pay to park their car at the ground, but look at the top of the league table and there is an anomaly. 

RB Leipzig are that anomaly. Having won seven straight games, they hold a three-point lead over Bayern Munich and all the rest at the peak of the German top flight.

That in itself is not especially revelatory. The Bundesliga has had shock champions before, most recently in 2009, when Wolfsburg lifted the title. Stuttgart's triumph in 2007 was also a surprise.

Jens Meyer/Associated Press

It's how they got there that rankles. RB Leipzig only won promotion to the Bundesliga in May, but they were already renowned by the time they played their first-ever top-flight game this season. They are the most hated club in Germany. A blot against an otherwise pristine copybook, as it is widely seen. 

The club was only formed in 2009 when Austrian energy drink company Red Bull acquired the playing licence of German fifth-tier club Markranstadt. League rules in the country prevent commercialisation of certain aspects of a club, like its badge or name. RB Leipzig—Rasenballsport Leipzig to give them their official name, Red Bull Leipzig to give them the name everyone knows them by—found a way to bend those rules.

This commercialisation, of course, goes directly against the grain of German football's identity. The so-called "50-plus-one" rule stipulates that clubs must hold a majority of their own voting rights. Only specific investors who have been involved with a certain club for more than a 20-year period can apply for an exception to the 50-plus-one rule. 

This deters outside investors from entering the German game, but RB Leipzig found a way to get around this rule. The majority of their memberships—which cost €1,000 a year—are held by Red Bull employees and associates. Their critics say they have found a way to corrupt German football's spirit.

Their on-the-field exerts have seen them called the Leicester City of the Bundesliga, but German football fans balk at such a suggestion. Leicester's story of triumph was a fairytale, a modern-day David versus Goliath. RB Leipzig have instead, as so many see it, circumvented the rules the Bundesliga holds so dearly in order to get an advantage on the competition. In this instance, David is cheating to get the better of Goliath. 

Ralf Rangnick
Ralf RangnickJens Meyer/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

So could this ever happen in England? Recent reports suggest Red Bull is looking to buy an English club, with RB Leipzig's director of sport Ralf Rangnick taking in games at Chelsea, Charlton and Brentford, as per Charles Sale of the Daily Mail. Borussia Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke once derided RB Leipzig as just a vehicle "to sell cans of soda,” as per Reuters (via Eurosport), but now that vehicle could stop off in England.

English football doesn't quite possess a culture of anti-commercialism like German football does, and so Red Bull might find a more hospitable environment. Football Association, Premier League and English Football League rules are a lot less stringent than they are in Germany, for starters, making it easier for a club to be moulded as a reflection of a brand.

There would be a backlash, undoubtedly, if Red Bull did buy out a club in the Premier League or English Football League, but would it face the same nationwide opposition it has in Germany? 

As well as RB Leipzig, Red Bull owns clubs in Austria, Ghana, Brazil and the United States. It's the latter that provides the most compelling case.

In New York, Red Bull has long been protested against in its ownership of the city's original MLS franchise. Unlike in Germany, the Red Bulls are free to wear the company logos on their shirt and in their crest, with the team's cherished "MetroStars" name unashamedly replaced with the brand name of an energy drink. Nothing was in place to protect them as has protected Leipzig, to a certain extent.

HARRISON, NJ - NOVEMBER 07:  D.C. United take to the field to salute fans after their Eastern Conference Semifinal match against the New York Red Bulls was postponed due to weather conditions at Red Bull Arena on November 7, 2012 in Harrison, New Jersey.
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

A certain section of supporters still turn up to New York Red Bulls home games, at the undoubtedly stunning stadium the company built for the club in Harrison, New Jersey, wearing MetroStars colours. They will never be fully comfortable with the way the soul of the franchise was so readily sold to a brand, but protests and unrest have faded in recent years. It is, after all, difficult to protest a winning team with too much ferocity.

The New York Red Bulls have finished top of the Eastern Conference regular season standings for two years in succession, with the Harrison club now considered a formidable force in MLS. They still haven't won the championship—something that hangs heavily round the neck of everyone at the club—but their organisation and strategy cannot be faulted. Red Bull runs a good football team.

It would appear to be the case at Leipzig, too. While the core structure of the club is controversial to say the least, very few can find fault with the sporting aspect of how RB Leipzig have been guided through four tiers in the space of just five years.

Their transfer strategy has seen them shrewdly sign some of the brightest young talents in Germany and across Europe—like Oliver Burke from Nottingham Forest. In one isolated sense, they are the archetypal Bundesliga club.

Jens Meyer/Associated Press

In England, such success and transfer-market nous would likely appease any fanbase disgruntled by the hypothetical Red Bull takeover of their club. Supporters in England have already conceded to the ways of capitalism, with the Premier League now a global brand as much as it is a football division.

Of course, English football isn't quite the commercial free-for-all it's frequently painted as. Pete Winkelman, chairman of the country's most-hated club, MK Dons, who infamously moved from Wimbledon to Milton Keynes in 2003, would attest to that. However, English football would accommodate a Red Bull-owned club more readily than most countries. 

With English football more eager than most to sell itself as billboard space, counting out very little as off limits for sponsors, it would be a natural, if somewhat sad, progression if that were to one day extend to the name and identity of a club itself.

Red Bull Chelsea, Red Bull Charlton or Red Bull Brentford might seem a fanciful notion, but it could very quickly become feasible.

Pigs may well fly before it happens, but keep in mind how a certain energy drink gives you wings.

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