I start a lot of these with the phrase, “I knew better.” Whether it’s tuning into Monday Night Raw, or believing in the Carolina Hurricanes, or something else, you say that phrase enough and it becomes clear that, no, I don’t actually know better. I’m just a gullible giblet.
So it was again on Sunday morning, when I carved out time to watch Bayer Leverkusen v. Bayern Munich. It was early in the Bundesliga season, early enough that one or two teams could at least hang around Munich simply because there hadn’t been time for them to separate yet. Leverkusen were sporting perhaps soccer’s most exciting teenager in Florian Wirtz, who had piled up four goals and six assists in just seven league games (and just five starts). It was in Leverkusen, they were both tied atop the standings, and it felt like we could actually have a big game in Germany. Maybe even a first shot across the mighty Munich’s bow, signalling that finally, they could be under threat.
Munich were up 4-0 before you had time to shit out the previous night’s beer.
So while the lead for Munich is only one point at the moment over Borussia Dortmund, and we can cling to the leaking flotation device of “Stranger Things Can Happen,” we know how this will go. Munich will march on to their 10th straight Bundesliga title.
Munich supporters will quickly point out that Juventus put together nine straight Serie A triumphs right alongside them, so that this kind of monopoly isn’t exclusive to Bavaria. At least Juve’s came to an end last season, and they are already 10 points off the pace this term in Italy.
More dispiriting is that of Munich’s nine titles in a row, only one was even close, less than a 10-point gap to second place. Not only are they winning, but they’re winning at a canter.
Yes, it’s Bayern Munich, and they’ve always been the BIG BAD of the Bundesliga and no system will ever keep them from consistently circling the title. But this is getting silly. And if we sit around hoping that this particular squad will age out of dominance, the ages of Joshua Kimmich, Alphonso Davies, Leroy Sané, Dayot Upamecano, Serge Gnabry will probably dispel that, and certainly will buy the club enough time to restock with a younger generation. That’s always been the way.
So how did it get this way?
The answer, as it always seems to be, is at least partially based on how TV money is distributed. Until this season for the previous four, only a quarter of the Bundesliga’s TV moneywas distributed evenly across the league to all 18 teams. Fifty percent of it was based on the previous five years’ performance, which obviously Munich dominated. Compare that with the Premier League, where half the TV money from their domestic deal is distributed evenly, and until the past year all of the international TV money is (and the American one just happens to be up after this season). The Bundesliga doesn’t have nearly the international TV deals that the Premier League does. The season before the pandemic, the league brought in just short of $300 million total from international rights. The Premier League pulls in north of a $1 billion per season from international deals.
With so much income depending on how well you do, Munich is at an advantage. And that’s on top of them, and Dortmund, being the only two teams in Germany that annually pull in Champions League revenues that only they get. That’s not a revenue stream the rest of the league can tap, obviously.
As much as most of the sports world is in love with Germany’s “50+1” model of ownership, and long for it on their shores, it does hold everyone back from competing with Munich. The sheer size of Bayern, their global reach, their marketing in every part of the world, is just something that no other club in Germany can match. All the income avenues that aren’t league-wide, such as merchandising and tickets and whatever else, Munich just dwarfs their competition. And they probably always will. Without evening out the TV money, there’s always going to be this huge gap.
There is also of course the factor that with Munich always being the only big club in the land, the talent-funnel only goes to one place. In Spain, if a player makes serious noise at Villareal or Real Betis, there’s two destinations, which (under normal, non-self-destructive times) keeps Barcelona and Real Madrid balanced. In England, there’s three or four. Same for Italy, though maybe Inter’s financial troubles keep them out of it as well.
But in Germany, any star who doesn’t play for Munich almost certainly will. A large swath of this monster team was harvested from other Bundesliga teams, including what’s supposed to be their main rival in Dortmund. Lewandowski, Kimmich, Upamecano, Neuer, Goretzka, Süle, and Gnabry were all plucked from other Bundesliga clubs. The league has essentially acted as a farm system for Munich, because they can offer wages that no one else can due to their size. It’s always been this way, and combined with Munich’s unmatched ability to buy prime players from abroad, it’s an unscalable mountain for anyone else in the league.
The Bundesliga will never get rid of its 50+1 rule, and really nor should it. It has kept ticket prices down for everyone and given fans a real voice and say in how things are run. And it prevents any club from a Newcastle-like takeover from unsavory or downright evil people. That’s not a bad thing, but that’s one route for a club to level up to Munich.
Renegotiating how the TV deals are distributed is another, though the league would have to really bump up their worth to make it count, and it’s unlikely the Bundesliga can ever match the Premier League’s bounty. And it wouldn’t just be Munich against leveling out TV money, as Dortmund or Leipzig might also give that a sneer.
Maybe this is just the way he wants it.