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Who runs German Professional Football Clubs? Characteristics of Top-level Management.

Week by week, football fascinates millions of people. In the 2021/22 season, the Bundesliga clubs generated €3.61 billion and the 2. Bundesliga clubs €867.8 million. 48,372 people were directly or indirectly employed in the Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga during the season. Professional football plays a major role in the German society and media landscape. But who are the leaders of the Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga clubs? What characteristics are represented in the top-level management of the clubs? Are former footballers particularly involved in the functions and what tasks do they take on? 

By Matthias Dombrowski & Henning Bindzus

As is well known, due to their structure, size and economic power, professional football clubs can be described as football companies that pursue goals in various dimensions and become more demanding in the selection of their leaders. In addition to short-term success on the pitch, clubs have medium- to long-term, non-sporting, often financial goals in mind. To pursue these ambitions sustainably, to lead frequently medium-sized business organizations and to develop them strategically, are the original tasks of actors at the highest operational management level. At the same time, the top management of football companies in comparison with other positions such as head coach or sporting director is rarely a focus of scientific investigations or extensive media coverage. In other economic sectors, a much more precise and detailed view of the board and management members, respectively, takes place. They are business leaders, decision-makers, and executives with major responsibility. Factors inherent in professional sports, such as the balance of competition, the simultaneity of co-operation and competition and the uncertainty of outcome of the match, contribute to the fact that the top management of professional football clubs must deal with specific requirements and an increasing level of complexity. Some areas of business and responsibility, on the other hand, hardly differ from those of other industries. In order to operate successfully as a football company on and off the pitch, professional management is therefore required doing justice to the special conditions of professional football and taking appropriate account of the developments in non-professional sports-related topics. The boards of directors and management make decisions of great importance, making them highly relevant players within the entire German football ecosystem. 

Who is the John or Jane Doe of the top-level Management?

What are the characteristics of the people who are supposed to run the football clubs and live up to these responsibilities? Over a period of six consecutive seasons (2016/17 to 2021/22), the board and management members of 36 clubs in the Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga were analysed. 150 people worked in 167 positions at clubs in top-level management positions. Of these, 15 were responsible for two different clubs during the period, and one person was even responsible for three clubs. Personal data in the context of top management are particularly suitable for number, gender diversity, age, and level of education, which are regularly subject to consideration, especially in non-sports industries Former professional players are also given a special focus, as 40 of the 150 people (26.7%) have a past on the pitch at a high level and, in many cases, a greater level of media perception.

On average, the clubs’ top-level management is staffed by 2.27 people. Since the sports department is represented by one person at almost all clubs, the value suggests the understanding that in many cases a sports manager and a commercial manager act in a dualistic composition. If at least one former player is represented in top management, the average increases to 2.4. It should be emphasized that over the six seasons analysed, the average number of people has increased from 2.01 to 2.49 (+23.8%). Compared to other top international leagues such as Serie A (Ø5.45), Premier League (Ø5.95) and La Liga (Ø8.9), it is obvious that there is already a significantly higher number of top-level managers in these leagues. But it must also be considered that there are different governance, committee, and management structures.

Unsurprisingly, we must talk about John and not Jane Doe. Among the 150 people, only 4 are women (2.7%) and unfortunately there was no positive development recognizable over the period. Nowhere is a female manager responsible for the sports department, nor is there a former professional female player in top management.

On average, the top manager of a club in the Bundesliga or 2. Bundesliga is 49 years old. Looking at the development over the six seasons, the age has even risen to 50.1 years. The relatively stable average age can be explained mainly by the fact that retired positions were filled by slightly younger people.

When it comes to sports management, the educational background of top managers is a relevant field of research. 72.9% of top managers have studied, primarily economics (55%). Almost two thirds have obtained a diploma/master’s degree or a state examination. The share of top managers with a particularly sports-related formal education (i.a. study, vocational training, UEFA Pro License) is rather low (18.7%).

Now let us have a look at the 40 former professional players who are among the 150 top managers. 19 (47.5%) of them are responsible for the club for which they laced up their football boots. 85%, i.e. 34 of out of 40 people, are responsible for the sports department and at least one former professional player was in top-level management at 28 of the 36 clubs examined. In an international comparison, 40 out of 150 (26.7%) former professional players are significantly more frequently represented in the top management of German clubs than in the Premier League (5%) and Serie A (3%) football companies.

So, how can we interpret the data collected?

The increase in the number of people at the highest management level from 2.01 to 2.49 on average suggests that a higher degree of professionalization and specialization is being sought in top management. The expanded business and action areas, such as internationalization, digitization and sustainability, are to be represented qualitatively and quantitatively even at the highest management level. Likewise, more pronounced specifications in existing areas of the company, such as fan culture, communication and marketing, must be adequately taken into account in order to respond in particular to the increased demands of different stakeholders. As a rule, there is no greater differentiation in the field of sports through several positions at the highest management level. The number of people is also independent of the league of the respective club.

The extremely low number of female leaders in German professional football is not unknown, and against the background of knowledge that diverse structure of gender in management bodies ensures the sustainable success of companies, there will have to be a positive development in this matter to exploit the huge potential of diverse teams with people of different mindset. 

The stable average age can be explained by two reasons: On the one hand, retired managers have been replaced by slightly younger managers and, on the other hand, the expansions of the first management level have meant that the age has remained constant. Because of almost three fifths of the clubs have seen an increase in average age, it cannot be concluded that the German professional football industry as an entirety is striving for deliberate rejuvenation at the highest management level. Especially in connection with new and future-relevant business areas as well as innovative divisions, it will be exciting to see what effects and changes will occur.

Former professional players often have a strong connection to the club they played for, they are credited with a special understanding of the club’s realities and entail remarkable identification potential with supporters and other groups interested in the club. This bolsters up the possibility of promotion to top management. However, it is not sufficient to highlight this as the sole quality feature, because 33 of the 40 former professional players in top management have an academic degree, vocational training and/or training or further education in sport. There is no correlation between league affiliation and the number of ex-professionals in top management, which suggests that it is no easier for former players to join top management at a second division club than in the Bundesliga.

In contrast to comparable companies in other business sectors, the degree of academic education is rather low in the top-level management of German professional football clubs. This should be understood as an ascertainment. It indicates that, as with sports management in general, the barriers to access to the top-level management in professional football can be seen as rather low compared to other branches due to the special nature of the market. The proportion of people with general business training is quite high contrasted to those with sports and/or football management-specific training. It can be deduced from this that general skills are given greater importance. Nevertheless, the selective acquisition of subject-specific additional qualifications shows the relevance of specialist knowledge in the field of professional football.

What’s next?

Based on the results of this state analysis, it is possible, e.g., to link the characteristics of the persons in top management with sporting and economic success indicators of the clubs. Which clubs act particularly efficiently? What characteristics of top managers correlate positively with success on and off the pitch? In particular, the answers to these questions should be considered when future personnel decisions, top-level management positions and recommendations for action are discussed.

About the authors:

Matthias Dombrowski is a passionate football business enthusiast. With an educational background in sports management and marketing, he currently works as Executive Assistant to the CEO at the German football club FC Ingolstadt 04, strongly connected to the first team and youth academy operations. Before his tenure in Bavaria, he had an instructive and fascinating time at Hamburger SV. As external PhD student at Leipzig University, he focuses his research activities on the field of football management.
Contact: matthias.dombrowski@outlook.com

With the experience of more than 15 years on various sides of football business, Henning Bindzus currently advises national and international companies as well as decision-makers in this industry with a focus on corporate strategies, commercial developments, and brand management. Previously, the sports economist worked in leadership positions i.a. as Authorized Representative and Director Business Relations, Brand and Marketing for Hamburger SV and as Head of Sports Marketing for Hermes Europe. He also holds advisory board mandates as well as lectureships in “Football Management” and “Sports Management”.
Contact: henning.bindzus@think-about-sports.com

The theoretical background of the analysis, the applied research method, and literature available at: Dombrowski, M., Hovemann, G., Hodeck, A. & Bindzus, H. (2023). Ist-Analyse der Merkmale der Personen im Top-Management im deutschen Profifußball. Sciamus – Sport und Management, Jg. 2023, Nr. 2, S. 24-48. DOI: 10.24403/jp.1335529

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