Red Bull clubs like Leipzig face uncertain future after Dietrich Mateschitz’s death

On the pitch, it was a great week for RB Leipzig. A 3-2 win over Champions League holders Real Madrid on Tuesday moved them within a point of progressing to the last 16.

Four days later, Marco Rose’s men eased past Bayer Leverkusen 2-0 to extend their unbeaten run to nine games and move within striking distance of fourth. And to top it all off, even Timo Werner scored, to misquote a famous England fan chant. double. “He’s quick, he’s dangerous and he’s got a big personality which is important for the dressing room,” Rose said of the 26-year-old, who scored his second goal in as many games.

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Werner’s return to Saxony did not pay off significantly in the first month or two of the season. However, there are now signs that he is finding some of the confidence and efficiency that seemed to be lost somewhere down the drain when he moved to Chelsea in 2020. . The German striker’s resurgence from his funk is one of the reasons for Leipzig. They have not felt good about themselves and the team’s chances since winning the DFB-Pokal, their first trophy, in May this year.

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But just as things are starting to pick up again for the team, the death of Red Bull founder Dietrich Matschitz on October 22 has raised worrying questions about the club’s future. In his native Austria and in Germany, dozens of newspaper articles have tried to determine what the 78-year-old’s death means for the soft drink giant (annual sales: €8 billion) and the roster of sports teams it owns. has it. The answer was always the same: no one really knows.

It’s business as usual in the corridors of RB Leipzig Club HQ just across the Elster Canal from the Red Bull Arena. Staff were told things would continue as they were, with Red Bull sponsoring the shirt and naming rights to the stadium at a cost of €40m (£34.4m) a year. In the past, Matschitz has provided loans worth nearly 200 million euros, mostly to help Leipzig buy players.

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A debt swap – criticized as an unfair financial trick by clubs such as Eintracht Frankfurt, whose artificial sweetener daddy didn’t happen to be sponsoring – saw Red Bull shed €100m in 2019.

red cow

A minute’s cheer before RB Leipzig’s match against Real Madrid (Photo: Maja Hittij/Getty Images)

Further repayments have reduced the club’s debt to the drinks company to €56 million. Winning the Champions League in five of their six years at the top level and a lucrative model of selling players has put them in a relatively strong financial position, with a turnover of €370m in 2020-21, more than Borussia Dortmund (€340m euros).

However, the club is so engrossed in the branding of Red Bull – to something about the synergy of the RB Football Group, with its vertically integrated farm of talented players such as Benjamin Cesko – that it’s hard to see how they could even be remotely close. . Red Bull’s head office in Foschel, a small town near Salzburg, will be successful if the money runs out.

A lot depends on who will be in charge next. In recent years, Matschitz’s son Mark, 29, has been tapped to succeed him, but he needs the approval of the Uvidia family, which owns 51 percent of the company. Matschitz, who co-founded the company with Thai entrepreneur Chaleo Yoovidhya after discovering his energy drink in Hong Kong in the mid-1980s, was allowed to run the company more or less as he wanted, but only owned a 49 percent minority stake. . It is likely that Yoovidyha’s family will struggle to express more. Will they share Dietrich Matschitz’s passion for Formula 1, football, skiing and various extreme sports? Or could they decide that now is a good time to cash in and sell to a rival instead of betting that Mark Matschitz will fill his father’s shoes?

But even if Mark Matschitz ascends to the aluminum throne, there is no guarantee that the company’s focus will not be diverted from sports sponsorship. He has never talked about his plans and preferences.

Red Bull spends about 1.6 billion euros annually on marketing, of which 320 million euros goes directly to sponsoring teams and athletes. High-ranking officials in Leipzig and elsewhere take comfort in the fact that soda has become largely synonymous with sport. Why change one of the most successful marketing strategies since Coca-Cola adopted Santa nearly 100 years ago?

It will take some time to know the future direction of the company with complete certainty. Those working under the Red Bull banner can only hope that no major changes are in store, but in some ways, that’s impossible, as new lines of command emerge. Until he suffered from pancreatic cancer 18 months ago, Austria’s richest man (net worth €26 billion) was very pragmatic and ambitious. Anyone who comes after Dietrich Matschitz may be more intrusive or, conversely, far less driven. In a place like Leipzig, that difference could translate into trying much harder to challenge Bayern Munich for top spot on the one hand and just hang on at the other, as Volkswagen does at home club Wolfsburg.

Matschitz’s death also affects the deep rivalry with RB Leipzig in German football. Many ultras and supporters of traditional clubs just don’t mind the fakeness of the club and its brazen circumvention of the 50+1 rule that dictates membership control. (Leipzig actively limits membership to a select group of employees). They also hated the man behind the can.

A branding genius, Matschitz found his personal views—unapologetically nativist, populist, reactionary—anathema to a young global, lifestyle, and sports company. As a result, he rarely spoke in public. But his media companies have provided people with questionable policies as well as entertaining epidemiologists with degrees from 4Chan, and he once personally threatened to bring an investigative journalist to his knees.

When the employees of his Servos television station wanted to form a union, he told them that he would prefer to shut down the channel. For those who hate investor-led clubs on principle, a faceless corporation is probably a little harder to hate than a septuagenarian right-wing billionaire from provincial Austria.

Assuming Red Bull do indeed continue their engagement, Pass Matschitz should at least go some way to detoxifying the RB brand in German football.

But the extent of any softening of attitudes towards them will remain as uncertain as their sporting prospects in the medium term. If the past seven days showed how far Leipzig have come since Matschitz founded the club in 2009, it suddenly becomes much less clear what the next 13 years will look like.

(Top photo: Jerry Andre ATPImages/Getty Images)


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