Red Bull clubs like Leipzig face uncertain future after Dietrich Mateschitz’s death
On the pitch, it was the perfect week for RB Leipzig. A 3-2 win over Champions League holders Real Madrid on Tuesday puts them one point clear of qualification for the knockout stages.
Four days later, Marco Rose’s men beat Bayer Leverkusen 2-0 to extend their unbeaten run to nine games and move within touching distance of fourth place. And on top of all that, to misquote the famous English fan chant, even Timo Werner scored. Twice. “He’s quick, he’s dangerous and he’s a big personality which is important for the dressing room,” Rose said of the 26-year-old who improved a lot after his second goal in as many games.
Werner’s return to Saxony had not paid significant dividends in the first two months of the season. Now, however, there are signs he is regaining some of the confidence and efficiency that seemed to have been lost somewhere in the Channel when he moved to Chelsea in 2020. The re-emergence of the German striker of his funk is one of the reasons why Leipzig haven’t felt so good about themselves and the team’s chances since winning the DFB-Pokal, their first trophy, in May this year.
But just as things are starting to gel again for the team, the death of Red Bull founder Dietrich Mateschitz on October 22 has raised troubling questions about the club’s future. In his native Austria and Germany, dozens and dozens of newspaper articles attempted to determine what the 78-year-old’s death meant for the soft drinks giant (annual sales: 8 billion euros ) and the list of sports teams it owns. The answer was always the same: no one really knows.
In the halls of RB Leipzig club HQ just across the Elster Canal from the Red Bull Arena, there is a sense of business as usual. Things will continue as they were, with Red Bull sponsoring the shirt and stadium naming rights at a cost of €40m (£34.4m) a year, employees have been told. In the past, Mateschitz’s company had provided loans worth nearly €200m, mostly to help Leipzig buy players.
A debt-for-equity swap – criticized as an unfair financial trickery by clubs such as Eintracht Frankfurt who have no artificial sweetener to finance them – saw Red Bull write off 100 million euros in 2019.
Further repayments reduced the club’s debt to the drinks company to €56m. Champions League qualification for five of their six years at the top level and their lucrative model of selling players have put them on a fairly solid financial footing, with revenue of €370m in 2020-21 , more than Borussia Dortmund (340 million euros).
Nonetheless, the club is so absorbed in the Red Bull brand image – let alone the synergies of the RB football group, with its vertically integrated breeding of talented players such as Benjamin Sesko – that it’s impossible to see how they could even be remote. also successful if the money from Red Bull’s main office in Fuschl, a small town near Salzburg, were to dry up.
Everything will depend on who will be the next responsible. In recent years, Mateschitz’s son Mark, 29, had been groomed to succeed him, but he will need the assent of the Yoovidhya family, which owns 51% of the business. Mateschitz, who had founded the company with Thai entrepreneur Chaleo Yoovidhya after stumbling across his energy drink in Hong Kong in the mid-1980s, was allowed to run the company more or less as he pleased, but didn’t never held more than a minority share of 49%. . There is a chance that the Yoovidyha family will push for more say. Will they share Dietrich Mateschitz’s enthusiasm for Formula 1, football, skiing and various extreme sports? Or could they decide that now was the best time to cash in and sell to a rival, instead of betting that Mark Mateschitz will fill his father’s shoes?
But even if Mark Mateschitz ascends the aluminum throne, there’s no guarantee the company’s attention won’t shift away from sports sponsorship. He never talked about his plans and preferences.
Red Bull spends approximately €1.6 billion on marketing each year, of which €800 million goes directly to supporting teams and individual athletes. Senior officials in Leipzig and elsewhere are reassured that the soft drink has become largely synonymous with sport. Why change one of the most successful marketing strategies since Coca-Cola co-opted Santa nearly 100 years ago?
It will be some time before we know for sure the future direction of the company. Those working under the Red Bull banner can only hope there won’t be big changes, but in some ways that’s impossible, as new lines of command will inevitably emerge. Until he began to suffer from pancreatic cancer 18 months ago, Austria’s richest man (a net worth of 26 billion euros) was known to be practical and ambitious. Whoever succeeds Dietrich Mateschitz may be more interventionist or, on the contrary, much less motivated. In a place like Leipzig, that difference could translate into pushing much harder to challenge Bayern Munich for top spot on one side and simply pushing things forward on the other, like Volkswagen does at his club Wolfsburg.
Mateschitz’s death will also affect the deep animosity towards RB Leipzig within German football. Many traditional club ultras and supporters didn’t just love the artifice of the club and the brazen circumvention of the 50+1 rule that stipulates member control. (Leipzig actively limits membership to a select group of employees). They also didn’t like the man behind the can very much.
A branding genius, Mateschitz reportedly realized his personal views — staunchly nativist, populist, reactionary — were anathema to a fledgling global lifestyle and sports company. Therefore, he rarely spoke in public. But his media ventures have featured people with questionable policies as well as amateur epidemiologists who graduated from 4Chan University, and he once personally threatened to have an investigative journalist run over.
When the employees of his television station Servus wanted to form a union, he told them that he preferred to close the station. For those who hate investor-run clubs in principle, it will probably be a little harder to hate a faceless company than a septuagenarian right-wing billionaire from the Austrian province.
Assuming Red Bull does indeed continue its commitment, Mateschitz’s passing should at least help detoxify the RB brand within German football.
But the extent of a possible softening of the attitude towards them will remain as uncertain as their medium-term sporting prospects. While the past seven days have underscored how far Leipzig have come since Mateschitz established the club in 2009, it’s suddenly much less clear what the next 13 years might look like.
(Top photo: Jerry Andre ATPImages/Getty Images)