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

On the field, it was a perfect week for RB Leipzig. A 3-2 win against Champions League holders Real Madrid on Tuesday moved them within a point of qualifying for the last 16.

Four days later, Marco Rose’s men beat Bayer Leverkusen 2-0 to extend their unbeaten run to nine games and climb close to fourth place. And to top it all off, to misquote the famous chant of English fans, even Timo Werner scored. Twice. “He’s quick, he’s dangerous and he’s a great personality that’s important in the dressing room,” Rose said of the vastly improved 26-year-old after his second goal in as many games.

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Werner’s return to Saxony failed to pay significant dividends in the first few months of the season. Now, however, there are signs he is finding some of the confidence and efficiency that seemed lost somewhere down the drain when he moved to Chelsea in 2020. That the German striker is out of his element again is one of the reasons why Leipzig haven’t felt this 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 were starting to pick up again for the team, the death of Red Bull founder Dietrich Mateschitz on October 22 opened up disturbing questions about the club’s future. In his native Austria and Germany, dozens and dozens of newspaper articles tried to determine what the 78-year-old’s death meant for the giant soft drinks company (annual sales: 8 billion euros) and the list of sports teams it owns. The answer has always been the same: nobody really knows.

In the corridors of RB Leipzig’s club headquarters, across the Elster canal from the Red Bull Arena, it feels business as usual. Things will continue as before, with Red Bull sponsoring the shirt and naming rights to the stadium at a cost of €40m (£34.4m) a year, employees have been told. In the past, Mateschitz’s corporation has made loans worth almost 200 million euros, mostly to help Leipzig buy players.

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The debt swap – criticized as an unfair financial scam by clubs like Eintracht Frankfurt who don’t happen to have an artificial sweetener daddy financing them – led to a €100m write-off for Red Bull in 2019.

Red bull

A minute’s applause before the match between RB Leipzig and Real Madrid (Photo: Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

Further repayments reduced the club’s debt to the drinks company to €56 million. Champions League qualification in five of their six years at the top level and their lucrative player sales model have put them on a fairly solid financial footing, with a turnover of €370m in 2020-21, more than Borussia Dortmund (€340m ).

Despite this, the club is so wrapped up in the Red Bull branding — not to mention the synergies of the RB football group, with its vertically integrated breeding of talented players such as Benjamin Sesko — that it’s impossible to imagine how they could be even remotely as successful if the money from Red Bull’s head office in Fuschl, a small town near Salzburg, has dried up.

Much will depend on who will be in charge next. In recent years, Mateschitz’s son Mark, 29, has been groomed as his successor, but he will need the approval of the Yoovidhya family, which owns 51 percent of the company. Mateschitz, who founded the company with Thai entrepreneur Chale 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 always held a minority stake of 49 percent . There is a chance that the Yoovidyha family will push for more influence. Will he share Dietrich Mateschitz’s enthusiasm for Formula 1, football, skiing and various extreme sports? Or could they have decided that now is as good a time as any to cash out and sell to a rival, rather than bet on Mark Mateschitz replacing his father?

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

Red Bull spends about 1.6 billion euros a year on marketing, of which 320 million goes directly to support teams and individual athletes. Senior officials in Leipzig and elsewhere take solace in the fact that the soft drink has largely become synonymous with sports. Why change one of the most successful marketing strategies since Coca-Cola took on 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 that no major changes are in store, but in a way, that’s impossible, as new lines of command are bound to emerge. Until he began suffering from pancreatic cancer 18 months ago, Austria’s richest man (net worth 26 billion euros) was famously practical and ambitious. Whoever comes after Dietrich Mateschitz could be more interventionist or vice versa, far less stimulating. At a place like Leipzig, that difference could translate into a much stronger push to challenge Bayern Munich for top spot on the one hand and just keeping things right on the other, as Volkswagen does at its Wolfsburg club.

Mateschitz’s death will also affect the deep-seated animosity towards RB Leipzig within German football. Many ultras and sympathizers of traditional clubs did not like only the club’s artificiality and brazen circumvention of the 50+1 rule, which provides for membership control. (Leipzig actively limits membership to a group of hand-picked employees). They also really disliked the man behind the can.

A branding genius, Mateschitz would have realized that his personal views—relentlessly nativist, populist, reactionary—were anathema to a young, global lifestyle and sports company. Because of this, he rarely appeared in public. But his media companies have platformed people with questionable politics as well as hobbyist epidemiologists with degrees from 4Chan University, and he once personally threatened to kick an investigative reporter’s kneecap.

When the employees of his television station Servus wanted to form a union, he told them that he would rather shut down the channel. Those who hate investor-led clubs on principle will probably find it a little harder to hate a faceless corporation than a right-wing seventy-year-old billionaire from provincial Austria.

Assuming Red Bull does indeed continue its involvement, Mateschitz’s death should at least somewhat detoxify the RB brand in German football.

But the extent of any softening towards them will remain as uncertain as their medium-term sporting prospects. If the last seven days have shown how far Leipzig have come since Mateschitz founded the club in 2009, it is suddenly much less clear what the next 13 years might look like.

(Top photo: Jerry Andre ATPImages/Getty Images)


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