On the pitch, it was the perfect week for RB Leipzig. A 3-2 win against Champions League holders Real Madrid on Tuesday put them within a point of qualification for 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 climb within touching distance of fourth. And on top of all that, to misquote the famous English supporters’ song, Timo Werner even scored. Twice. “He’s quick, he’s dangerous and he’s a big personality that’s important to the dressing room,” Rose said of the much-improved 26-year-old after his second goal in as many games.
Werner’s return to Saxony had not paid significant dividends in the first couple of months of the season. Now, however, there are signs that he is finding some of the confidence and efficiency that seemed to have been 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 why Leipzig have not felt so good about themselves and their team’s chances since winning the DFB-Pokal, their first trophy, in May this year.
But just as things are beginning to slide again for the team, the death of Red Bull founder Dietrich Mateschitz on October 22 has raised disturbing questions about the club’s future. In his native Austria and in Germany, dozens upon dozens of newspaper articles have tried to find out what the 78-year-old’s passing meant for the soft drinks giant (annual sales: €8 billion) and the list of sports teams it owns. The answer was always the same: nobody really knows.
In the corridors of the RB Leipzig club HQ 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 naming rights to the stadium at a cost of €40m (£34.4m) a year, staff were told. Previously, Mateschitz’s company had given loans of almost 200 million euros, mainly to help Leipzig buy players.
A debt-equity swap – criticized as unfair financial trickery by clubs such as Eintracht Frankfurt, who don’t happen to have an artificial sweet-daddy bankrolling them – saw Red Bull write off €100m in 2019.
Further repayments have 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 pretty solid financial footing, with a turnover of €370m in 2020-21, more than Borussia Dortmund (€340m).
Yet the club is so wrapped up in Red Bull’s branding – to say nothing of the synergies of football group RB, with its vertically integrated breeding of talented players such as Benjamin Sesko – that it’s impossible to see how they could even remotely remain. just as successful if the money from Red Bull’s headquarters in Fuschl, a small town near Salzburg, were to dry up.
Much will depend on who will have the responsibility next. In recent years, Mateschitz’s son Mark, 29, has been groomed as his successor, but he will need the consent of the Yoovidhya family, which owns 51 percent of the company. Mateschitz, who had co-founded the company with Thai entrepreneur Chaleo Yoovidhya after stumbling upon his energy drink in Hong Kong in the mid-1980s, was allowed to run the company more or less as he pleased, but held only a minority stake of 49 percent. . There is a chance 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 as good a time as any to take out and sell to a rival, instead of betting that Mark Mateschitz will fill his father’s shoes?
But even if Mark Mateschitz ascends to the aluminum throne, there is no guarantee that the company’s focus will not shift away from sports sponsorship. He has never talked about his plans and preferences.
Red Bull spends around 1.6 billion euros on marketing annually, of which 320 million euros goes directly to support teams and individual athletes. Senior officials in Leipzig and elsewhere take solace in the fact that soft drinks have largely become synonymous with sports. Why change one of the most successful marketing strategies since Coca-Cola chose Santa nearly 100 years ago?
It will take some time before we know the company’s future direction with any degree of 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 are bound to emerge. Until he began suffering from pancreatic cancer 18 months ago, Austria’s richest man (26 billion euro net worth) was famously practical and ambitious. Whoever comes after Dietrich Mateschitz may be more interventionist or vice versa, far less driven. In a place like Leipzig, this difference can lead to pushing much harder to challenge Bayern Munich for the top spot on the one hand and just keeping things ticking on the other, as Volkswagen does at its club Wolfsburg.
Mateschitz’s death will also affect the deep-seated animosity towards RB Leipzig in German football. Many ultras and supporters of traditional clubs not only resented the club’s artificiality and brazen circumvention of the 50+1 rule that stipulates membership control. (Leipzig limits active membership to a group of handpicked employees). They also disliked the man behind the box.
A branding genius, Mateschitz would have realized that his personal views — unapologetically nativist, populist, reactionary — were anathema to a young, global lifestyle and sports company. Consequently, he rarely spoke in public. But his media companies platformed people with dubious policies as well as hobbyist epidemiologists with degrees from 4Chan University, and he once personally threatened to have an investigative journalist kneel.
When employees at the Servus TV station wanted to form a union, he told them that he would rather shut down the channel. For those who loathe investor-led clubs on principle, it will probably be a little harder to hate a faceless company than a right-wing septuagenarian billionaire from the province of Austria.
Assuming Red Bull do in fact continue their involvement, Mateschitz’s passing should at least help detoxify the RB brand within German football.
But the extent of any softening of attitude towards them will remain as uncertain as their sporting prospects in the medium term. If the last seven days underlined how far Leipzig has come since Mateschitz created 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)