Professional sports are big business. Top-flight players receive more money in one season than most dream of seeing in their lifetime. Billionaire owners seem more intent on the bottom line than on their team’s place in the league standings. Ticket prices continue to rise, squeezing the wallets of more and more fans. In this era of free agency and million-dollar transfer-fees, it is easy to be cynical, to think that the soul of sport, the integrity of competition, has been lost to the values of big business forever. Just don’t tell that to the rabid soccer fans of the German Bundesliga’s FC St. Pauli.
Simply put, FC St. Pauli is a little different than your average sports team.
A perennial second division (aka minor leagues) club, FC St. Pauli nevertheless regularly sells out their 20,000-seat Millerntor stadium. The team enters onto the field while the speakers blare AC/DC’s “Hells Bells,” and players are greeted by fans waving pirate flags and other signs of anarchic rebellion. A scent of marijuana hanging over the crowd, and their fans pulsate in unison, as if attending an all-night rave. All of which makes perfect sense for a team who plays its home games in the red-light district of Hamburg.
But what may at first appear to be a sociological study in the art of controlled chaos is really nothing of the kind. The St. Pauli experience is heavily influenced by their artist, punk and left-wing intellectual followers, which makes the Millerntor stadium one of the most tolerant sporting venues in all of Europe, if not the world.
“The club was the first to officially ban right-wing nationalist activities,” notes The Age columnist Mark Hawthorne. “Opposition to fascism, sexism and homophobia has actually been included in the club constitution.”
This results in more female fans rooting for St. Pauli than for any other German club. And for the last seven years, the team was run by Cornelius “Corny” Littman, who is “one of the few openly gay men in European sport,” writes Hawthorne.
FC St. Pauli didn’t always have such a fanatical fan base. Like most second division clubs, they once struggled to attract 2,000 fans to their games. But that changed in the early 1980’s, when a neighborhood near their stadium was slated for upscale development. “In a massive protest,” reports Trans World Sport, “the buildings were occupied by students, intellectuals, radicals and punks.” All of whom followed the club. “It was around this time that St. Pauli fans started to bring football and politics together.” The punks started to bring the skull and crossbones flag to St. Pauli matches to voice their solidarity with others fighting capitalism, and it has been a symbol of the team ever since.
The club’s decision to embrace the leftist politics of its most fervent followers was rewarded with continued fan attendance. But the decision wasn’t as immediately beneficial as it sounds.
The Eighties were a tough time for European soccer. Hooliganism was rampant. And many right-wing fascist organizations sought to strengthen themselves by infiltrating the notoriously ravenous fans of football clubs. St. Pauli’s decision to embrace left-wing politics was met head-on by proponents of fascism.
But the club took a chance on their fans, and the decision paid off handsomely. Today, reports Trans World Sport, “St. Pauli’s fan appeal is something other clubs can only dream of.”
Even though the club still has yet to win a trophy.
Like many second-tier clubs, FC St. Pauli has historically struggled to raise enough revenue to remain competitive. Which has only further endeared them with their fans. “St. Pauli is a working class club,” says local Hamburg journalist and former St. Pauli footballer Butje Rosenfeld. “They’re the underdog.”
It’s not easy to make money when your fan base is led by anarchic anti-capitalists. But St. Pauli has creatively entertained less-traditional methods to raise funds. In 2008 the team “announced a sponsoring deal with Orion, a mail order shop selling an assortment of erotic products,” reported the Bundesliga blog The Offside, noting that
“Orion will … supply the club’s fan shop with 20,000 St. Pauli branded condoms.”
The lack of revenue stems, in part, from a refusal to build stadium box seats, which are considered too bourgeois by many St. Pauli fans. But with renovations to the Millerntor stadium, this belief could be changing. Does St. Pauli intend to stay in top-flight Bundesliga now that they’ve returned to the first division?
“When the stadium is updated, we will, nonetheless, keep the identity of the club,” states former president Littman, who stepped down last May, following the team’s promotion back to the first division.
Appropriately enough for FC St. Pauli, Littman is not your typical team president. In addition to being openly gay, he owns two of the more popular theaters in Hamburg’s red-light district. It could be because of these credentials that the St. Pauli fan base has allowed him to step into the netherworld of market capitalism, renovating the stadium and recently signing a two-year sponsorship deal with Air Berlin. Or, it could be due to St. Pauli’s promising return to the first division. In either case, for Littman, his job was completed, and after seven years, it was time to step down. “I once stood at the rudder of a rubber dingy,” he noted at his emotional press conference. “Now it has turned into a magnificent pirate ship.”
Can FC St. Pauli be competitively successful while staying true to its ideals and honoring the values of its extremely loyal fan base? It will be fascinating to see where the ship steers this upcoming year, as they battle the likes of Germany’s most storied clubs, such as Bayern Munich and Werder Bremen. But while their fans eagerly await their opportunity to serenade such illustrious foes to the tune of “Hells Bells,” St. Pauli’s success will continue to be won or lost not on the pitch, but with its fans.
“In a society that is becoming more harsh,” notes Rosenfeld, “people look for an oasis where things might not be perfect, but where people feel comfortable. Somewhere where they can be human, and they can find something they can identify with.”
For the anarchy-embracing fans of FC St. Pauli, those ideals combine to create a winning combination. No matter what league their team is playing in.
PETE REDINGTON has written about sports and politics for In These Times, Z Magazine and The Valley Advocate. He blogs on economic justice at affluentangst.wordpress.com. Learn more about him at www.redingtonpete.com.