How the Bundesliga ended up with 18 teams and why it won't change soon

Ever since the Premier League announced its monster new television deal in February, the Bundesliga is talking about money. To be exact: about how to generate more of it. Christian Heidel, the business manager at Mainz, has used this debate to re-introduce an idea that has been making the rounds for more than ten years: the prospect of adding two more teams to the Bundesliga.

The first leading club representative to seriously suggest this was Eintracht Frankfurt chairman, Heribert Bruchhagen. In January of 2005, he sent a letter to his colleagues that listed eight arguments for enlarging the top two flights to 20 teams each. Bruchhagen argued more match days would mean more television money for the clubs, adding that almost all of the new grounds built for the World Cup were financed by public funds; the taxpayer had a right to see them used more often. Finally, he pointed out that the countries who were leading the UEFA rankings at the time (Spain, England and Italy) were all playing with 20 teams in the top two divisions.

Eintracht put forward a motion to vote on the plan during the general assembly of the country's professional clubs in June of that year. The German Football League (DFL) then set up a working party to investigate the ramifications of 20-team divisions. Ahead of the vote, DFL chairman Christian Seifert presented the results.

The working party found that adding two clubs to each of the top two flights would lead to additional costs of 54 million Euros (travel, organisation, wages and bonuses) and that the increased revenue wouldn't suffice to cover that. Seifert also said the committee had polled the country's football fans and 73 per cent of them preferred an 18-team league.

At the ensuing ballot, Bruchhagen was defeated. Ten clubs voted yes, 19 voted no and two abstained. (The four clubs that had just been promoted to the second division weren't allowed to vote.) "I respect the vote," he said. "But I have no arguments for why so many second division clubs were against enlargement."

That part was indeed surprising. Generally speaking, the bigger clubs had been against Bruchhagen's plans from the beginning while the smaller teams liked the idea. Bayern Munich's chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge had told Kicker magazine in January 2005: "We need less games, not more. Also, there would be two more clubs holding out their hands." Klaus Allofs, then director of football at reigning league champions Werder Bremen, echoed the idea that there were too many matches already: "The players have reached breaking point."

However, the clubs that were not playing in Europe were more sympathetic. Arminia Bielefeld's chief executive said "there's no way around enlargement" while Hansa Rostock's business manager could "very well imagine" a larger Bundesliga. (A few months later, Hansa finished the season in 17th place and went down, which probably further enhanced their attraction to a 20-team Bundesliga.)

But during that June meeting, some of those smaller clubs must have voted against Bruchhagen during the (secret) ballot. Things didn't really change over the following years, during which Bruchhagen periodically brought his plan up for discussion again. In 2009, he won a committed ally in Mainz president Harald Strutz, who said: "Through reunification, Germany has grown by 17 million people, but football has been standing still for 20 years thanks to the lobbying of the big clubs."

It was a good argument because it seems logical to adapt the size of a league to the market and other conditions like economic power. Spain's Primera División, for instance, began with 10 teams in 1928 and then gradually grew over time: 12 teams in 1934, 14 in 1941, 16 in 1950, 18 in 1971 and then 20 in 1987.

Another argument, though, says that a smaller league is more attractive because it's by default more competitive, simply because you enlarge a league by adding lower-division (and thus weaker) teams. In the 1980s, the ongoing debate proposed actually reducing the Bundesliga to 16 teams instead.

As early as 1984, Bayern's business manager Uli Hoeness told the magazine Der Spiegel: "The Bundesliga must be reduced from 18 to 16 teams as soon as possible." Football wasn't very popular at the time and as attendances were declining rather dramatically, a smaller league was seen as one of the possible solutions.

In fact, the Bundesliga began with 16 teams in 1963. The main reason it was enlarged to 18 clubs in 1965 was that Hertha Berlin got demoted on account of a bribery scandal and the powers that be wanted to replace them with another Berlin club for political reasons. The two relegated teams, Karlsruhe and Schalke, were up in arms about those plans; to humour everyone (except Hertha, obviously) the league was simply enlarged.

Funnily enough, the very event that Harald Strutz would later use as an argument for a 20-team league presented the supporters of a 16-team top flight with their golden opportunity: reunification.

In 1990, the German FA (DFB) had many debates on how best to reform the league structure in order to accommodate clubs from the former East Germany (GDR). There was no doubt that the league would have to be expanded temporarily to add those teams before being gradually reduced. The big clubs grabbed this chance with both hands. In order to sell the idea of a 16-team league to the smaller clubs, a new competition was suggested: a League Cup that would be staged during the winter break and would guarantee each club at least 200,000 marks in television money.

In October of that year, the 38 clubs then playing in the two professional divisions held a vote: 27 voted yes, only nine said no. One month later, the DFB's advisory panel presented the schedule for the coming years: the 1991/92 season would be played with 20 teams, four of which were to come from the GDR. According to this plan, the Bundesliga would go back to 18 teams in 1992-93 and then in 1993-94, it would be reduced to the size Hoeness had been demanding for years, with just 16 clubs.

Then something strange happened; football became hip. The league's average attendance in 1991-92 exceeded 24,000. (Six years earlier, it had been 18,000.) When Kicker magazine polled its readers in late 1991, just 2.2 percent were in favour of a 16-team Bundesliga. (50 percent wanted to keep the 20-team league while 47.8 percent preferred the traditional number of 18.)

Kaiserslautern put forward a motion to unceremoniously scrap the DFB's plans and in November 1991, 44 club presidents met in Frankfurt. In the end, 42 of them voted to leave things as they had been: 18 teams, a winter break, no League Cup. Even Bayern Munich voted yes. (Borussia Dortmund and Hertha Berlin decided to not take part.)

That's how it's been ever since. If the top clubs had their say, they would play fewer domestic games and more high-profile matches in Europe. If the small clubs had their say, the league would be enlarged to increase revenue and reduce the risk of relegation, making the 18-team league a compromise of sorts.

So does this mean a 20-club Bundesliga is totally illusory? Maybe not. There have been some developments since Bruchhagen was voted down that even the big clubs aren't happy about: namely the rise of the smaller, unfashionable but efficient clubs with corporate owners. When Heidel revived Bruchhagen's old idea in July, he didn't talk about stadiums, UEFA rankings or even television money. He said: "The Bundesliga has 18 slots but the number of clubs has increased. Clubs like RB Leipzig and 1899 Hoffenheim didn't exist in the past."

Heidel was echoing a widespread sentiment that goes beyond fans: the Bundesliga is in danger of becoming unattractive for reasons that have nothing to do with what is happening on the pitch. In April 2013, the market research company Media Control found that just 5,000 people watched the game between Wolfsburg and Leverkusen on Sky Germany, an audience rating of zero. And these two clubs are veritable crowd-pleasers compared to the likes of Hoffenheim, Ingolstadt or Darmstadt.

"The number of such clubs is rising," Heidel said, "but the league has to be vibrant and needs the other clubs and the emotions."

These "other" clubs are, of course, big tradition-laden teams with large fan bases like Kaiserslautern, Nuremberg and 1860 Munich, or even St. Pauli, Bielefeld, Düsseldorf and Duisburg, all of which are currently languishing in the second division.

There is one obvious question Heidel will have to find an answer to. What if he succeeds and the Bundesliga is enlarged to 20 teams, but the two additional clubs turn out to be not Kaiserslautern or Nuremberg, but Heidenheim or Sandhausen?