Union Berlin is a growing brand, not just a cult club
"Aufstiegsrasen" is one of those compound nouns of the German vocabulary which in Italian can only be rendered with an unattractive periphrasis: "the lawn of promotion". This is how Union Berlin renamed the grass of the Stadion An der Alten Försterei on which, on 27 May 2019, it gained access to the Bundesliga, for the first time in its history, at the end of a double challenge against Stuttgart, tense until the last minute after the 2-2 of the first leg and the 0-0 of the return.
Since October, in the club's online and physical stores, the Aufstiegsrasen has been on sale both in the form of a bunch of key grass and as a whole clod enclosed in a monolithic block of plexiglass. Some purists who have torn pieces of soil by hand or cut the edges of the door nets, as traditional practice, may turn up their noses and have the same reaction that you have, to stay in the German capital, in front of the remains of Muro sold as souvenirs and passed off as authentic. But if you ask yourself why Union Berlin hit the promotion only in 2019 after more than half a century after its foundation and 30 years after the birth of the current Bundesliga, part of the answers come from the consolidation of the corporate structure that is also and above all based on the reorganization of the brand and the management of merchandising.
Union Berlin has been a cult club since 1966 - the year in which it was re-founded with its current name - stronghold of dissent against the regime of the GDR and a value expression of identity and belonging that also echoes in the verses of the hymn: " immer wieder, Eisern Union ”, again and again the iron union, in the decades of sporting famine and abuse, has cemented the relationship between managers, footballers and fans. Before being a team in the German capital, in fact, the Union is the team in Treptow-Köpenick, a district in the southeast of Berlin, a much closer, narrower, visceral and intimate bond as we can only testify to the 22,012 seats in the stadium. To be clear: of the current 18 teams in the top German championship, currently only the Paderborn facility counts the least.
The numbers are sized within a management that for decades has been almost amateur and subsistence, focused on loans, capital gains and enhancement of spring: before the operations of this summer, necessary to face the Bundes, Sebastian Polter was the most expensive investment in the history of the club's transfer market, taken in December 2016 for 1.6 million euros from Queens Park Rangers. Dirk Zingler, president since 2004, repeats like a mantra that the virtuous aspect of the club is all in the formula of "not spending more money than you cash in". It is a self-financing model that has worked only thanks to a long-term and constant vision, accepting years of purgatory to replenish the speakers without excessive tearing. In the mid-2000s, the Union repeatedly risked bankruptcy and bankruptcy and was rescued by fans who donated blood to pay for league membership. In the 2017-2018 season, total revenues were 43.97 million euros, exceeding the 40 million mark for the first time; the Union, however, only ten years earlier was still in Dritte Liga, the third series of the German football pyramid.
The growth and the steadily positive balance of the last three years coincides with the rapid expansion of the brand outside the restricted perimeter of Köpenick, and has a precise turning point: at the end of 2015, after an anomalous economic intrigue that saw the team involved Berliner, St. Pauli and Upsolut, a company that at the time managed the merchandising of the two clubs then antagonists in Zweiteliga. In 2004, on the brink of the financial chasm, the president of the Hamburg team, Corny Littmann, decided to sell the rights for the production of gadgets to the Upsolut retailer: with a thirty-year agreement for a million euro revenue, the famous skull Jolly Roger passed to 90% in the hands of outsiders (the club maintained only 10%). Five years later, in 2009, St. Pauli sued the real club for exploiting the team's economic difficulties beyond ethical values by proposing a contract, judged by them, immoral and, after controversial years and a long legal dispute, by the January 1, 2016, St. Pauli re-appropriated its marketing rights. In an intricate contractual relationship, Union Berlin at that stage had signed an extension until 2020 with Upsolut. In the big mess that had been created, the Berliners found themselves faced with a grotesque paradox: in essence, every scarf, every flag, every item sold would have refreshed the boxes of the Hamburg rival. From here, the immediate decision to terminate the relationship early to take charge of the management of the "made in Köpenick" in complete autonomy.
Starting completely from scratch, the East Berlin team has set up a new office dedicated exclusively to strengthening and spreading the brand, a choice that has further thickened the pride of the fans: in a strategic position, along Bahnhofstraße street, just got off the station in the neighborhood, the same year the Union Zeughaus opened, the first official store with its website. Only by entering it you can perceive the obsessive passion for a club that does not end at the end of the 90 minutes of play, but also lives in everyday life: from elements for home furnishings to accessories for the car, among strange and disparate jewelry there is also the Monopoly board game in a special edition dedicated to Rot und Weiß colors.
In the space of a calendar year the turnover increased by 300%, but to position the brand reputation of the club on an international scale was the fundamental relationship with Macron, an Italian sportswear company based in Crespellano, which just a year earlier, in 2014 had decided to enter the German football market with a double affiliation as technical sponsor of Munich 1860 and Union Berlin itself. With a five-year contract, the Berliners have made the definitive leap in quality: as explained by Roberto Casolari, sports marketing director, the synergy has worked in the round by creating game uniforms - including that of the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation, celebrated on January 20 2016 - designed ad hoc with the suggestions of the team and the fans to get into the heart without simply providing a catalog jersey that, having removed the emblem, any other football reality could have worn. Pampering the passion of the fan and bringing it to the center of the project has found confirmation in the sales numbers: from the first year Macron has sold about 10,000 shirts, an adjusted number of some units season after season until the explosion coincided with the promotion in the top flight which will engage the company to market over 20,000 shirts.
Believing in Macron's idea of glocalization, that is identifying itself in the local and global market, Union Berlin has opened two new fixed stores, one directly at the stadium and the other in the center of Berlin, an iconic and significant flag in the process of branching and capillarity beyond borders. Thirty large German chains sell jerseys and gadgets throughout Germany, while online platforms reach 20 countries between the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan, Russia and the main European countries. From the 2020-2021 season Macron will leave room for Adidas which, strategically, wants to be in the capital to duel with Hertha and Nike, effectively sealing the growth of a reality that in a decade has left the periphery label without distorting and to sell off his identity made of human and genuine relationships with the supporter people.
The balance between business and passion will be the real test of the Union Berlin model in the coming years. Despite the first year in the Bundesliga, the club chose not to increase the cost of tickets and sell them at the same price as the Zweiteliga and supported the curve, contributing financially to the realization of the choreography during the first home outings. At the same time, however, he signed an agreement with Aroundtown, a real estate company based in Luxembourg, which from this year appears as a sponsor on the shirt: a choice despised and criticized by those parties for investments and the consequent cementation on the territory of the same company. But what is said by Christian Arbeit, the company's press officer and figure who enjoys infinite esteem: "You cannot stay in the Bundes by selling beer and bratwurst".
History is known. At the first meeting between the two, Raiola "looked like one of the Sopranos, jeans, Nike T-shirts and a huge belly", while Ibrahimovic sported Rolex, Gucci and Porsche leather jacket. Raiola was not a diplomat: "Do you think you can impress me with these things? I find they are all bullshit. You will have to sell your machines and ...