Hopp: "The arena has become our home"

As is tradition, our interview with Dietmar Hopp takes place at the St. Leon-Rot golf club, where the 78-year-old's office is located. Has golf now ousted football as his favourite sport? "No," says Hopp, chuckling. "Football is and always will be the most beautiful sport in my eyes. Even if I myself can only play barefoot on the lawn with my grandchildren. Everything hurts afterwards." The progression of TSG Hoffenheim, however, has been anything but a painful experience. In an interview with SPIELFELD, the TSG patron spoke about the 10-year anniversary of the stadium, his expectations for the future and his view of the football business.

Last summer, TSG celebrated their 10-year Bundesliga anniversary. Now, on 31 January 2019, it's exactly a decade ago that the club first played Bundesliga football at their stadium in Sinsheim. What memories does that evoke for you?

"I obviously think of Cottbus and the 2-0 victory, even though you could already tell that the second half of the season wouldn't be as successful as the first. [That was] in large part due to the injury to Vedad Ibisevic, who had scored a legendary 18 goals in the first half-season. But obviously that day was an absolute milestone for the club."

Following the transition period in Mannheim, Hoffenheim had found a new home.

"Well, it was clear to everyone that we couldn't play Bundesliga football in Hoffenheim. We were only able to play in the Dietmar-Hopp-Stadion in our second-tier season after obtaining special permission – and that was only because the building application for the new stadium had been filed. But perhaps I came across as trustworthy to the guys at the DFL. (laughs)"

It's common knowledge that there were considerations about going to Heidelberg and building the stadium there along the A5 motorway.

"Yes, it was very rational to think that it could be difficult to fill a stadium in Sinsheim every 14 days. And in Heidelberg everyone was initially impressed, even the City Council had issued approval. But then things fell through with the property owner."

And Sinsheim came back into contention.

"Rolf Geinert, the Lord Mayor back then, asked TSG President Peter Hofmann if we'd consider building the stadium in the industrial district of Sinsheim. There was space and there would be no issues with water conservation! That was a new situation for me because earlier requests had been portrayed as hopeless due to water conservation around the Elsenz (river). This information suited me really well, because I didn't need to search for an alternative location in Heidelberg. Today, more than a decade later, I say that it was good it happened that way. It was clearly the best possibility."

Do you see the stadium as being TSG's home?

"The arena has become our home. It is by far the best solution in every respect, especially from a traffic standpoint. Once the renovation works on the A6 have been finished, the situation will improve even more. And the arena is described by many people as a 'Little Box of Treasures' because of how well-designed it is. I have to say: I'm totally satisfied."

"It took courage"

There was ultimately no basis for comparison and despite your commitment there was no way to foresee what TSG would become.

"It did take courage back then to make the leap. One cannot forget that the entire planning stage began in 2005, 2006. At that point in time nobody could foresee that we'd go straight from the third to the top tier at the first time of asking."

And the capacity of the stadium is still satisfactory for you today?

"The official requirement to build a stadium with a maximum capacity of 30,000 spectators wasn't a problem for me, even though there were many people who said that we should aim for a capacity in the region of 40,000-45,000 following our promotion to the Bundesliga. The best atmosphere in the stadium is always when it's sold out."

Are you satisfied with the spectator feedback?

"It's better than I expected at the time. A firm fanbase development relatively quickly and the time factor plays a key role for us. Obviously, it'll be another 10 years before those people who were born at the time the stadium was built have reached the optimal fan age. But the home sector of our stadium has already been sold out eight times this season, with our league average more than 29,000 spectators. That's incredible."

And what about the excessive expectations the club had to deal with for many years after its meteoric rise and finishing as winter champions in 2008.

"I obviously don't want to forget that half-year. It was a dream. But if we'd gone into the winter break in eighth place and finished in seventh by the end, that would've definitely been healthier. For example, we were talked about as being the "ugly duckling" and that was only because we were measured against that first half-season in 2008."

"It remains our objective to play European football as often as possible"

We've now looked back at the last 10 years. But where would you like to see TSG in 10 years' time?

"These are such bloody long stretches of time at my age (laughs). But yes, I think that for us as a club it's realistic to finish within the top eight generally, to be a top eight club. That doesn't mean that there won't be an anomaly from time to time, that we won't finish in 10th or 12th one season. But it obviously remains our objective to play European football as often as possible, which means top six."

You still need to appoint a successor for Julian Nagelsmann in the coming weeks and months.

"Julian has certainly had a big hand to play in our sporting success. And the next coach will have big boots to fill. But maybe the new person will have the same shoe size (smiles). I'm fairly calm and completely optimistic. We know that an ambitious and successful coach will find ideal conditions to work in here. It's a family club that has a great deal to offer  perfect conditions, innovative approaches, people with creative ideas. Those are all strong arguments. So I'm feeling positive."

But the fundamental approach of TSG Hoffenheim as a development club will remain unchanged.

"Who in Germany isn't a development club, other than Bayern Munich? We develop players, recognise potential, give players the possibility to grow with us. This is a path we shall continue to tread unswervingly. We'll always be dependent on achieving a significant transfer profit over the course of the years. Despite the exuberance surrounding the increasing TV revenue, the players are getting more and more expensive when it comes to wages. And who knows how far that bubble will expand."

Do you think there's a danger of a crash? You've given a warning about it before.

"I think that some of the wages that are getting paid is complete craziness. It's extremely unhealthy and hasn't been socially responsible for some time. It goes without saying that the whole system isn't going to collapse overnight, but the first signs of erosion are appearing. Fortunately, it is not the case for us, but average attendance figures are slowly yet consistently decreasing."

Is it down to oversaturation, the introduction of more and more new competitions?

"We all need to be careful. Soon there'll be the Europa League 2, the World Cup is being expanded and then there's a competition like the Nations League too. It goes on and on. Where is it all leading to? It's bad, you could even say terrible."

"Not everything that's doable makes sense"

And if you want to see everything on TV you need three subscriptions these days.

"That can't be the solution. I obviously now have DAZN too. What else can I do if I want to watch TSG? But it's no longer healthy. We mustn't lose the connection to the fans. Not everything that's doable makes sense. The principle of 'always bigger, always more' doesn't lead to success."

Transfer fees are rising equally rapidly, sometimes to astronomic levels. How much can a player cost for TSG Hoffenheim?

"We're not the kind of club to join in with all this craziness. But it would be populist nonsense to say that we'll never buy a player who costs more than x many millions as a transfer fee. This is a serious business that focuses on generating more income than expenses on average. That's why it's our clear ideology to only buy players who we can sell on after a certain period of time for a profit. That's why TSG has to remain the number one destination for young players with potential to develop. Regardless of our ambition, a club like TSG Hoffenheim simply cannot consistently expect to generate high revenues from international competition."

Can the club make the step-up to the next level after the recent successful chapter in its history?

"It would be a step-up if we could manage to establish ourselves as a club that consistently finishes in the top six."

And your wish for this season?

"Of course, it would be my dream to qualify for the Champions League once again. I believe the coach and team can do it."

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