When it comes to underscoring Bayern Munich's dominance over German football, you can pick your poison. There's the fact that the Bundesliga was formed in 1963 and the Bavarians have won it more times (29) than every other German team combined. There's the fact that the Meisterschale they won Tuesday night is their eighth consecutive league title, and they won their previous seven by an average of 14.6 points. There's the fact that since the Bundesliga moved to three points for a win 25 years ago, Bayern have recorded seven of the eight highest points totals in history in each of the past seven seasons. (Assuming they win one of their final two games, they'll make it eight of nine.)
But perhaps the most remarkable fact is that they've dominated (again) despite so many things not going according to plan. For the second time in three years, they fired their manager in midseason, replacing him with an experienced assistant who hadn't actually been a No. 1 since 2005.
They suffered injuries in key roles: their record signing, Lucas Hernandez, made only nine league starts, and their second-most expensive signing, Corentin Tolisso, only seven. Niklas Sule, who was supposed to partner Hernandez, suffered a season-ending injury in October. Philippe Coutinho -- who is costing them close to $30 million a year in wages and loan fees and was supposed to play a critical role -- turned out to be a bust, lasting 90 minutes in a league game only twice since early October. And, until last month, their goalkeeper and captain, Manuel Neuer, was in contract limbo, refusing to extend his deal after they locked down his long-term replacement, Alexander Nubel.
And they still won the title with games to spare.
And before we hear the old cliche about the paucity of the competition, consider that RB Leipzig are Champions League quarterfinalists and Borussia Dortmund, who finished just two points back last season, invested heavily in the summer adding Julian Brandt, Thorgan Hazard and Mats Hummels, and doubling down in January with the arrival of Emre Can and Erling Haaland.
There are two ways to read this and, yes, both can be true.
The first is that Bayern's title is a prodigious feat because of the adversity the club had to overcome. Hindsight is 20/20 and we take things for granted, but think of the number of times we've heard about the importance of managerial stability, about avoiding injuries, about getting the big decisions right, about spending money wisely. Well, Bayern overcame all that, going on a prodigious tear that saw them take 52 of a possible 54 points since December. Credit manager Hansi Flick, credit the players, credit the strength and determination and winning culture of the club ... whatever you like. But please credit them, because winning when so much goes wrong -- whether it's your fault (Niko Kovac, Coutinho) or whether you're just unlucky (Sule, Tolisso, Hernandez) -- is something special.
But the other thing worth noting is that this is not normal. And, in fact, it hasn't been normal in the history of football until very, very recently.
European football isn't like U.S. pro sports. There's no pretense or expectation of a level playing field; there is an acceptance that some teams are bigger and better resourced and, therefore, will win more. And winning more creates a virtuous cycle in which they earn more money and buy better players and continue winning. Yet if a team goes through as much adversity -- both external and self-inflicted -- as Bayern went through this season, you reasonably expect a closer finish.
Not anymore -- and it's obviously not just a Bundesliga issue. Paris Saint-Germain have won seven of the past eight titles in France, while in Italy, Juventus are competing for their ninth in a row. Barcelona or Real Madrid have won La Liga in 14 of the past 15 seasons. Even in the Premier League, where the size of the TV deal means there are more wealthy clubs, only twice in the past five seasons has a "Big Six" team finished outside the top six.
If you've read this far, you've heard all this before. A combination of factors -- from globalization to the boom in commercial rights, from the growth of broadcast revenue to the Bosman rule -- have led to unprecedented polarization. And this has led to the scratching of heads and a search for fixes from salary caps and luxury taxes to super leagues. Heck, you can read my own modest proposal here.
A lot of this is based on two assumptions that come from opposite sides of the spectrum. One is that this is somehow morally and ethically unfair and damages the spirit of competition, which is at the heart of the concept of sport. The other is that there's a commercial imperative to make leagues exciting and hard fought, and that some semblance of parity is good for business: After all, a league where the same guys win year after year gets boring.
Both arguments have their merits, but both ignore the reality. At the risk of sounding cynical, the moral/ethical/sporting argument has little traction. The big clubs have a stranglehold on institutions at every level. From UEFA to the Premier League right down to Greece and Scotland, the big clubs dominate with the argument that they bring in most of the money so they ought to get the lion's share of the revenue. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy, of course, but nobody is going to point that out. Especially not now, as leagues are increasingly independent of federations.
As for the "bad for business" argument, the problem is simple: It hasn't been. Germany is a perfect example. Bundesliga revenue has nearly doubled since 2012, when the current period of Bavarian hegemony began. Attendance has remained constant. Empty seats are a rare sight ... obviously, before the pandemic.
Fans care about their teams and are willing to pay to see them. And while it necessarily doesn't mean they're happy with the lack of social mobility, it's not enough to keep them away.
There's another wrinkle here, one that strikes deep at the differences between U.S. sports and European football -- particularly the Bundesliga where, with a few exceptions, there is no single owner looking for a return on his investment. Sure, maybe the league could be more profitable with a different revenue-sharing model that gave more teams a chance to win. But when instead of an owner chasing profits, there are merely club boards whose sole goal is to reinvest everything in the club, there's less of an urgency to milk the cow. Breaking even is more than enough.
Obviously this isn't the case everywhere and there are owners who pay themselves dividends out of club profits (the Glazer family at Manchester United are the obvious example). Elsewhere, there are others who extract money from the club in less transparent (and sometimes less salubrious) ways. But generally, the imperative is the same: Owners make their money, if they make it, when they sell the club, through capital appreciation. And their immediate return -- a bit like the people who invest in thoroughbreds or America's Cup teams -- is through fame, networking and a seat at the table with other billionaire owners and private-equity guys.
The reality is that two of the main drivers for a more level playing field -- fans and owners -- simply aren't as strong in European football in general, but in the Bundesliga in particular. So we might as well get used to the idea of Bayern firing their manager, seeing three starters miss most of the season, spending lavishly on a superstar who turns out to be a dud and still winning the league by double digits.