Foundation contributions make up more than half the annual budget for Hoffenheim's youth teams, said Matthias Born, the program's director of sports. He declined comment on the size of the budget. Bayern, for example, has an 80 million-euro annual budget.

Hopp is building a 60 million-euro stadium four kilometers (2.5 miles) from Hoffenheim. It's just off the Autobahn and will give fans within driving distance a chance to see Hoffenheim play the rest of the 18-team Bundesliga.

"I invested in the stadium and a training center and I expect rent," Hopp said. "The bottom line is that clubs are economic ventures."

As its full name states, TSG 1899 Hoffenheim was founded in 1899 as a club of the sort found in almost every community in Germany. The professional soccer team is one of its activities. The same is true at FC Bayern Munich e.V., the current Bundesliga champion, which was founded 11 years after Hoffenheim.

There are differences. Bayern has more than 135,000 members. Hoffenheim has 1,800. And Hopp.

"I was an enthusiastic player," said the retired executive. As a forward on Hoffenheim regional league teams, Hopp played until age 25, when he took a job at International Business Machines Corp. as a software engineer.

Ralf Rangnick

To put the soccer team on the map, Hopp sought out Ralf Rangnick, a coach who guided SSV Ulm 1846 from the same regional league where Hoffenheim used to play into the second division.

Armed with player purchases for 20 million euros after promotion to the second division, Rangnick steered Hoffenheim to a second-place finish in its first season, enough to earn promotion to the top Bundesliga and an opportunity to topple Bayern.

Hoffenheim was 80-1 to win the league title at Ladbrokes Plc, the Harrow, England-based company that owns more than 2,300 betting shops in the U.K. and Ireland. Bayern is the favorite with 1-2 odds.

No Delusions

Hopp said he's not deluding himself. A finish in the middle of the division for Hoffenheim would be fine, he said.

"We are not in that league," Hopp said. "Nonetheless, we can make things interesting."

Bayern's roster is packed with national team players from Germany and its neighbors, including Miroslav Klose, the top scorer at the 2006 World Cup. Hoffenheim's strikers, Demba Ba of Senegal and Chinedu Obasi of Nigeria, each scored 12 goals last season, tied for seventh among second-division players.

That doesn't damp the enthusiasm in Hoffenheim, where the public bus runs once an hour, twice between noon and 1 p.m. At Frank Stepanovic's bicycle shop, a handwritten banner spans the display window congratulating the team on reaching the first division.

The house across the street is freshly painted in the club's colors, azure and white, with the team logo emblazoned on one wall.

"More people are stopping by and asking for fan gear," Stepanovic said. "Mostly they are people from other German states, and that didn't used to happen."

33 Bikes

Stepanovic can claim his own contribution: The club's players train on 33 bikes bought from him.

Hoffenheim will be wearing jerseys with the TVDigital logo, a four-year-old publication owned by Hamburg-based Axel Springer AG. TVDigital is paying Hoffenheim 2.5 million euros to be the main sponsor, said Stefan Zech, publishing director. Hopp's style is what makes the sponsorship attractive, he said.

"Hopp isn't interested in buying stars for a lot of money," Zech said. "They are working continually to achieve success and that is very important to us as a sponsor."