Date: 21st July 2008 at 10:33am
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Last month Wenger envisaged the end of transfer fees based on the ever-loosening grip that clubs have on player contracts. The hazards of taking the ‘Webster` clause to litigation and testing contract law are enough to prevent players from this path but it gives enough negotiating strength for players to bite into money that might go into transfers. As players take a bigger slice of club revenues the money that would previously have been passed onto other clubs now goes out of the game into mansions, Bentleys, Rolex watches and other bling. At least transfer fees have the benefit of money staying in the game feeding the next transfer.

It`s hard to see why any club would commit to spending large sums on transfers when contract conditions undermine the value of their purchase. It might make sense for players to keep their contracts short and negotiate on the best terms but fortunes change quickly and short contracts or running them down suits relatively few players. Adebayor and Flamini have seen themselves become ‘big` money signings in the space of a year as Deco, Ronaldinho, Eto,o and others dropped in value. As a club commits itself to higher wages to retain players they reduce their transfer value. Any club taking them on has to commit to paying mega wages for a 4-year or longer agreement reducing the sensible amount that it can pay in transfers. You can see this as the ‘Henry` effect. Dein claims to have rejected 2 offers of £50m prior to Henry agreeing his last contract with Arsenal. An indifferent season later, and having now to top a wage of some £6m a year, the fee that Barca were prepared to pay became a relatively modest £16.5m. With the usual add-ons and the recognition a 30 years old player has little residual value at its end the cost of the contract amounts to more than £42m, the greater part of which goes to the player.

Yet with this background we hear stories of potential record transfers £60/80m. Ronaldo to Madrid, Kaka or Robinho to Chelsea. Does it ever make sense for anyone to pay those sums for any player? Before considering the question it`s worth noting the trend for record breaking transfers has declined recently. Of the top ten transfers in world football, on Euro valuations, 80% – eight took place in 3 years between 2000 and 2002 including the transfers of Veron and Ferdinand to ManU and Zidane, Figo and Ronaldo to Real Madrid. Vieiri`s transfer from Lazio to Inter took place in 1999 and more recently the transfer of Shevchenko to Chelsea in 2006. So prices went sky high at the beginning of the decade but have tended to be more realistic as players wage demands have soared.

Looking at the list you would concede the Madrid Galactico experiment was not a sporting success. You would acknowledge the transfers of Veron, Mendieta, Crespo and Shevchenko, 40%, were sporting flops. Why then would any club spend huge sums on transfers with little evidence that it achieves the sporting objective?

With the protected period threatened, Wengers logical assessment is that it should bring an end to transfer fees. But when did logic dictate the functions of the footballing market. There are 3 factors undermining his prediction.

Firstly – desperate times mean desperate measures. An accountant once told me of a client who after a bad years trading bought himself a Rolls Royce. When the paradox was pointed out his client claimed ‘You don`t want customers and suppliers to see that`. That may not be the precise thinking of Milan but there is a strong element of window dressing in seeking to make a big money purchase. Of Milan trying to spend to create an impression that a club being petitioned by it`s fans to change it`s owners while facing the end of individual TV rights bargaining and projecting a financial deficit over the next season is healthier than it is.

Secondly – commercial opportunity. In Real Madrid`s case they are marching to a different drum. The biggest single component of their revenues, world footballs largest, is commercial revenue, shirt sales, sponsorship etc. The last Deloitte figures for 2007 show they generated ?136m from commercial activities dwarfing the ?95m of Barcelona way ahead of the ?86.4m earned by the PL`s most commercially successful club Manchester United. Beckham is reported to have earned enough to cover his transfer fee for Real in shirt sales alone. Understanding the impact on Reals revenue raising potential, just in Latin regions, is the key to them justifying outlaying mega money for a Latin player who could generate a lot of commercial revenue. Transferring that commercial justification to another club isn`t so easy. Quite simply, at present, Real can generate much more revenue from Ronaldo than United can. As for a club like Arsenal, still developing its commercial activities, such an outlay would make no commercial sense at all. Arsenals buys are for sporting reasons and its commercial tack based on the broad appeal of the team, the attractiveness of it`s playing style and it`s international nature. Fans asking why we can`t or don`t do what Real do have to appreciate that commercial reality.

Thirdly – big boy`s toys. Abramovich is doing what Jack Walker, Ridsdale and others had done before but on a massively different scale. He has put more than £600m over 5 years into Chelsea. If the reputed £80m bid for Kaka were true and successful along with current losses it would push the investment towards £800m. An incredible amount of money over such a short period, destroying any notion of Chelsea breaking even by 2010. No club anywhere has had such largesse lavished upon them, and it is unsustainable. Just like every other football plaything or passion in the past at some point it will end.

Unless legislation forces a change, for transfer fees to end as Wengers economic reality predicts, three things need to happen. Abramovich has to become bored playing billionaires poker, the commercial pull of Real has to be matched by other clubs and desperate folk window dressing an uncomfortable situation would have to change their ways. The first is inevitable at some point but someone will always look to build an empire. The second, a much slower process, will come about when others clubs commercial opportunities equalise. The third will never happen completely, as desperate folk will always seek desperate solutions hoping someone will bale them out sometime.

Wenger is logically correct but waiting for logic to draw its conclusion means his prediction of an end to transfer fees won`t come true just yet. Eventually reality will prevail as transfer fees between clubs become secondary to fees paid to players. In the future clubs wage bills and not their transfer budgets will tell you which are investing most in player resources.

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