The 20 teams currently in the Premier League spent a combined £1.06 billion on transfers this season. That number includes a net transfer loss of £530 million pounds. In other words, Premier League teams bought £530 million worth of players more than they sold. To put this in context, the second biggest transfer spenders were the Primera Division in Spain and their net spend was £480 million pounds, though they sold a combined £497 million and had a balance of +£18m. And to put this into further contrast, the league with the second biggest net loss was the Bundesliga who spent £143 million more than they took in on transfers. The Premier League spent 70% more than any other league, lost more money in transfers than Spain spent net, and lost £377 million more than the Bundesliga in transfers. What we saw here in this season’s transfer market are the effects of the last international TV deal which saw the Premier League’s total broadcasting revenues top £5bn. It’s not hard to imagine what will come next now that the Premier League’s domestic broadcasting rights alone top the £4bn mark and the foreign rights will likely tack on another £4bn.
The biggest effect is going to be in transfers and wages. The English media have fanned the transfer flames for decades such that now any money in any coffers at any club are seen by the fans as their money, which they demand be spent on buying the best players. In the early part of Arsène Wenger’s career, journalists lauded Wenger’s insistence that spending money wasn’t the only answer. After the Invincibles team was disbanded, the journos turned against Wenger’s frugal philosophy and after every transfer window Wenger and Arsenal were taken to task for their lack of spending.
But even Wenger has joined the spenders. In the last two seasons Arsene has spent £130m in transfers. And if you had asked me eight years ago if Wenger would spend £44m on a single player I would have laughed in your face. Arsenal don’t buy £40m players, we make them. But this fact that even Wenger is spending, and spending lavishly, should give you pause. That frugal Wenger spent £130m in two seasons has to be the surest sign that the Premier League is about to get a huge injection of transfer spend.
Injection is the right word here too. I’ve often compared transfer stories to porn because they are unrealistic fantasies meant to titillate fans; quick, dirty, easy, buy someone, they come in and fix everything that’s wrong with your club. And if the regular transfer stories are porn, what we are going to be getting over the next three to five years is silicone injected, fake eyes, fake hair, fake bodies, 20-women on one man porn. You’re going to drown in wild stories, wild transfers, crazy transfer fees, and absurd salaries. It has already started and it’s only going to get worse.
West Ham spent £30m on transfers this year. Is it unrealistic to think that they will spend £50m next year? I don’t think so. If the television increase is 70% why wouldn’t they spend 70% more?
And they are all going to be foreigner’s too. When Arsenal bought Gabriel for £10m in January everyone wondered how he was going to get a work permit. It turns out that the FA are going to relax their rules on granting players an exceptional talent visa and from this summer forward, any player who costs more than £10m is going to be granted a work permit in England. I’ll let you speculate on whether the FA knew about the impending TV deal and influx of cash or if they just knew that the League needed to be able to recruit from further afield than the old rules allowed. But suffice it to say that English football is about to have a gold rush of players from the Americas. The colonists are about to return to Latin America and once again plunder their natural resources.
And not just Latin America. The salaries in places like Ligue 1 are so tiny that Premier League teams will be able to cherry-pick the very best players from all of the leagues in Europe. Leaving behind the dregs to play in empty stadiums in leagues where only one or two teams will ever win.
Along with the foreign players are going to come foreign managers and probably even more radical, foreign owners. Already 11 of the 20 Premier League teams are owned by foreigners. I not only see that trend continuing but penetrating deeper into English football. If you look at the top 20 capacity stadiums in England, there are already foreign owners of Man U, Arsenal, Sunderland, Man City, Liverpool, Aston Villa, Chelsea, Sheffield Wednesday, Leeds, Derby (partly), Sheffield United (partly), Southampton, and Leicester City.
But stadium capacity is only part of the equation in the calculus for foreign investment in English clubs. The TV money is more important for most of these clubs than the gate receipts. And speculation on future growth of all levels of the English game will probably see a lot of investment in lower division teams.
And finally, ticket prices. I know that there is a movement to lower ticket prices and I applaud the idea. Ticket prices in England, especially for top flight matches, are absurd when compared to the ticket prices in the Bundesliga.
But go back and re-read what I’ve written so far and show me where it’s possible for teams to slow down the spending on transfers and wages and invest that money back into the fan base? The base facts are that each club has a finite amount of money (including debt) that they can spend and they are going to be forced to spend it all on players, agents, and scouts.
This is just simple inflation. If every club can suddenly afford £10m players then £10m players become the norm. Arsenal bought Patrick Vieira for £3.5m in 1996 and just this January bought a backup center back for £10m.
Meanwhile, every team has more and better players on the books and competition for Premier League places is heating up. How many teams are fighting for fourth place?
As the competition heats up, the transfers heat up, mediocre players suddenly cost more. You’ve seen this happen already with the transfers of Downing, Carroll, and virtually any player that Liverpool has bought over the last few years. It’s the same story as before: Chelsea drove up player transfer costs when they put money into the game, Man City drove up player transfer costs even further and now Liverpool, Man U, and Arsenal are spending big. The more we spend the more expensive players become and the more important it becomes to buy the best players.
And the fans pay the price for the players. The average salary in the Premier League is almost £45k a week. The average salary in the Bundesliga is £28k a week. Ticket prices reflect this difference. It doesn’t matter whether the model is Man City where ticket prices are heavily subsidized by owner debt or whether the model is Arsenal where the fans are asked to pay an unsubsidized ticket. Even if you don’t go to the games, you’re still paying for the players. Your television subscription prices and other costs are going to go up as the player’s fees go up. It’s a never ending spiral of costs passed on to the consumers.
Worse than all of that, the away fans are treated with what looks like contempt already and I don’t see that getting any better. TV dictates kickoff times and if you think Sky isn’t going to demand further concessions over kickoff times or whatever else they want so that they can recoup maximum revenue you’re living in La La land.
It’s that simple, really. These rich people just paid a lot of money for your favorite pastime. That pastime is about to get more expensive as the players in it are about to get much richer and competition for places on the stage gets hotter. The clubs are now going to be seen as ripe for the plucking and foreigners looking to abscond from their backwater countries (like Russia) are going to put their money into the league. Meanwhile, the fans are going to be asked to pay more for their tickets, for their hot dogs, and for their officially sponsored player’s shirt.
One positive thing: the level of play *might* get better. There is no guarantee of this. Just buying players for more money doesn’t make them better, as we saw with QPR this season. But, there is hope. Southampton are a good example of a foreign-owned team who bought well in the transfer market, installed a foreign coach, play a decent brand of football, and have managed to keep ticket prices down to a dull roar. They have done all that (while developing players from their academy) and mounted a fairly serious campaign to get into the Champions League.
But even if the League does get more Southamptons and fewer QPRs the other problems are going to remain. The league is about to get silicone injections, and they are going to be paid for by the fans.