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Will the commercialization of football ever reach its limit?

Last transfer window will most of all be remembered by the transfer of Neymar from FC Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) for the astonishing amount of 222 million euro. Moreover, PSG paid 180 million euro for Kylian Mbappé. Both transfers pulverized the previous record transfers of Paul Pogba, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Gareth Bale, which all were transferred for a fee of approximately one hundred million euro.

All of these transfers have caused astonishment among people, who believe that the transfer fees are “immoral” and “unrealistic”. However, this reaction is nothing new. The same reaction could be found in the newspapers when Ruud van Nistelrooij was transferred from PSV Eindhoven to Manchester United for the Premier League record amount of 67 million Dutch guilders. When even going further back in time, we heard the same reactions for the transfers of Ruud Gullit (16.5 million Dutch guilders), Johan Cruijf (6 million Dutch guilders) and Alf Common. The latter was transferred for a fee of 1,000 pound sterling, back in 1905, which led to turmoil even in the House of Commons. All of these transfer fees are peanuts for today’s European top clubs.

Where everyone seems to focus on the dazzling amounts paid for players, most people do not seem to realize that these top players earn lots of money for their football clubs. Think about shirt sales, big prizes and broadcast income. This commercialization was long ago a “not done”. This is best illustrated by the championship premium the squad of FC Eindhoven received after winning the last amateur Dutch title in 1954, just prior to the introduction of professional football in the Netherlands. After having received solid bikes (!) for being the best of the Netherlands, they had to officially hand them in. It was considered as a “disproportional reward” for a sports achievement. Moreover, one of the former CEOs of Philips, ir. Frits Philips, found it horrible that PSV played with the name of his company at the backside of their training suit.

This is in sharp contrast with the commercialization nowadays. Take, for instance, the transfer of Nuri Sahin from Borussia Dortmund to Real Madrid for 10 million euros. The revenues of shirt sales did already compensate his transfer easily. Moreover, consider the transfer of Cristiano Ronaldo and his contribution to the Champions League successes of Real Madrid and you can conclude that his transfer fee was worth it all.

However, it is often forgotten that there are many more transfers than only the big transfers you read about in the media. Willem II, for instance, does, in principle, not pay transfer fees when they want to contract a player. This shows that there are a lot of “poor” football clubs as well, and the contrast between the rich and the poor clubs seems to be sharply increasing. As a result, the Champions League has become highly predictable. Bayern Munich has reached the semi-finals seven times in the previous decade. Furthermore, Real Madrid has already reached the semi-finals six years in succession. So everyone might be talking about the tremendous transfer payments in football (again), but the distortionary effect it has on competition does barely get any attention.

It is yet to be seen whether the record transfer of Neymar will be an everlasting record. We believe this will not be the case when you take the earlier “record transfers” into consideration. The focus on expensive transfers is, however, rarely been linked to the declining element of competition between football clubs. In our opinion, this is where the focus of the media should be!

The authors of this article would like to thank dr. Van Tuijl for his contribution to this article.

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