"I don’t know, what they want from me/
It’s like the more money we come across, the more problems we see."
It seems unlikely that the Notorious B.I.G. was referring to football’s transfer window when he made the seminal 'Mo Money, Mo Problems' back in 1997—how could he, football did not even have one in those days—but Premier League managers, and even some chairmen, might just feel the refrain expresses a sentiment they can relate to in the current climate.
Since the Premier League signed a new television deal in March, one worth £5.5 billion over three years, clubs have been enthusiastically calculating their potential share of the windfall. And with good reason: The bottom-placed side in this season’s competition is expected to earn more in TV revenue than champions Manchester United received last year (£60.8m), with top spot now set to be worth more than £100m.
Remaining in the Premier League has thus become more important to owners than ever. With huge sums at stake (on average, that money should be worth about £80m per club per annum), we have already seen this summer that almost all clubs are willing to invest some of their early payments in adding to their playing staff, in order to be better placed to remain in line for the payouts for next season and beyond.
The worry, however, is that some have already gone too far—we have already seen multiple clubs break a long-standing transfer-fee record twice in a matter of months (Tottenham could yet do it three times before the window closes on September 2), throwing huge amounts of money at talent around the world.
Some clubs have not just spent a little of this year’s windfalls, they have spent a vast part of it.
These clubs appear to have worked themselves into the most bizarre of Catch-22 situations; incentivised by the lucrative rewards for remaining in the Premier League, they are spending those very same rewards almost as soon as they get them.
This approach—Southampton spending £15m on Pablo Osvaldo, Cardiff thrusting £13m at Sevilla for Gary Medel, Swansea agreeing a £12m fee for Wilfried Bony—is one applauded by fans (who love to see their club show such ambition and purpose) and welcomed by managers (who like to have better players at their disposal, but also love to bask in the fleeting adulation of supporters).
It is also one loved by the media, who can ride the wave of interest and excitement sparked by such moves, steering it in the narrative direction they most desire. The presence of a transfer window—a finite time frame in which all deals must be done—only concentrates the force of this whirlwind.
It is a dangerous force to find yourself opposed to.
"Now I been lookin’ for a job but it’s hard to find/
Down here it’s just winners and losers and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line."
One of the few managers to find himself standing still as his contemporaries waved bigger and bigger cheques at the nearest powerful forward with a reasonable first touch, Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger has found himself ridiculed this summer for his lack of transfer activity.
Not without some good reason considering the spending of their nearest rivals, and the Gunners surely need to strengthen in a few key areas if they are to remain on course for Champions League qualification, let alone finally launch a first realistic challenge for the domestic title since the 2007-08 campaign.
But, on the other hand, there may be some rational thought behind Wenger’s (an economist by education) inactivity. It is unlikely to be the only consideration, but bigger transfer fees mean bigger wages and bigger agents’ fees, and bigger wages mean inevitable requests from existing squad members for bigger wages—which bring with them further invoices for agent fees.
Suddenly, those TV payments are not remaining at the clubs for long; they are simply being laundered through a team before ending up, yet again, with players and their agents.
Such residual costs are hard to accurately ascertain (at least until clubs' yearly financial records are published) but the transfer fees themselves are not. According to Transfermarkt, at the time of writing nearly £328m has flowed out of the Premier League—nearly £427m in spending against just over £99m in transfer fees received.
That’s over 20 percent of this year’s TV money—with 10 days of this window, and the entirety of another, still to come.
The clubs benefitting financially from the Premier League’s new television deal? It seems they are actually in Germany, Spain, Portugal and France.
It is certainly not lower-league clubs in England. The Premier League is proud to publicise 15 percent of its income goes to the Football League, but that is a somewhat curated presentation of facts. Over half of that 15 percent actually goes to its relegated members in "parachute payments," with the rest shared thinly across the lower leagues through community projects and some solidarity cheques.
Considering the greater sums awarded to those teams who go down, no wonder accountants BDO recently warned of the creation of a Premier League Two “by stealth,”
In a survey entitled "A New Dawn for Fair Play?" BDO feared that most lower league clubs will simply aim to keep their heads above water, with the only exceptions being sides parachuted back into the Championship and those with wealthy benefactors who heavily invest in the hope of soon hitting the top-flight jackpot.
Eventually, promotion from the Championship will be contested among just those two types of organisation.
BDO partner Trevor Birch, who was the administrator for one of Portsmouth’s financial meltdowns, wrote:
There's an increasing polarisation—the Premier League is almost a different game.
In League One and League Two there is no hope for them except supporters trying to protect their club from oblivion and saying they'll settle for no fireworks and some financial stability.
Speaking to the Guardian last week, Premier League chairman Richard Scudamore responded indirectly to that uneven distribution of money by saying:
I would say our record stacks up…there is no other sport that gives away anything like that percentage of its turnover.
On any measure you like we give away loads. I think we give away enough that we should get more recognition and more credit for what we do.
Perhaps the real question, then, is whether it is given to the right subjects or with the right guidelines in place. Premier League clubs seemingly cannot be relied upon to remain responsible with the funds they're given, either that or the the sport’s framework does not allow them to be.
Foreign clubs, after all, know English sides are flush with cash and thus drive hard bargains for their assets. English clubs can hardly move their attention closer to home, though, as their rivals are all so similarly endowed that they have no reason to part with their better players for less than a king's ransom.
The managers themselves seem to grasp this innate flaw in the system, some more keenly than others. Swansea manager Michael Laudrup, for example, believes the window must be amended to protect clubs—as much from themselves as rivals.
I went to the Premier League managers' meeting last week and one of the questions asked was why we could not move the transfer deadline, what is the reason to have it close after we have started the season here and in Spain and Germany?
The answer was that in the other big leagues there was not a lot of interest in moving it. I cannot understand why not.
It seems easy to understand—because foreign clubs know there are profits to be made on desperate English sides.
As Laudrup added: "It would do huge damage if we lose players of the quality of Michu and Ashley [Williams] because we have to find replacements at the same level and we cannot do that too late.
“If I sell someone and try to buy someone else the next day, the price of your replacement goes higher, it's inevitable. It's very close to this club's deadline as far as selling anybody goes."
It’s a vicious cycle, one perhaps made doubly ironic by the fact it is Arsenal (the likely suitors for Michu and Williams, who have also invoked Newcastle’s ire with a bid for Yohan Cabaye) most likely to stir the pot over the final 10 days of this window.
When even the most resolute club—some might say rational, the media will argue senseless—is also eventually swept away with the current, a tipping point is surely being reached.
As Jonathan Wilson, a columnist for B/R, noted in a recent Guardian transfer blog: “Most clubs would do just fine by slowly phasing out transfers, promoting youth and making one or two buys a year to plug gaps.
“But they're all too terrified to do it because they'd look so silly if they failed.”
The Premier League will do little to stem the tide, of course—such rampant transfer activity only actually heightens interest in their product, ensuring another increase in TV rights next time deals are negotiated.
Once the various parties have taken their (ever-increasing) cuts, what does it matter how the clubs fritter the rest away? Not that Scudamore sees it that way:
Wouldn't it be terrible if all we had to show for it was worldwide record audiences, better stadiums, world-class talent, a world-class youth system and brilliant community programmes that are huge oak trees compared with the acorns that started. What a shame.
Yes, the audiences keep growing, and yes, the stadiums are better. But the very best talent—Gareth Bale, anyone?—still seems to flow away from the Premier League, and there is little recent evidence of any "world-class" youth systems.
The Premier League's introduction of the Elite Player Performance Plan has only seemingly served to disincentivise lower-league sides from cultivating an academy system, while (according to stats from Transfermarkt), top-flight clubs have so far bought 53 more players than they have sold this summer—that's nearly three players a club now standing in the way of homegrown talent.
Ring-fencing some of that money for youth development would seem a start. Elevating the sums given to the lower-league sides struggling to remain afloat (rather than just continuing to enable 15 to 20 fiscally irresponsible sides in the TV spotlight) would seem a sensible continuation; something that would actually benefit all of English football in the long run.
Because we've seen that the clubs will not take this step themselves. After all, there's a £15m former Italy international out there they need to have in their squad—and they only have 10 days to sign him.
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