Is the Premier League recession-proof? What summer transfer window says about sport’s financial health

To what degree was the 2020 summer transfer window impacted by COVID-19, the subsequent empty stadiums, rebates offered to TV companies, fleeing sponsors and the circa €4.5 billion loss across two seasons predicted by the European Club Association? It depends which numbers you choose to look at and how you read them.

If you look at the total volume of transfers in the big five European leagues, then sure, it’s down. Way down, in fact. We went from €5.82 billion in 2019 to €3.31 billion in 2020. That’s a drop of 43% percent. You have to go back six years, to 2014, to find a lower total. But if you look at net spending, a slightly less cataclysmic picture emerges.

If you think of the Big Five as their own ecosystem, their cumulative net spend was just under a billion. That’s a billion euros flowing out of the Big Five leagues and flowing (mostly) to other European leagues, lower divisions and South America, as opposed to millions just recirculating among clubs in those five leagues. That’s a decline of 29.1% in 2019, but roughly equal to what it was in 2017, when it was €1.04 billion, and again, the situation varies from league to league.

Overall spending was down everywhere, but in the Premier League it only declined 8.7%, while in La Liga it fell around 64%. Look at net spend: La Liga recorded its first positive net spend in three years (meaning clubs took in more than they paid out), while Serie A’s was the lowest in four years. But in the Premier League, it actually increased, from €701 million to €962m, a 37% jump and the second-highest total ever.

So which is it: are clubs hunkering down and being conservative, or are they fiddling while Rome burns? And is the Premier League really recession-proof?

Unsatisfyingly, all three things might be true to different degrees. We’ll get to that, but first, a word on the data.

All of the above comes from Transfermarkt. It’s the most comprehensive and accurate database out there, but it often does rely on media reports, which sometimes can be incorrect although rarely far off. So don’t treat it like the Nasdaq index.

The other Transfermarkt quirk is that it photographs deals when they happen, not when they’re agreed. So, for example, Alvaro Morata joined Atletico Madrid from Chelsea in January 2019 on an 18-month loan. Then, in July 2019, Atletico committed to buying him outright on July 1, 2020, for €56 million. In the Transfermarkt database, that counts as €56 million spent in the summer of 2020, although the commitment to spend it was made a whole year earlier, when nobody knew what COVID-19 was.

A whole bunch of deals fall into this category (Giovani Lo Celso to Tottenham Hotspur for €32 million, for example, or Nicolo Barella to Internazionale for €25 million). Would these deals have happened after the pandemic hit? And if so, would they have happened at those fees? We’ll never know, which is why all these figures need to be taken with a grain of salt.

It works in reverse, too, of course.

Juventus acquired Federico Chiesa from Fiorentina in a complex deal. Nominally, it’s a loan, with a fee of €3 million this year. But it’s a two-year loan, so there’s another €7 million next season. And, if Juventus finish in the top four either this season or next, it becomes a permanent deal for another €40 million, plus up to another €10m in performance-related bonuses. So, given there’s virtually no chance of Juve failing to finish top four for two consecutive seasons, we really should be speaking of a €50m fee (rising to €60 million), because that’s the money Juve have committed.

Then there are the virtual swaps.

Nicolas Otamendi moved from Manchester City to Benfica for €15 million and Ruben Dias went the other way for €68m. How is it different from City giving Otamendi away for free and buying Ruben Dias for €53 million? On a net-spending basis, it doesn’t make one jot of difference. Presumably it was done this way to use amortisation, which spreads the transfer fee across the length of the contract, to make the books look better. But when viewed through the prism of overall spend, there’s an extra €15m coming in to both clubs for the year 2020.

So, in this transaction, Man City are actually in the black for the year: €15 million in from the sale of Otamendi, €11.33 million out for Ruben Dias, given that the €68 million fee is amortised over six years. You could also use the Miralem Pjanic-Arthur business between Barcelona and Juventus, which generated an extra €120 million of transfer volume out of thin air.

So the numbers are … fuzzy.

Manchester City used some clever accounting in their deal for Ruben Dias. Getty

Then there’s the simple recirculation principle. Chelsea buy Ben Chilwell form Leicester City for €50 million. Leicester acquire Timothy Castagne from Atalanta for €24 million. Atalanta purchase Aleksey Miranchuk from Lokomotiv Moscow for €14.5 million and Sam Lammers from PSV Eindhoven for €9 million What if Chelsea hadn’t bought Chilwell? Would the nearly €50 million generated by the other moves have happened?

If it’s just money moving through the system, what does it really mean?

Well, for starters, all clubs have been hit hard financially by the pandemic. But some, like Chelsea — in part because they have access to cash, which is different from being profitable … see this thread by the excellent Swiss Ramble for further reading — decided that this summer was a good time to acquire assets, figuring everybody was hurting and they could get good deals. Hence, their summer spending spree of nearly a quarter of a billion euros.

But what if they had less access to cash, or simply decided to be more conservative, perhaps by spending just €100 million? The amount by which the overall volume of transfer spending wouldn’t be €150 million less; it would be several multiples of that. That’s the magic of money working its way through the system.

Most summers, there are five or six superclubs doing what Chelsea did. (There’s obviously a very limited number of clubs who can even do this at all.) This summer, for various reasons, there were very few. Some, like Atletico Madrid or Real Madrid, did virtually nothing. Others, like Manchester United, spent a lot less than they might have if, say, they had pulled the trigger on that €120 million Jadon Sancho deal.

The other factor is what we mentioned above: cash. Football clubs, more than most businesses, generally keep very little cash on hand. It comes in and goes straight back out to make payroll, acquire and retain players, pay vendors and if there’s a lot of it, sometimes pay dividends to owners. When there’s no cash coming in because the stadiums are closed, suddenly, you have a big problem.

You can get around it and still invest by taking on debt, selling assets (players) or cutting costs, but debt can be scary (and expensive). Shifting players during a downturn means sometimes selling them for less than they might be worth. Cutting costs takes time: you have to wait for contracts to expire or find takers for players.

So football has, for now, done what most industries do. With some exceptions, it has retreated and opted to ride out the storm. What clubs hate most is uncertainty, considering, well, playing out a full season is uncertain enough. And right now, there’s plenty, from when fans will be allowed back in to what new TV and sponsorship deals will look like.

Take this window’s numbers with a pinch of salt. And if I may make a bold prediction, expect January to be somewhat closer to normality. Not just because, hopefully, we’ll have a clearer picture of when things might improve, thereby making it easier for clubs to acquire some more certainty and actually plan and budget. But also because there’s a whole raft of players who were ripe for a move this past summer but did not, because clubs froze.

Come January, they will be that bit keener to get them off their books and cash in, with a clearer idea of what they can actually get for them.

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