The view that transfer fees are getting a tad silly is hardly likely to cause gasps in the crowd. In ‘stating the bleeding obvious’ terms, it’s like clearing your throat to boldly state that Piers Morgan is a bit of a pipe, or that Kanye West is a confident chap.
That’s not to say that it’s not a point worth making, of course. As John Nicholson wrote last week, there is something inherently grotesque about clubs paying millions of pounds for young players who may not even make the grade, especially when the ‘real world’ is increasingly forced to deal with austerity. This is the ‘starving children’ argument, however dismissive that may sound.
Unfortunately, however much dismay it may cause, it remains the reality. The two options are to shove your head further in the sand than even Nigel Pearson would advise, or shrug and accept it. English football is a monster, an all-encompassing sporting and financial behemoth, but also a beneficiary of the environment in which it exists. Film stars, musicians and Youtubers are all paid handsomely; escapism is big business.
Still, it’s easy to force yourself into a downward spiral about transfer fees, each window forcing the mouth to open wider in amazement. Gonzalo Higuain as the third most expensive player in history? Eric Bailly’s value rising by 800% in 18 months at Villarreal? Alex Pritchard costing £8m despite never having started a top-flight match? Brad Smith’s 12 senior league matches costing £500,000 a pop. It’s enough to make that man down the pub angrily declare that the “game’s gone mad”.
The first retort to Mr P. U. B Angry is that transfer fees aren’t actually getting any more ludicrous, like some careering out-of-control mine train, but are instead reflective of the increased money in the game. Last week, someone produced some neat graphics that demonstrated the highest fees paid by various English clubs according to the percentage of total revenue, and the results were at least slightly surprising. Manchester United might end up spending north of £100m on Paul Pogba, but that price represents the rapid rise in football’s commercialism more than any financial gamble on United’s part. Arsenal’s turnover in 1995 when they paid £7.5m for Dennis Bergkamp was £24m. Twenty years later, it had reached £331m.
This trend is only likely to increase. From 2016-17 clubs will receive more revenue from broadcasters than ever before, with Sky and BT Sport paying £5.14bn for the domestic rights. You can add another £2bn – conservative estimate – from overseas broadcasters, meaning that the club who finished bottom of the Premier League this season will earn £97m from broadcasting revenue alone.
This revenue increase creates not just spending power, but increased resilience on the part of the selling club. Whereas previously a promoted club would be tempted to sell their star assets for big profit, now the need is not so great. Burnley can afford to reject a £15m bid for Michael Keane, or £25m for Andre Gray.
The curious thing is how fascinated supporters and media are by transfer fees, when the other rises in football’s revenue merit far less frantic discussion. Transfers are the default summer currency to fill the football vacuum, the cause celebre of the playground, water cooler and pub, and their interest is measured in the cost. At a time when reason has made way for snap judgement a transfer fee is the perfect headline – the instant review of a player.
When so many people care so much about transfer fees, they start to matter. The more people think something matters, the more it matters to them; it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yet beneath that veneer, the truth is that the price of a player is becoming less relevant as revenues continue to scale unchartered heights.
Earlier this week, Claudio Ranieri was reportedly told he has a ‘blank chequebook’ for new players, but that merely rubber-stamped reality. At least seven or eight Premier League managers probably have a similar arrangement, at least to a point. If the player is right, the transfer fee is rendered insignificant. Value still exists as a concept, but that can only be judged in glorious hindsight.
Jordon Ibe can cost the same as Alan Shearer did. Manchester City can spend £113m on one 19 and two 20-year-olds in the space of 12 months. A striker (Ross McCormack) with no top-flight experience in the last eight years can move for fees of more than £10m on two separate occasions. Not only is there no point getting angry about such things, but there is no point attempting to find any magic formula either. This is simply the result of unprecedentedly full pockets and the widespread desperation to be successful in, stay put or reach a revenue-rich Premier League.
‘A wise man should have money in his head, but not in his heart,’ Jonathan Swift wrote. If this summer transfer window has taught us anything, it’s that a wise fan should have money in neither.