“When I was your age, I could go see a movie for a nickel.”
It’s a cliché, but my grandmother still said it, and I know she’s not the only one. I would roll my eyes, tune her out and take another Werther’s Original out of her seemingly never-ending pile. But it’s an understandable sentiment, a yearning for a vague but comfortable “simpler time” when everything was the way it used to be. Nowadays, movie tickets go for $15 a pop.
That same sentiment has become a recurrent narrative every summer in the soccer world, particularly in the Premier League. Raheem Sterling for £49 million? That used to buy you Zidane. Ten years ago, you could get Ronaldinho for £35 mill; now you get Christian Benteke.
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It’s a vague disappointment in how soccer – maybe the world – has changed. Last year, Chelsea “bought” the title, and now Manchester City is accused of doing it again. Now Arsene Wenger has joined the chorus, claiming Arsenal can’t keep up with the Premier League’s big spenders.
But Arsene’s words come off as a hollow excuse. Like the price of a movie ticket, the world has changed and the stakes have grown. It may have been accelerated by the high-spenders, but it’s an era that would have come without them. And it’s benefiting teams like Arsenal too.
The worldwide ubiquity of the Premier League means teams received between £64 and £99 million from broadcast rights alone this summer (there’s a separate question about whether the league would be as popular — and thus, as lucrative — without these big-spending newcomers increasing competition at the top, but that’s for a different article). Next summer that payment will go up £50 million more, pushing teams’ broadcasting windfall to more than double what it was back in the early 2000’s. Combine that with nine-figure sponsorship deals and shouldn’t we expect teams to be spending drastically more? If revenue is spiking and teams aren’t spending, shouldn’t questions be aimed at their ownership, not Manchester City’s?
Newcomer Kevin De Bruyne pushed City’s spending this transfer window to about £150 million, and after sales, to a net spend of about £100 million. We could say that City is buying the league, or we could say £100 million is about the going rate these days for a pretty significant overhaul of what was the oldest squad in the Premier League. The teams they’re aspiring to compete with, the Barcelonas and Real Madrids of the world, are spending that kind of money all the time. Especially now, as Everton have so far proven with John Stones, other teams have enough money to resist big-money offers.
There’s no denying that financial backing has contributed significantly to the success of teams like Chelsea and Manchester City. And there’s no legitimate argument that even mid-table teams like Swansea will be winning the Premier League anytime soon. But there are plenty of options outside of the £50 million bracket that could improve teams in the top six to the point of challenging for the title. City’s added backing may have put their four targets out of Arsene’s reach, but was there no one else in world soccer that could address the problems in Arsenal’s squad with £100 million to spend?
We also know from experience that big spending is not the only way to win. Several European teams are using this new age of spending to their advantage; most notably Atletico Madrid, who continue to sell off superstars only to improve year after year because of smart scouting and development. You could argue that massive funding injection helped them build a deeper, more complete team. Juventus made it to the Champions League final last year with a fraction of the spending of most English teams. And in the Premier League, Swansea signing both Andre Ayew and Bafetembi Gomis on free transfers turned them from a solid base to a possible Europa League contender. Leaning too much on the excuse of financial inferiority is a concession about the quality of your scouting, coaching or both.
Consider Manchester United, who were never a serious title threat last year despite massive spending. Or Liverpool, who famously spent most of their Fernando Torres money on Andy Carroll. Accusations of “buying the league” unfairly discredit the achievement of players and managers who have no control over transfer fees. The referee doesn’t give Benteke a head start on a defender because he had a big price tag. City don’t get to play with an extra man. Teams have to earn it.
The goalposts have shifted for everyone in the transfer market. The reality is the scale of money in modern-day soccer is different than it used to be – for everyone. Say it out loud, one time, to get it out of your system: players are more expensive now. That’s not necessarily wrong, either, as more revenue comes in from more people in more parts of the world than ever before. So there will be many players more expensive than Zidane. But if Arsene can’t adapt, he’ll risk sounding like grandma, muttering about how Thierry Henry cost £11 million while the rest of the soccer world rolls their eyes, tunes him out and leaves him behind.
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