Level playing field? No, the rich just get richer

Parc des princesWE PROBABLY didn’t need to be told, but Football Benchmark, that team of wise old sages in Budapest, has confirmed that football, the “game of the people”, is far from democratic.

We’ve known for some time that European football has created a set of “uber clubs” that sweep up the cash like a combine harvester in full flow. The list can now be counted on one hand: Barcelona, Real Madrid, Paris St. Germain, Bayern Munich and Manchester United. They account for almost a quarter of all commercial and sponsorship income in European football.

What’s more, the top five leagues: England, Spain, Germany, France and Italy, swallow up a staggering two-thirds of all income. The English Premier leads the way with over  EUR 1bn, while Germany is not far behind on almost EUR 950m.

The big five receive more than EUR 3.5bn in commercial and sponsorship revenue, according to data from the 2013-14 season. That’s two thirds of the total across all European leagues. And England and Germany receive around 40% of the EUR 5.3bn total.

The English Premier League has become one of the most acute examples of how the monied clubs are dominating income streams – Manchester United generate 21% of the total Premier League commercial income. In total five clubs receive income of more than EUR 100m and you won’t be surprised to hear that they are Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal.

Imbalances exist right across top tier European football

It would be wrong, however, to pinpoint the Premier as the only league where huge imbalances exist. In Germany, Bayern Munich’s commercial and sponsorship income of EUR 292m (2014) amounts to one third of the entire Bundesliga. In the past five years, the Bavarians have seen their total commercial income rise by 83%.

In France, Paris St. Germain’s income is more than 50% of the total for Ligue 1 and in Spain, the big two, Barcelona and Real Madrid, are the lucky recipients of around 90% of La Liga’s total commercial and sponsorship cash. There’s really something quite obscene about these figures.

Italy’s decline as the big attraction in Europe is reflected in its commercial attractiveness. France has overtaken both Serie A and La Liga, largely due to the massive investment in PSG. Of Italy’s EUR 407m, AC Milan are the top club with EUR 98m, underlining how big they are, despite their recent downturn.

What’s the solution? To some extent, the “uber clubs” are outgrowing their surroundings, creating leagues that are largely foregone conclusions. If you look at the big five, there is an alarming lack of competition that has become tedious: France – Paris St. Germain have won the last three Ligue 1 titles and are boulevards ahead of the rest this season; Germany – Bayern are set for a fourth consecutive Bundesliga; Italy – Despite a slow start, Juventus are rapidly making up ground in pursuit of a fifth successive scudetto; Spain – As always, Barca and Real, with a third challenge coming from Atletico Madrid; and England – probably the most open it has been for a while.

Rich football clubs have always won championships and trophies, since professional football began. But are the finances of top European football so polarized now that these clubs become too big, pointing to the formation of a Super League being formed?

UEFA would argue we already have that in the form of the Champions League,  but will there be a time when the big guns actually compete in a “closed shop” league that relegates all domestic football to the second tier? There’s a distinct possibility of that happening – we’ve already seen how the UEFA Champions League and the big five leagues have consigned domestic competition to the wings in much of the continent.

Outside of the big five, only two other leagues generate more than EUR 100m – Russia and the Netherlands. And the remaining 47 leagues combined rake in just EUR 1bn. The situation is unlikely to change. Says Football Benchmark: “In the future, clubs playing outside of the big five leagues – especially clubs playing in countries with relatively small populations and economies – will face stiffer challenges than in the past when trying to attract commercial revenue from both domestic and international corporations.”

Needless to say, it does not bode well for the future of the game in so many countries across Europe.

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