Gareth Bale fee affordable while TV deals inflate football market

 

For many people, Gareth Bale's £85m record-breaking transfer to Real Madrid is another sign of football's ever weakening grip on reality.

A brilliant player - no question. The most exciting young star in the Premier League - absolutely. One of the best in the world? Not yet.

But then Real's signing of Bale is not only about his ability on the pitch. It's about image rights and shirt sales and sending a statement to the rest of Spanish football and beyond that Real are still the biggest and richest footballing institution on the planet.

Florentino Perez, the construction entrepreneur who is president of Real Madrid, is the master of the grand gesture. Over the past 13 years he has broken the world record transfer five times - Figo in 2000, Zidane in 2001, Kaka and then Ronaldo in 2009 and now Bale in 2013. Those five players cost a cool £303.6m.

Real's 11th galactico

Bale has been labelled 'The 11th galactico'

  • July 2000: Luis Figo £37m
  • July 2001: Zinedine Zidane £45m
  • Sept 2002: Ronaldo £28m,
  • June 2003: David Beckham£24.5m
  • Aug 2004: Michael Owen £8m
  • June 2009: Kaka £56m
  • July 2009: Cristiano Ronaldo £80m
  • July 2009: Karim Benzema £35m
  • July 2010: Mesut Ozil £12.5m
  • Aug 2012: Luka Modric £35m

It's an eye-watering sum of money. But it is money Real Madrid can afford. Last year the Spanish club earned £415m, making them the wealthiest football club on the planet. And besides, Perez argues that in the end these marquee signings pay for themselves in increased replica shirt sales and sponsorship.

It's hard to really test this theory, although there is little doubt that clubs can charge sponsors a much higher price if their teams include a handful of superstar players. As the Uefa president Michel Platini said last week, footballers are no longer players, they are products.

In one sense Real Madrid are a special case. Their motivation for spending is driven by local and global forces. No big player is signed at the Santiago Bernabeu without a glance back at old rivals Barcelona. Their £50m signing of the Brazil striker Neymar earlier this summer only made Real's pursuit of Bale more intense.

Perez also sees an opportunity to take advantage of the Premier League's global appeal - particularly in Asia and the United States. Bale might not be seen as the finished article here, but when NBC launched its new exclusive TV deal for the Premier League this summer the 24-year-old Welshman was chosen as the face to adorn posters in New York's Times Square.

But beyond Madrid, this has been a summer of lavish spending across England and Europe. By the time the transfer window shuts, Premier League clubs will have taken gross transfer spending way past the previous record of £500m.

Tottenham didn't wait for the Bale deal to be completed before spending almost £100m on new players to replace him, while Manchester City have spent £97.5m, Liverpool more than £70m and Chelsea £57m.

So while Madrid and Barcelona - plus a couple of clubs in France and Italy - have been spending big, as a collective unit the Premier League still has the most financial muscle.

Why?

Once again, it's all down to pay TV. From this season, clubs in the Premier League will start to benefit from the new £5.5bn, three-year deal for domestic and overseas TV rights. Much of this - £3bn - comes from Sky and BT Sport. The competition between these two companies has helped inflate the football economy to unprecedented levels.

And to think this is supposed to be the season when new cost control measures introduced by Uefa and the Premier League start to bite. Even Arsene Wenger, the prudent Arsenal manager who recently described this summer's spending as crazy, has been sucked in, spending £42m on Real Madrid's Mesut Ozil.

But then these measures are only designed to stop clubs spending what they cannot afford.

So while the sums being spent by clubs here and in Europe might seem extraordinary, the even more extraordinary sums being paid by TV companies to show live football mean they can probably just about afford it.