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Leander Schaerlaeckens: For Europe's big clubs, it's all about the money

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Leander Schaerlaeckens: For Europe's big clubs, it's all about the money
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Leander Schaerlaeckens: For Europe's big clubs, it's all about the money

One team built on oil money had come to play another team built on oil money in a lavish stadium funded by shipping money.

That is to say, Paris Saint-Germain, which leads the world with some $250 million in transfer expenditure over the last year, faced Chelsea, the second-biggest spender at $160 million, at Yankee Stadium, the $1.5 billion edifice.

That probably made it fitting that attending this friendly in New York on Sunday night was a pricey affair. Tickets ran as high as $330. Parking set you back $45. And a small family could easily be out $100 once everybody had had something to eat and drink.

One wonders: Is this really the best way to leverage so much star power into an increased profile for the sport and teams stateside? By pricing the bulk of potential new fans out of a premier showcase game?

The costliness of the night wasn’t necessary the fault of Major League Soccer’s World Football Challenge or indeed the Yankees. Europe’s elite clubs now command several million dollars in appearance money per game. Pitting two against each other can reportedly take as much as $5 million. And that money has to be made back somehow.

And it isn’t entirely the clubs’ fault either. UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules make the need to extract every penny all the more acute. Suspensions from continental competitions like the UEFA Champions League and Europa League loom on the horizon for those who structurally fail to break even. So these American friendlies have surely become an important revenue stream.

Yet, if these high prices are nobody’s fault in particular, they are collectively short-sighted.  

Chelsea says money isn’t its only motive. “The facilities in America are second to none,” Chelsea Chief Executive Ron Gourlay said on a conference call last Wednesday. “It’s bigger than just the financial play. It’s about preparing for the season, building our fan base and capitalizing on it on a global basis.”

Yet to build out that brand, it will want to bring new customers through the doors when they’re in town. It doesn’t endear the club or their opponents to the American market when appearances suggest they view the U.S. as a giant ATM at which to replenish their wallets with spending money every summer. Charging that much money to see Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain, two clubs that, thanks to oil-rich benefactors with a few billion dollars to burn, are already very rich, runs counter to their supposed motives.

Yes, professional soccer has become an arms race. And, yes, clubs always need more money, especially the few actually competing for things. Without the mechanisms to ensure some kind of parity or competitiveness – drafts, revenue sharing, luxury tax, player-for-player trading – like those employed in American leagues, the ability to outwit your rivals through savvy dealing is trumped by deep pockets every time.

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In their book Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski demonstrate that payroll explained 89 percent of the variation in a team’s place in the league standings in the top two tiers of English soccer from 1998 through 2007. As Szymanski pointed out to Goal.com, there was once a salary cap of 20 pounds per week for players in England.

The abolishment of that rule in 1960, paired with the 1995 Bosman Arrest – soccer’s advent of free agency – has unleashed capitalism at its purest on the sport. “As [defending English Premier League champions] Manchester City have proven in the most brutal fashion possible, money really does buy success,” Szymanski told Goal.com.


But however lucrative they might be, exhibition games such as these shouldn’t be a stretch even for upper middle-class families, let alone the middle and working class. The disappearance of the working man from the Premier League stands is a well-established truism. But soccer hasn’t had a serious competitor for English hearts and minds for a long time. That’s not the case here. The sport still has inroads to make. And if these clubs are looking to commit greater numbers to them in the long run – who might spend more money on the whole too – they might be best off giving their product away at less than they can get for it in the short term.

When it comes to winning new fans, less is more.

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