If the reports are true, and the veracity of summer transfer figures in the soccer world are about as dependable as internal FIFA investigations, Manchester United is making a teenager with all of 11 career league goals the fifth-most expensive player in the world.
If the Red Devils do indeed pay a reported $90 million for AS Monaco's 19-year-old striker Anthony Martial – rumored to be broken up into a $67.5 million fee and $22.5 million in potential performance-related add-ons in the future – he'll be almost twice as expensive as the second-priciest teenager ever sold. (That would be left back Luke Shaw, whom United bought from Southampton for some $43 million last summer. He, in turn, broke Wayne Rooney's record from when the latter joined United from Everton in 2004 by about a million.)
And if they merely buy Martial for $56 million, as another version of the story suggests, he'll still be the costliest teenager ever by a comfortable margin. Not to mention tied with Mesut Ozil for the 19th-most expensive transfer of all time. Ozil, however, was considered one of the best playmakers in the game when he joined Arsenal from Real Madrid in 2013.
Martial, on the other hand, is a prospect. One who has yet to make his debut for France's senior national team and was a regular in France's Ligue 1 for just one season, recording a mere nine goals in domestic competition and none at all in seven continental appearances. He isn't the finished product. He isn't even about to be the finished product. He was still so obscure on Monday that Rooney, who is now United's captain, apparently had no idea who he was.
On Sunday, cross-town rivals Manchester City finally – finally – landed Kevin De Bruyne for an $84.5 million fee, plus a reported $5.5 million in possible add-ons. The outlay for the zippy Belgian attacking midfielder, who was never given a real shot with Chelsea but led all of Europe in assists with Wolfsburg last season, cost a tad more than 20-year-old winger-cum-controversy magnet Raheem Sterling, City's other big summer signing.
De Bruyne's fee almost doubles the Bundesliga transfer record, which had been set just a few weeks earlier when Hoffenheim sold Roberto Firmino to Liverpool, another English club, for $46 million. De Bruyne is now the seventh-most expensive player of all time. And while, at 24, he's certainly a very good elite attacking midfielder with untapped upside, to even put him in the current worldwide top 10 in his position right now feels generous.
But this is the zany new reality in the Premier League-dominated transfer market.
Earlier this year, the Premier League signed a new domestic broadcast rights deal with Sky Sports and BT Sports for almost $8 billion over three seasons. With overseas contracts bringing in another $5 billion or so, that's more than $4 billion per season – a huge uptick over the last round of contracts. The 20 clubs get almost all of that cash, distributed according to their performance in the league.
Last year, champions Chelsea collected about $152 million while last-place Queens Park Rangers got $100 million. That isn't all television money, but it also isn't the sum of the revenue of the clubs, who still collect ticket and merchandise sales and other streams of income. The Premier League may not be the world's strongest league – or maybe it is, but that debate is pointless here – yet it certainly sells the most marketable overall product.
Other leagues just haven't been able to keep up the pace, bringing in a fraction of the Premier League's broadcast contracts. As such, it's unsurprising that, typically, whoever the 20 teams active in England's top flight happen to be at that time are all in the top 40 of richest clubs in the world as well.
The gap is only growing bigger. And as such, the English clubs seem to be playing with Monopoly money on the transfer market. In this just-expired transfer window, Premier League clubs had a combined net transfer outlay (players bought minus players sold) of $639 million, according to Transfermarkt.com. By comparison, of the four other major European leagues, Spain's La Liga had a net expenditure of $209 million and Italy's Serie A spent $92 million. Germany's Bundesliga and France's Ligue 1, meanwhile, posted profits of $73 million and $102 million, respectively – thanks in large part to those De Bruyne and Martial transfers. The Turkish, Portuguese, Dutch, Belgian, Russian, Scottish and Ukrainian leagues all made profits as well.
The remarkable thing about all of this isn't that England's bigger clubs are gobbling up and hoarding elite talent. It's that the smaller ones are just as capable of signing difference-making players, the kind that would have been out of their league in the very recent past.
An ambitious Stoke City landed Xherdan Shaqiri, one of the best young wingers in Europe, from Inter Milan. Puny Crystal Palace signed Yohan Cabaye, who was one of the Premier League's best midfielders with Newcastle before joining Paris Saint-German for a year and a half. Perennial underdogs West Ham somehow contracted Dimitri Payet from Marseille, Angelo Ogbonna from Juventus and brought back Alex Song from Barcelona. Mid-table West Bromwich Albion managed to unloose one of Europe's better strikers in Salomon Rondon from Zenit St. Petersburg. And little Leicester City bagged Napoli's Gokhan Inler, who was one of the most appreciated midfielders in Italy.
In the past, these clubs would have had no hope of signing players of this caliber. But this, it seems, is the new way where bottom-half Premier League teams have more purchasing power than all but the very biggest clubs from other countries.
This isn't entirely a bad thing. While some cry foul over the enormous fees, there is a benefit for the game as a whole. England's newfound riches are getting spread around through these transfer fees. In many other leagues, generating revenue is a great deal harder. But when clubs are making profits in the market, that will help keep them viable – whether directly, when players are sold to England, or indirectly, when other clubs who have lost players to the Premier League buy replacements.
Take the financially challenged Portuguese league, which raked in a cumulative $245 million in transfer profits this summer, the most of any league by a factor of almost three. The Primeira Liga relies heavy on the proceeds from player sales to stay afloat. And when there's more money circulating out there, especially in the years after a savage recession that hit many European clubs hard, it's easier to break even.
The market imbalance does, however, foreshadow a situation where every other league eventually becomes something of a triple-A affiliate for the Premiership – insofar as it isn't already. Yet at present, England's clubs are hardly dominant in European competition. They have, in fact, struggled on the continent in the last few years – perhaps because their domestic league is so grueling that the midweek contests become that much harder. In the last three seasons, just two English clubs have reached the Champions League quarterfinals.
So all that money – in the last three transfer windows, Premier League teams have spent more than $1.2 billion net on new players – hasn't distorted continental competition just yet. It could down the line, of course, if clubs manage to assemble enough talent to essentially employ one team to play on the weekends and an entirely different one at midweek.
But for now, so long as the rapid inflation on the market for soccer players doesn't have far-reaching effects on the European balance of power, there is no great harm in the TV-funded transfer bubble.
It is, in fact, probably a good thing for the sport as a whole, with money trickling fluidly from the rich to the poor, making all of the clubs better off.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.