The final answer is somewhere around $2.4 billion, according to the Deloitte Football Money League’s 2021 report, an estimate of the total revenue the biggest 20 sides in Europe lost during the pandemic. The latest report signals another milestone of lockdown and ghost matches, where we have enough distance to sift through balance sheets and come to terms with finances that can never be recovered. Releasing a list of the highest revenue-generating clubs during this past year feels mistimed considering the wider stakes, but there is the immediate state of individual clubs to consider - not to mention the future of the sport. In past seasons, Barcelona’s spot as the top revenue-generating club in Europe would be a vanity prize with bragging rights. In 2021, the numbers foreshadow an upcoming structural change that could affect domestic and continental competitions.
The oft-attributed, misquoted aphorism speaks to how there’s decades where nothing happens, then weeks where decades happen. Shortly after topping the DFML rankings, the Spanish newspaper El Mundo revealed that Barcelona’s debts were approaching $1.5 billion, with the club “on the verge of bankruptcy.” Barcelona were projected to miss out on 15% of their revenue (totaling at $150 million) from this past season. The conflicting stories of revenue and debt unraveled the financial turmoil that had only been hinted at during Lionel Messi’s transfer saga. Every business has to balance the dance between short-term debt and long-term value creation, but how could the highest revenue-generating side in Europe also potentially go bankrupt?
A common critique of the DFML report is how the rankings show just one side of the business equation. But an annual ranking of austerity and responsibility doesn’t excite as much as the price of glamor.
Then, days after revealing Barcelona’s debt situation, El Mundo also leaked details of Messi’s four-year contract signed in 2017. The headlines called it the “largest contract in sports history,” with the $673 million ceiling stunning in its individual scale and recklessness. You could argue that Messi is actually underpaid with his $165 million yearly salary when taking into account the jersey sales and brand value. But an extra $230 million for both a signing and a loyalty bonus appears excessive considering how the club still owes upwards of $153 million in transfer fees for flops like Coutinho and Malcolm. There is also a mysterious $12 million payment to Atletico Madrid for “preferential rights,” rumored to be some euphemism in resolving Atleti’s complaints that Barcelona tapped up Antoine Griezmann.
In the three years since signing the contract, Barcelona have gotten knocked out of the Champions League twice in the quarterfinals, with one semifinal appearance. Messi is currently on pace to hit his lowest goalscoring total in the league since 2009. The accumulation of debt, as well as the aging of a team, happens slowly, then all at once.
Barcelona straddling debt and revenue makes it the club most emblematic of the contemporary business age. How often do we hear of Silicon Valley start-ups with billion-dollar valuations who have actually yet to turn a profit? And considering the environment, why wouldn’t Barcelona’s board spend recklessly - is the club actually going to go out of business? European football needs Barcelona as much as Barcelona needs European football. Besides, debt is just table stakes for competing in a global world.
Interestingly, it may be Real Madrid (second in the DFML rankings) who provide the framework that makes Barcelona’s financial situation fall into place.
“Everyone realizes that the current competitive environment must be reformed as soon as possible,” said Florentino Perez during a speech last month. He added that the current European model needs a “new impulse” that adapts to the “new reality” of a post-pandemic footballing world.
We know what the language of a “new reality” refers to coming from a club of Real Madrid’s stature. There were already sporadic conversations of a breakaway European Super League before the pandemic. The wider reaction was always something of a dismissal and a disgust, of what the game will turn into when it only serves the biggest clubs. But whereas clubs were mindful of addressing the issue due to the public backlash in the past, the lost revenue from ghost matches changed in its perception. It is no longer a creation of vanity, but of institutional survival in mitigating risk.
Perez tried to couch the European Super League in a footballing story, of how the formation of the Champions League was a response to a changing era. And in a Hitchcock-ian trope, replenishing lost revenue and creating an unbreakable moat before the next unforeseen event is the “bomb ticking under the table” theory building suspense and stakes. We are seeing a concreteness of its shape like never before. A new Super League will consist of 15 founding members in a 20 team league, with each side offered over $420 million upon entry to help replace lost income. Revenue would be split among the teams each season.
In a supposed spirit of openness, five slots will be open for promotion and relegation. But the initial members would never get relegated, making it as close to pandemic or recession-proof as one can be in European soccer.
Other significant voices have preached caution. Juventus president Andrea Agnelli stated his preference to revamp the existing model of the Champions League instead of creating a new entity. Agnelli’s reasoning was in the sporting fairness of the game, how “we must keep the dream alive” when it came to the potential of clubs across Europe competing in its top competition. They were the same arguments of a pre-pandemic time of binaries, where we had to make a moral decision between sporting competition versus financial gain. Who else had Agnelli as the purist voice of the everyday club?
“It is not just about England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, but we must embrace also the lower competitions,” added Agnelli.
Of course, Barcelona would somehow be involved. Before resigning as club president in October, Josep Bartomeu announced that Barcelona had agreed to join the European Super League. The statement re-framed the debts Bartomeu oversaw as a feature, not a bug. Barcelona’s debts are not of the same variety as your local club. If Barcelona max out the rules of the current world, they have the power to simply make a new world with new rules.
The top 10 clubs on DFML’s list have remained the same over the past two seasons, lending further evidence of a winner-take-all environment. Once you’ve made it, your place is secure. Other teams have remained strategically silent in voicing an opinion over the Super League. There are scattered reports of Liverpool and Manchester United “considering” the proposal. But why pick a side now? Let the Barcelona’s and Real Madrid’s battle for PR and messaging. And whether playing in a strengthened Champions League or a new European Super League, the top sides benefit from either world. As Perez noted, the superpowers have always driven the paradigm shifts within the European game. The financial fallout from the past year only gave a timeline for its next iteration.