Soccer’s River of Money Isn’t Flowing, Worrying Teams Downstream

Jonathan David was already thinking about what might come next. He had been in Belgium for almost two years, his first taste of professional soccer in Europe since moving from Canada. He had met every target that had been set for him: He was K.A.A. Gent’s leading goal scorer in his first season and the joint top scorer for the whole Belgian league in his second.

“Gent asked him last year to stick around and confirm the potential he had shown,” his agent, Nick Mavromaras, said. “He has done that. He proved it is time for him to move to the next level.”

The wheels were turning. David had caught the eye of a host of Europe’s most prestigious clubs. They pored over his data, studied video of his play, dispatched scouts to watch him in the flesh. He checked plenty of boxes: He had only just turned 20; he played as a striker for Canada, but a little deeper for Gent, a sign of precious versatility; his scoring numbers were impressive.

As Michel Louwagie, Gent’s managing director, said, it was clear David was “the No. 1 young player in Belgium.” That tends to mean only one thing: a scramble for his signature. Belgium is the sort of place where the big spenders from the big leagues come to cast their nets. By common consent, this year, David was the biggest fish in the pool.

Before Christmas, the inquiries were flooding in. Gent, though, stood firm. It wanted to keep David through January, and if at all possible, in the summer, too. “I always just said no,” Louwagie said. “The plan would normally be for him to stay one more year. You always have to take the player’s wishes into account, but we do not need the cash.”

Mavromaras and his agency, Axía Sports Management, meanwhile, were researching each of the various candidates, trying to find the ideal suitor for David. If an offer came that was right for Gent, it had to be right for their client, too. They needed the coach, the system and, most of all, the opportunity to fit.

“He is conscious this is only his second season as a professional,” Mavromaras said. “He needs to play. That is the primary factor.” They had, he said, already identified a few clubs that fit the bill.

And then, of course, everything stopped.

Quite what the effect of European soccer’s indefinite shutdown in the face of the pandemic will be remains unclear. Clubs across Europe do not yet know when, or if, they will be able to play again. Until they do, they can only guess how much revenue will be lost in ticket sales and merchandise and television revenue. They can only guess at the scale of the damage.

For many outside the continent’s big five leagues, though, that uncertainty is compounded by an awareness that they are not in control of their fate, that a second crisis hangs on the horizon. For these clubs and leagues, financial health depends not only on their own return to action, whenever that may be, but on what happens far above them in the food chain.

Much of the economy of global soccer depends on the transfer market, and the transfer market is driven by the largess of Europe’s rich elite. Soccer’s entire delicate ecosystem functions, outside of Europe’s major leagues, as a monument to trickle-down economics, money flowing down from Germany and Spain and, in particular, England, through places like Belgium and on, out into the world.

According to figures provided by the CIES Football Observatory, it is scarcely possible to overestimate just how much the money from the Premier League — or, more precisely, the Premier League’s television deals — makes soccer’s world go around.

Since 2015, for example, English clubs have sent more than a billion dollars in transfer fees to teams in France alone. About $464 million of that has gone to just one club: A.S. Monaco. Another billion has ended up in the pockets of just five clubs: Juventus, Borussia Dortmund, Roma, Barcelona and Sporting Lisbon.

The figures are slightly smaller in Belgium, but, if anything, the dependence is greater. K.R.C. Genk has sold players for $88 million to the Premier League in the last four years: more than the league as a whole made in television revenue in 2017. Club Brugge — the team that was crowned champion when the Belgian season was canceled in March — made $61 million by selling three players to English teams last summer.

“There are two business models in international soccer,” said Vincent Mannaert, the Club Brugge chief executive. “One, in the major leagues at the top of the pyramid, the most important revenue stream is media rights. In medium and small leagues, there is another model, which has mainly to do with being important suppliers of player transfers to the big leagues.”

In Mannaert’s eyes, soccer’s transfer market functions as a “solidarity mechanism,” transferring the money made by the most popular competitions — and particularly the staggering wealth available to English clubs — to the rest of the game.

Some of the money Brugge raised last year remained in Belgium, of course, helping the club pay its salaries and retain its players, but some of it percolated elsewhere, too. “Typically, we spend between a third and a half of what we make on transfers,” Mannaert said.

Brugge has certain markets it focuses on. It has had success in recent years, Mannaert said, in Scandinavia, the former Soviet bloc, Australia and the “smaller nations in South America.” Shopping in Argentina and Brazil, for a Belgian team, is often too expensive, but Colombia and Uruguay can offer rich pickings. Africa is of increasing importance, and the club tries to shop locally, too.

“We are all part of a chain,” he said. “We get money from the big leagues, and teams in smaller leagues get money from us.” When the money stops flowing, when the chain breaks, the effect ripples from England to Belgium and then into every corner of the globe.

“People say to stop transfers, that the amounts of money are obscene, but it is a source of very important income for smaller teams,” Mannaert said. “It is the only way medium-size clubs can earn more money to invest in academies, in players. It is a form of solidarity.”

For now, though, the transfer market has frozen. Aside from Germany — which, despite its eagerness, still cannot say for certain when it will resume — the major leagues remain unclear when they will be able to play again. Until they know — and even when they do, depending on when that is — teams across the world must deal with the possibility that the money from the top will dry up.

Mannaert is confident Brugge could ride that out, the consequence of such a lucrative summer last year. Gent, too, remains adamant that it should not be thought of as easy pickings. The market for David has not collapsed completely: while, in normal circumstances, Louwagie would have expected 10 to 15 clubs to be competing for his signature, now he expects it to be three or four. The club still hopes to keep him for another year.

But for many others, the consequences could be severe. It is why, to Mannaert, the most effective intervention available to FIFA and UEFA is — counterintuitive though it sounds — to limit the black holes on the books of clubs in the major leagues.

He would like to see the two bodies act, essentially, as soccer’s Federal Reserve, either pumping money directly into the “engines of the industry,” the clubs, or using the broadcast rights to the World Cup, the European Championship and the Champions League as bargaining chips to help assuage broadcasters left with contracts and airtime unfulfilled.

If not, if the wounds run too deep, the damage could be severe. Not, perhaps, for those at the top of the tree, who are rich enough and strong enough to absorb the blow. For everyone else, for those clubs dependent on their money, for those who need the money to flow downward, there is fear that trouble is coming the same way.

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