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Friday, June 29, 2012

Beautiful, ugly and lucrative


Special to The Japan Times

HONG KONG — It claims to be "the beautiful game", although you might not know it from recent ugly behavior on and off the field, and in the courts of China. But a spate of recent surveys and statistics have demonstrated that association football (aka soccer in the United States) is the most popular and most lucrative sport in the world.

According to the superficial judgment of Facebook "likes," Barcelona is the most popular football team in the world, with 23.76 million "likes." To put that into perspective, Barcelona is 31st most popular personality in the world, behind President Barack Obama, who has 24.29 million "likes." Real Madrid comes second with 22.45 million "likes" followed by Manchester United, with 20.88 million.

By the less ethereal measures of worth, Forbes in April calculated that Manchester United was worth $2.24 billion, making the club the world's most valuable sports team, $385 million more than baseball's New York Yankees or the National Football League's Dallas Cowboys. Real Madrid is worth $1.88 billion and Barcelona $1.31 billion.

Another firmer, but still incomplete, financial measurement is how much sports stars earn. Sportingintelligence last month calculated that Barcelona players are the world's best-paid, with players collecting an average of $166,934 a week or $8.68 million a year. Real Madrid players were second with $149,935 a week, followed by Manchester City ($142,380) and Chelsea.

The Los Angeles Lakers basketball team were the best-paid nonsoccer players, coming in fifth with an average $120,732 a week, followed by the New York Yankees baseball team ($118,968). Manchester United languished in 11th place with earnings of $106,181 a week.

According to another list, of the highest paid footballers in 2012, Lionel Messi of Barcelona and Argentina is on top, earning €33 million, followed closely by Englishman David Beckham, now of Los Angeles Galaxy, at €31.5 million, and Ronaldo.

The real superstars earn as much off the field as on it. Messi's money comprises only €10.5 million in salary, another €1.5 million in bonuses and a massive €21 million in advertising and sponsorship deals, including with adidas and Pepsi.

Beckham similarly makes large sums off the field, through adidas and his own brand of underwear. He also signed a deal with Samsung last year to be the Korean company's global brand ambassador for the London Olympic Games. Didier Drogba, who kicked Chelsea to the European Champions Cup, has agreed to join the Shanghai Shenhua side for $300,000 a week.

Footballers are not the best-paid sports stars. In spite of his fall from grace, golfer Tiger Woods keeps second place among the world's high-earning sports stars with earnings of $58 million, after boxer Manny Pacquiao's $67 million, according to Forbes.

The magazine names David Beckham, in seventh place behind basketball players, tennis star Roger Federer and golfer Phil Mickelson, as the best-paid footballer. Discrepancies in figures may be due to the way and the time of counting. The Sunday Times says Beckham has assets of £160 million in its latest survey of the British rich.

In fact, the best-paid footballer for his work on the field is Samuel Eto'o, the Cameroonian striker, who signed a three-year deal for €20.5 million a year not for one of the top European clubs — he previously played for Barcelona and for Inter Milan — but for FC Anzhi Makhachkala of Russia. Eto'o's move sparked speculation as to whether rich owners of Chinese football clubs might also move to boost their hopes by hiring famous foreign stars, which was encouraged by rumors that Chelsea's European Cup winning star Didier Drogba was on his way to Shanghai to join former Chelsea colleague Nicolas Anelka.

Probably the most authoritative survey of football finances is that from consultants Deloitte, whose results confirm the domination of the 20-year-old English Premier League and show how football has continued to grow and boost revenues in spite of grim economic news.

The European football market grew by 4 percent to be worth €16.9 billion in the 2010-2011 season. The five big leagues, meaning England, Germany's Bundesliga, Spain's La Liga, Italy's Serie A, and France's Ligue 1, accounted for more than half or €8.6 billion. The English Premier League's growth was strongest,, with a 12 percent rise in revenues to €2.5 billion.

With strength came potentially damaging weakness. Deloitte noted: "Football's greatest business challenge remains cost control." In particular, wages of players are spiraling out of control. In England, players' wages cost €1.771 billion or 70 percent of total revenues. It is unsustainable for Manchester City to pay 114 percent of its income in wages, especially with new European fair play rules to prevent clubs from spending more than they earn.

Football is big business, with little room for local sentiment. This was shown when the Premier League's chief executive Richard Scudamore did a high-fives dance when he secured a cool £3 billion for the television rights to broadcast league games from next year to 2016. The matches will be beamed worldwide to hundreds of millions of people. But in the U.K., few people, apart from those who cluster in pubs, will see the games because most recession-hit Brits won't pay the high subscription rates.

The prospect of making money in the English league has lured Americans, Russian oligarchs, oil sheiks and Indian businessmen to buy clubs. Only half of the 20 top clubs are under British ownership.

Manchester United is a prime case, with American owners heartily disliked by fans, not least because they bought the club with debt and settled it on the beloved club. The Glazer family, which also owns the Tampa Bay Buccaneers American football team, has been trying to float part of Manchester United on a stock exchange while maintaining near majority ownership. They tried first in Hong Kong, but were rebuffed when Hong Kong authorities did not like the dual shareholding structure. They switched their affections to Singapore, but recent reports say that they are unhappy with the slow pace in getting approval and the difficult IPO environment in Asia, and may now seek a New York listing.

One big question is when a rich and booming China will reclaim ownership of the game it claims it invented 20 centuries before the English set the modern rules.

Will the potential move of Didier Drogba, whose boot scored the winning European Championship goal last month, to Shanghai, or maybe to Guangzhou, put China on the world football map? Will the conviction this month of the former head of the Chinese national football association and 10 others for bribery and match-fixing start a cleanup and revival?

Don't expect quick or early progress. Shanghai Shenhua has income of about $3 million a year (which would be six weeks' pay for Drogba) and survives out of the deep pockets of its owner Zhu Jun. The Chinese league has been described as "Wild East football" and the standard of play and organization, not to speak of the financial backing, is poor, with corruption long rumored to be rife.

Story has it that the Buddha said he could grant Chinese people one wish. "Please lower the price of property, so that people can afford it," one person asked. Buddha sucked a deep breath, so another person asked: "Can you make China qualify for the World Cup, please?" Buddha sighed: "Let's talk about property prices."

Kevin Rafferty started his reporting career writing for The Observer about football from chilly press boxes in the north of England.


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