Dutch striker Robin van Persie joined Manchester United in a $24-million… (Peter Powell / EPA )
Manchester United's decision to go public this month by selling shares on the New York Stock Exchange is another reminder that the financial foundation of European soccer remains in desperate need of repair.
Man-U is among the most storied and iconic brands in global sports — and after being valued at $2.2 billion, it's also the most expensive sports franchise in the world. The New York Yankees are relative upstarts when compared to Manchester United, which started play in 1878, a decade before Jack the Ripper claimed his first victim. And Man-U continues to win, having claimed four of the last six English Premier League titles.
But if these are the best of times for Man-U, they're also the worst of times — which is how its owner, Florida businessman Malcolm Glazer, found himself walking hat in hand down Wall Street like a pauper from a Charles Dickens novel.
Manchester United has almost doubled in value since Glazer bought the team for $1.47 billion in 2005, yet it still had a debt of $682 million as of June 30. And even the stock offering couldn't erase all that when the club's initial share price came in about 30% lower than its backers had wanted.
The problem, of course, is the cost of soccer players. And while it's a problem Man-U and Glazer have exacerbated, it's not limited to a single team, owner, league or country. The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) found that more than half the 655 European clubs it surveyed in 2010 had lost a combined $10.9 billion, mostly from overspending on players.
In Spain, where La Liga opened a new season last weekend, Barcelona and Real Madrid have passed the Yankees as the best-paying teams in pro sports with average player salaries topping $7.8 million a year. Yet, a University of Barcelona study in 2010 found the combined debt load carried by the 20 teams in La Liga was $4.8 billion, with 85% of total operating revenue going to payroll.
In Italy, pro soccer also remains buried under a mountain of debt. One report in March said that in the 2010-11 season, the total debt of pro teams (ranging from Serie A to Division 2) rose 14% to $3.26 billion. And just 19 of the top 107 pro clubs in Italy turned a profit.
Even some clubs in Germany's Bundesliga, long hailed as the model for a financially stable soccer league, are feeling a financial pinch. The league boasts the second-highest average attendance of any league in the world, behind only the NFL. And thanks to regulations, such as the "50 plus 1" rule, which makes it impossible for private investors to be in control of any club, the Bundesliga has kept payroll to about half of revenue and enjoyed a parity unique in European soccer.
Despite all that, seven of the 18 Bundesliga teams lost money last season.
Yet it's the English Premier League that remains the poster child for financial recklessness in soccer.
Although the EPL is the richest soccer league in the world, its team owners are still spending well beyond their means. Just 2% of the top-division clubs in Europe play in the EPL, but those teams accounted for 56% of the top clubs' debt on the continent, according to the Times of London.
Since the Premier League was formed two decades ago, more than half the clubs in England have fallen into insolvency. During that period, the salaries the top-level clubs paid their players have jumped more than 1,500%, to approximately $2.6 billion combined. And in the 2010-11 season, EPL clubs for the first time spent more than 70% of their revenue on players salaries.
Yet financial discipline remains a foreign concept. Just days after turning to Wall Street to help pay off its debt, Man-U created some more by spending $38 million to acquire Dutch striker Robin van Persie from Arsenal.
And they're not even the freest-spending Premier League club with Manchester in their name.
In 2011, Manchester City's payroll was a Yankees-like $185 million, which helped City's owner, Abu Dhabi billionaire Sheikh Mansour, to run up a club debt of $307 million. And Mansour, whose team won the league title last spring, was just getting started. When City spent $19 million to acquire Everton's Jack Rodwell this month it pushed the team's bill for four years of transfer signings to more than $780 million and drove the team's average first-team salary to an EPL-record $7.4 million.
But the painful day of reckoning may be near. Next year UEFA will require clubs to be in the black in order to qualify for its prestigious European tournaments, a rule that will produce either fiscal restraint or impossibly small fields for those tournaments.
The long-debated regulation, known as Financial Fair Play, may already be having an effect. FIFA, soccer's international governing body, said that in the first six months of 2012 player transfers were down 9%, while transfer fees had fallen 34%, compared with the same period last year.
Whether that will continue remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that if European soccer doesn't change its spending habits even Wall Street won't have enough money to bail it out.