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Is Bale the Real deal?

The 2013 summer transfer window saw Gareth Bale become the most expensive football player in the world, when he left Tottenham Hotspur for Real Madrid – for a record fee of more than £80m. An analysis of player valuations conducted by Frontier suggests that – even at the time of the deal – Bale’s footballing skills were worth just £66m. So did Real Madrid pay too much for its latest “Galáctico” – or wasn’t it all about the game?

Football has long dominated the sports pages of European newspapers, but these days it can increasingly be found in the business pages as well. Europe’s largest clubs are collectively worth billions. Some, such as Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund, are now publicly-listed companies. The performance – or underperformance – of star signings can send clubs zinging up and down the financial charts as well as the football leagues.

How confident can clubs be that they are getting their money’s worth, when they sign expensive new players?

But how confident can clubs be that they are getting their money’s worth, when they sign expensive new players? To help address this question, Frontier has developed an economic model that estimates the value of players on the basis of their proven football skills, i.e. their performance so far. The model uses data collected from all transfers over £1m in the English Premier League and Spain’s La Liga – two of Europe’s richest leagues – over the past few seasons.
Using the same technique that we use to value assets in many other industries, we base our valuations of footballers on a wide range of performance factors – such as the number of minutes played, goals scored and assisted, international experience, and age. Comparing such valuations with the fees actually paid indicates which transfers were bargains and which (on the face of it) rip-offs.
The big money story in the 2013 summer transfer window was Gareth Bale’s move to Real Madrid from Tottenham Hotspur. Focusing on the transactions by these two clubs – and the Bale transfer in particular – provides some interesting insights, as the table below illustrates.


Table 1: Bad guy, good buy? – a comparison of transfer fees and Frontier estimated values for transfers over £10m.
Bale bulletin - table 1 bad guy, good buyTHE VALUE OF TOP FOOTBALL PLAYERS
As can be seen from Table 1, our analysis suggests that Tottenham did well when it came to selling Bale – it received more than £80m for the player, substantially more than his estimated footballing value of £66m at the time of the deal. However Tottenham also paid over the odds for its new players, spending £24.7m more than their combined predicted footballing value. Our analysis suggests the club overpaid for Erik Lamela and Roberto Soldado, although the price paid for Christian Eriksen was below his predicted value. So both clubs appear to have overspent on new signings. However, as Figure 1 below shows, Tottenham made up for these overpayments by simultaneously selling players for prices above their predicted footballing value. Real Madrid, on the other hand, did not – in particular our analysis suggests Mesut Özil, whom the club sold to Arsenal for £44m, was actually worth nearly £54m at the time.


Figure 1: Revolving doors – A comparison of transfer fees and valuations by Frontier, for players bought and sold at Real Madrid and Tottenham in summer 2013.

Bale bulletin values graphic

 Source: Frontier Economics
Real Madrid’s sale of Mesut Özil may in part have been driven by the need to offset the financial impact of its purchase of Gareth Bale. So why was the club ready to pay so much for Bale?


One possible explanation for Bale’s high transfer fee is Real Madrid’s wellestablished policy of signing “Galácticos” – making deals where headlines mean more than price. Real Madrid, and in particular the current club President Florentino Pérez, has a history of breaking the world record for transfer fees. In fact, as shown in Table 2, the last five world record transfers were all Real Madrid purchases.


Table 2: Real Madrid’s Galácticos
– World record transfer fee progression.

Bale bulletin - table 2 Real Madrid's Galacticos

After only one season following the £80m signing of Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009, Real Madrid announced that it had already sold more than one million Ronaldo shirts.

Florentino Pérez made clear, early in the summer of 2013, that he wanted Gareth Bale to become Real’s new Galáctico. While this generated excitement amongst the fans – important in a club where the supporters elect the president – it also encouraged Tottenham to demand top dollar for the winger. After all, the only thing worse than not buying top players would be announcing you will buy them – and then failing.
Even so, Real Madrid may not have overpaid – once the commercial side-benefits are taken into account. After only one season following the £80m signing of Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009, Real Madrid announced that it had already sold more than one million Ronaldo shirts. According to Eurosport, shirt sales and all other Ronaldo-branded merchandise generated around £100m over this period alone. To take another example, after David Beckham’s transfer (for a mere £25m) in 2003, the club saw merchandising and licensing income soar. In 2004-05, Real Madrid overtook Manchester United to become the world’s largest football club by revenue – a position it has held ever since.¹

All this suggests that the record-breaking transfer fees paid in recent years need to be considered in a more commercial light. Bale may not bring £88m of talent straight on to the pitch, but earn a good chunk of it from the shirts on fans’ backs. After all, for clubs like Real Madrid, football has long been more than a game.

¹ Deloitte Money Football League report, January 2014

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