Analyzing the importance of shirt sales to a football club

Revenue generated from Cristiano Ronaldo’s shirt sales could theoretically have paid his transfer fee

The explosion of football television broadcast deals in the 1990s led to a huge influx of money into the game, powered by its status as the most popular sport in the world. The TV deals have allowed for the expansion of the game into previously untapped markets, particularly in Asia.

The influx of TV money has only been increasing with each new deal that is agreed between the regulators and the broadcasters. It has acted as a catalyst for football’s expansion, allowing it to cement its place as the world’s most popular sport.

For context, the first ever TV rights deal for the Premier League was £191 million spread over five years, from 1992-97. The Premier League recently signed a TV rights deal worth an astonishing £5.14 billion, spread over just three years (from 2016-19).

This represents a staggering 71% increase over the previous deal worth £3.08 billion, and that’s before the massive potential of markets such as India, China, and USA is fully exploited. With the sport rapidly gaining popularity in these markets and many others throughout Asia and Africa, this is a bubble that shows no signs of bursting anytime soon.

One side effect of TV’s influence on the growth of the sport has been the growing importance of catering to markets that previously were given little thought by the boardrooms of clubs. This is why many European clubs often participate in lucrative post-season or pre-season tours in places like Southeast Asia, the USA, Japan and Australia.

Clubs are looking to both expand and consolidate their fan-bases in these parts of the world, and such tours allow supporters to forge stronger bonds with the clubs that they support. Doing so allows clubs to maximize their revenue streams from these markets, which is an extremely important aspect of modern-day football, especially in light of UEFA’s current Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules.

This is a rather cynical view of things, but for better or worse, it is the reality of the modern game.

The importance of commercial success

A grossly simplified summary of FFP is that clubs must basically spend only what they earn, and thus any increase in revenue allows clubs to increase their spending potential without falling afoul of these rules, a breach of which can lead to points deductions, squad restrictions, or even bans from European competitions.

Another way in which clubs might aim to capitalize on, or even expand their fan-bases in these regions, is the signing of players from these regions. That would give fans a more easily visible connection between them and the club.

A striking example of this is Manchester United’s signing of Park Ji-Sung, arguably Asia’s most successful and high-profile footballer on the European stage. Park’s signing allowed United to massively expand their fan-base in Korea and further increase their already massive revenue streams.

When United signed Shinji Kagawa from Borussia Dortmund in 2012, it was claimed that one of the reasons for doing so (in addition to the obvious quality he displayed for Jurgen Klopp’s men in the seasons before) was commercial. Kagawa’s signature would help United both on and off the pitch, as shirt sales in Japan would skyrocket.

It’s often said that Cristiano Ronaldo has paid back his £80 million transfer fee to Real Madrid just in the value of shirt sales, his amazing contributions on the pitch notwithstanding. It’s this argument that will be examined in closer detail.

A couple of disclaimers at the outset – a) the figures mentioned are only rough estimates, and b) this analysis is only going to look at official jersey sales (not the sales of other memorabilia (such as footballs, footwear, etc. and image rights).

It’s important to remember that shirt sales are most definitely not the only economic impact (things such as a player’s image rights, brand equity and other marketing opportunities are also created due to the transfer of players) that signing a player has. But this article is only going to address that one aspect of it.

Since that’s been established, let’s dive right in.

Total shirt sales

Analysis of kit suppliers in European leagues is often done by external marketing consultants, as kit manufacturers such as Adidas and Nike rarely announce the total shirts sold per club. The most comprehensive study of that sort currently available in the public domain is a study done by Dr. Peter Rohlmann for a German marketing institute.

The study looked at sales in the period 2005 to 2009 to get an accurate long-term picture, and found that the leading two clubs sold, on average, 1.2 million to 1.5 million shirts per year each. Please note that this is the total number of official jerseys sold by the club, inclusive of all player names and unmarked ones as well.

No prizes for guessing who the biggest two were in this time period – Manchester United for Nike, and Real Madrid for Adidas. These figures seem about accurate, as a more recent study by the same firm puts the total number of shirt sales for the top 5 European leagues as follows:

Position League (Country) Shirts sold (Million)
1. Premier League (England) 5.14
2. La Liga (Spain) 3.10
3. Bundesliga (Germany) 2.32
4. Ligue 1 (France) 1.22
5. Serie A (Italy) 1.18
Was Shinji Kagawa’s signing due to the fact that he could boost shirt sales?

Recent media reports also seem to arrive at roughly similar figures (which you can find here and here). In any case, even the most optimistic figures do not cross 1.6 million official shirts sold per season by even the largest clubs. Naturally, this means that no single player sells more than 1.6 million shirts for his club per season either.

The actual value of shirt sales to a club

The official price of a kit usually ranges from €40-70 per shirt (with most being on the lower end of that scale). Taking the average in that range and multiplying it, it would seem that Manchester United and Real Madrid could conceivably make €88 million per season from official shirt sales, which sounds great and looks like a massive source of revenue.

However, there’s a catch. That price of €40 is the retail price of the kit. Most of the revenue from it goes to the manufacturer (which is why they agree to the huge sponsorship deals in the first place, as sponsorship of a club essentially creates the right to sell their kits). The revenue is also shared between various shipping companies, and often the player himself (which is why image rights exist).

There aren’t too many sources available as to the exact amount that the clubs receive as a cut from the retail price, but the most educated guesstimate is around €12 per shirt (as detailed by the absolutely excellent blog The Swiss Ramble).

Running those numbers, we arrive at an absolute maximum of €19.2 million per season (remember that this is based on Real Madrid or Manchester United selling 1.6 million shirts per season, a figure that is very optimistic, and is more likely to be around the 1.4-1.5 million range, so the monetary figure would probably be even lower).

Even this reduced figure still sounds great though, and shirt sales are most definitely a valuable source of revenue. However, the next part of this analysis, which revolves around player wages, puts things into sharper perspective.

Other factors to consider

For example, Cristiano Ronaldo’s yearly salary is estimated to be around €17 million per year. Thus, based on this analysis, assuming Real Madrid only sell Ronaldo jerseys, they would make only marginally more than his annual salary.

Obviously, fans buy jerseys of other players too, which means that the maximum figure of €19.2 million is the sum total of all the shirts sold, not just Ronaldo ones. Based on these numbers, it becomes rather clear that shirt sales alone cannot cover any superstar player’s annual wages.

These numbers are definitely on the optimistic side, and may still be overestimates of profits to the clubs for a variety of reasons, such as:

  • The figures shown account for total shirt sales, but there are many fans who buy customised or blank shirts. This may make the number of shirts that can be attributed to individual players even fewer than what has been calculated.

  • Many fans who have the jersey of one player from one season (for example, the 2011/12 Ronaldo kit) may not buy a kit with the same player’s name on it in the next season. This means that any player would have to bring in new fans year after year to keep up sales to meet his wages.

Shirt sales are definitely a useful source of revenue for a club, as €10-18 million per season is definitely a sizeable chunk of money. In modern European football, maximizing all revenue streams is of paramount importance to any club, and clubs would definitely do well to expand their fan base, as more fans generally means more revenue, which allows greater investment in the squad without violating the FFP rules.

However, the effect that an individual player can have on shirt sales (especially a popular one) is often grossly exaggerated. No player (particularly a superstar) can pay for himself solely on the back of shirt sales.

So the next time you hear somebody say that, let them know that it’s not even remotely true.

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