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Analyzing the importance of shirt sales to a football club

CONTRIBUTOR
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61.60K   //    16 Jun 2015, 17:44 IST
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.

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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
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