by Tony Wyman
After spending a record amount on transfers this season – £1.4 billion, up 23% from last year – teams in England’s Premier League voted fourteen to five, with one abstention, to shorten the transfer window next year by three weeks.
Each season, professional soccer teams are able to buy and sell players during two periods, called “windows.” The first window opens before the season begins and ends on the last day in August for most leagues. The second one opens on January 1 and ends on the 31st.
These windows are rife with drama and intrigue, with players and their agents often maneuvering for opportunities to join teams where opportunities to play better soccer at higher wages might exist. They are also opportunities for teams to unload players who are excess to requirements and to acquire ones that can improve the team and fill voids left by departing footballers.
The change, which only applies to teams in the Premier League, not those in the lower English leagues (The Football League, which governs the lower leagues, will consider shortening their window during a meeting of their clubs on the 21st of September) – is supposed to help teams stabilize their rosters before the season starts and reduce the number of players who are unsettled by rumors they will be transferred to other clubs before the window closes.
“When the 20 are playing each other [it was wrong] you could have a person in your team one week and be playing against him the next, or worse the player not playing because of speculation about him going to another Premier League team so he’s not available for a week or two of the season while the window is open,” said EPL Chairman (Richard) Scudamore in an interview with The Guardian newspaper.
“Those were the issues most of the clubs arguing in favor were using, that once the season has started we should know that we can’t possibly sell to another Premier League club. I think they just decided: ‘We’re going to break for the border, go it alone, put our marker down, go with it.’”
Instead of allowing teams to sell players through 11PM on the 31st of August, as they have for years, the league will now end transfers on the Thursday before matches begin. This year, that means transfers of new players coming into clubs would have ended on August the 10th at 5PM.
Teams can still sell players after that date, until August 31st, but won’t be able to replace those they sell after the incoming deadline closes until the January transfer window open.
The five teams opposed to the rule change, Manchester City, Manchester United, Crystal Palace, Swansea City and Watford, were apparently concerned that the gap between the time teams can acquire new players and the deadline of when they can be sold will make them vulnerable to the danger of players being lured away by teams in other leagues where the deadline remains later in the year.
The two Manchester clubs, both in the Champions League this year (the Champions League is a tournament played between the best three or four teams in each of Europe’s top football leagues), were concerned that they would be at a disadvantage against foreign clubs that have an additional three weeks to purchase stars to replace players injured or sold off during the month of August that English teams won’t have.
In addition, an overseas team could look at their draw against English clubs in the Champions League and buy players specifically selected to compete against them, whereas English clubs would have to make do with the players they had.
Handing an Advantage to Other Leagues
In addition to those concerns, other observers complain that shortening the period teams can buy players without also shortening the period they can sell them will actually hurt English teams rather than help them. Jim White, an English soccer journalist writing for Sports Illustrated called shortening the transfer window “…a bad idea” in a recent article for the magazine.
“Unless all of Europe’s other major leagues adopt the same position at the same time though – and make no mistake, they won’t – this is just the Premier League punching itself in the face to make a point to absolutely nobody,” White wrote.
And he’s right. The other major leagues in Europe like Spain’s La Liga and France’s League One, flush with big money clubs like Barcelona, Real Madrid and Paris St. Germain, who bought international superstar Neymar from Barcelona for €222 million and Monaco forward Kylian Mbappe, thought to be the next emerging global talisman, the “next Messi,” for €180 million (nearly $484 million – for perspective, the most valuable team in the America’s Major League Soccer, the Seattle Sounders, is valued at $285 million) aren’t going to toss away the advantage they have over English teams by shortening their transfer windows to match England’s.
Why should they? The Premier League just concluded a major television rights deal that pumped in £3.2 billion in revenue the teams will share from foreign broadcasters, a stunning amount that runs from 2016 to 2019.
After those deals end, their replacement arrangements increase the amount foreign broadcasters pay from two to fourteen times what they paid from 2019 to 2022, depending on each country’s previous deal.
This additional influx of foreign cash into the Premier League will make teams there even more capable of paying the highest fees and salaries for the best players than they are today, making it harder for other leagues to keep their talent. Even rich teams like Barcelona, Real and PSG will find it harder to compete with top English rivals.
The Premiership has long paid its players more than any other professional soccer league in the world. A survey before the influx of TV money during the 2016 season showed players in the Premier League earned, on average, 56% more than those in the next highest paying league, the German Bundesliga, according to the Daily Mail.
More detailed information about player salaries is hard to find as clubs are reluctant to share such information, but accounting firm Deloitte determined in their survey of teams in 2015/15 that the English league paid more for their player’s average salary than did the top leagues in Germany and Spain, combined.
With such a financial advantage, there is little incentive for the other European leagues and, especially the less wealthy clubs in those leagues, to give away any competitive advantage they can get.
“What’s in it for European clubs to narrow their opportunities to sign more players? They will know that next summer, their Premier League rivals don’t have as much time as them,” wrote ESPNFC’s Alex Shaw. “Once they’re prevented from doing business, that’s one extra party out of the way. Why put yourself on a level playing field when you’ve just been handed an advantage?”
January Transfer Window
The move also begs the question if players being distracted by pending deals in August is bad, why keep the January window open? The answer is, it is good for the health of the league by making it more competitive and, therefore, more attractive to consumers. Every season, those who oppose the January window call for its abolition, but the mid-season window is critical for mid-size and smaller clubs who don’t carry senior team rosters as big or as talented as the big clubs.
When a team like West Ham, for example, loses their top center midfielder, they won’t have a replacement who is just as good as the starter to call upon to fill the gap. Without the January window, the smaller teams could be devastated by just a handful of injuries, leaving them easy victims of their much larger opponents who could trounce them in lop-sided and boring blow-outs.
It also gives the smaller clubs a chance to unload under-performing players who aren’t contributing to the team’s success and free up salary money that could be spent on new signings. With far less revenue, a club like Watford or Burnley can’t afford to keep dead weight on the bench and still remain financially viable in the tough league market.
The upcoming 2018 World Cup will add even more stress than normal during the 2018/19 summer transfer window. During years when the World Cup is not in swing, teams have few distractions during the summer months after the league matches conclude. But in 2018, that won’t be the case.
Starting in June and not ending until June 15, the World Cup will consume all the world soccer community’s attention. While agents will still ply their trade, trying to make deals for the players they represent, the players themselves will focus on the matches being played. They won’t have time for negotiations, medicals and flights to go meet with managers and team officials.
This means Premier League teams trying to acquire footballers playing for their national teams, often the best players in the world, will have a much shorter time period to tie them down to serious transfer negotiations than during normal years. And, now, the English teams will have three fewer weeks than the rest of the world’s teams.
Premier League teams will now have to wait to see if their rivals in other leagues cut three weeks off their transfer windows to follow the English league’s example. If they don’t, Premiership teams will have to be unusually efficient and effective in their summer transfer business if they want to see players coming in from foreign teams.