Can we stop football teams ‘buying’ wins?

10th October, 2009

Dear Economist,
Should the football authorities put a cap on the total value of players, based on their transfer cost, that can play for a Premier League team in any given match? For example, although a squad might have cost a team £150m, the cap would mean that they could only use players in a match up to a value of £75m. This would create a level playing field and prevent wealthy clubs from “buying” silverware through purchasing the best players.
Keith Bates

Dear Mr Bates,

Your proposal sounds reasonable, but it is muddled on three counts. First, think of the unintended consequences of your rule. It would favour wealthy clubs with expensive established training academies, because they have a stable of young players who carry no transfer price. You would also discourage clubs from trading players if one club’s academy discovers three great goalkeepers. And would music fans be better off if Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were forced to take it in turns to play for the Rolling Stones?

Second, transfer payments are not in fact associated with success on the field. The economist Stefan Szymanski, co-author of Why England Lose, has used a statistical analysis to show that while a club’s wage bill is correlated with success, its transfer spending is not.

Finally, fans do not actually want a level playing field. Arsenal’s “invincibles” season, 2003-2004, saw them win 84 per cent of league matches and lose none. Every game was a sell-out. More rigorously, Szymanski has shown that more unequal seasons attract more fans. And why not? The big clubs have lots of fans and those fans want to see victories.

In short, you have the wrong objective, suggest the wrong rule to achieve it, and are blind to the side-effects. Any banking regulator in the world would be proud to give you a job.

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