Raheem Sterling’s transfer from Liverpool to Manchester City earlier this week caused quite a stir, not so much because of the England international’s petulant, “money grabbing” behavior, but for the £49 million City coughed up to bring the 20-year-old to The Etihad. Sterling’s price tag is a new record for an Englishman and a world record for an under-21, raising unfavorable comparisons with the likes of Neymar and, very unfairly, Zinedine Zidane.
Whether or not you think shelling out 49 million quid for a footballer is sane, comparing Sterling’s price tag to the aforementioned Neymar and Zidane is a non-sequitur. Zizu, after all, was sold over 15 years ago and paid for in a currency that no longer exists (Italian Lira), while Neymar came from a league which, regardless of your opinion of Brazilian domestic football, rarely commands the sort of fees paid for players already established in Europe’s top tier.
On top of all that, an “English premium” unquestionably exists for home-grown players inside the EPL. Premier League clubs are prepared to pay more for English (or British) talent on the basis that: 1. they have to fulfil the home-grown quota (8 from a squad of 25); and 2. English players are, naturally enough, considered to be a better cultural and professional fit for an English team.
If we truly want to benchmark Sterling’s price tag, therefore, we need to compare him with other British players who have completed inter-EPL transfers for record fees, adjusting their price for inflation to determine a present-day comparison in what economists would call “real terms”.
We’ve taken the fees paid for six former British transfer fee record holders – two Under-21 record holders, three outright holders and Raheem Sterling (both) – and ordered them in terms of today’s inflated prices. The results are a little underwhelming:
Name Age Year Nominal Fee £m Real Fee £m 1. Raheem Sterling 20 2015 49 49 2. Rio Ferdinand 23 2002 29 42 3. Andy Carroll 22 2011 35 38 4. Wayne Rooney 19 2004 27 37 5. Luke Shaw 19 2014 30 30 6. Alan Shearer 26 1996 15 25
When adjusted for inflation, Raheem Sterling’s £49 million still looks expensive compared to the likes of Wayne Rooney or Alan Shearer, though not quite so out of step when seen alongside the real-terms outlay Manchester United made for a 23-year-old Rio Ferdinand back in 2004.
The problem with looking at Premier League transfer fees through the prism of ordinary inflation, however, is that the relationship between the EPL’s price growth and that of the UK economy as a whole is about as close as Donald Trump is to any semblance of humanity. The average Premier League player’s wage, for example, has increased by more than 120% over the last decade. If we really want to gauge Sterling’s transfer fee against previous British records, we need to look at the money sloshing around in the EPL; i.e. the vast growth in cash handed over by TV companies for broadcasting rights.
So, taking the percentage growth in the value of the three-year TV packages negotiated since 1996 and applying it to the aforementioned transfers, we get a markedly different table:
Name Age Year Nominal Fee £m Real EPL Fee £m 1. Alan Shearer 26 1996 15 170 2. Wayne Rooney 19 2004 27 80 3. Rio Ferdinand 22 2002 29 70 4. Andy Carroll 22 2011 35 59 5. Raheem Sterling 20 2015 49 49 6. Luke Shaw 19 2014 30 30
In the context of the growth in Premier League TV money, Manchester City have bagged themselves a bargain.
Of course, we’re being a tad flippant. How good or bad the value in paying £49 million for Raheem Sterling will be determined over the course of several seasons: we can’t sit here and say a 20-year-old forward who’s shown promise but hasn’t won a single God-damn thing is worth this, that or the other.
What we can say, however, is that in the context of the growth in money within the Premier League and other British transfer fee records set since its establishment in 1992, Raheem Sterling isn’t outlandishly out-of-step with the norm.
Which just goes to show how absurd the Premier League has become.