James Rodríguez hasn’t played much football over the past year. He made just 22 appearances, at an average of 54 minutes each, as Real Madrid won the 2016/17 LaLiga title and he has only featured six times, at just 53 minutes per outing, as Los Blancos marched towards the Champions League final. Quite simply, he has been nothing more than a fringe player in Zinedine Zidane’s all-conquering squad. So how is it that Real Madrid believe they can fetch €75 million for his signature during this summer’s transfer window? Well, modern football makes that price tag worth it for many clubs.
Even since the days of bartering, one of the fundamental truths about value has been easy for humans to grasp. As Latin writer Publilius Syrus wrote as far back as the 1st century BC, “something is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it.” So if a club does end up paying €75m for the Colombian playmaker, they will only do so because they truly believe they can recoup the amount, whether directly through better sponsorship deals and increased shirt and ticket sales, or indirectly though performance on the pitch. If that weren’t the case, no transaction would be made.
But how can a player possible pay for himself when his transfer fee is that high? After all, the way superclubs make money from shirt sales has changed. The teams own the intellectual property rights to their badge and to the players’ names, which they license off to their kit manufacturer for a lump sum, with royalties then paid out after a certain minimum number of sales is passed. In other words, a club can only expect to receive a fraction – estimated to be somewhere around one fifth – of the profit from each additional shirt sale generated by a new player. It would take a very special player to even come close to making a dent into that €75m figure.
James, though, is a very special player, at least from a marketing point of view. The 25-year-old is the fourth most influential player in the world when it comes to social media, boasting 75.8 million fans across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Importantly, the Colombian’s stock continued to rise even when he was warming the bench of the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, as evidenced by the fact he has attracted 8.9 million fans during the 2016/17 season alone.
Those stats come from Brandtix (www.brandtix.com), a company which analyses athletes’ brand values based on their sporting prowess and social media appeal. As Joe Alexander, a member of their team, explains, the value James can add to a club is very significant. “Certainly, the priority has to be what the player can do on the pitch,” he says. “But if there were a couple of players who couldn’t be separated in terms of on-the-pitch performance, then the club would want to take the one with the biggest presence of it. I think that would be a no brainer. James Rodriguez is a fantastic example of that. He had a fantastic 2014 World Cup and he is the fourth-ranked footballer in terms of following out of Premier League and Champions League players. Even though he may not have set the Bernabéu alight, the only players that are bigger than him off the pitch are Messi, Neymar and Ronaldo.”
What of the argument that a player like James wouldn’t really boost shirt sales, as fans would simply get his name instead of, not as well as, another player? “There is certainly a pattern developing where people now, instead of following a club, they follow a player,” Alexander explains. “So what you’ll see now is that some players have fanbases that are far superior to that of their club.” What that means is that a club can attract new fans by signing a player like James, rather than simply increasing the excitement levels of their existing fanbase.
Looking at the case of Mesut Özil, the current most popular Premier League player by Brandtix’s metrics, this internet fandom does appear to translate into significant increase in revenue at the club shop. In the weeks after his 2013 arrival, activity on Arsenal’s online store increased twelvefold and his shirt was the fourth-biggest seller in England for the 2016/17 season. The per-unit income for the club may not be as eye-watering as some Gunners executives would hope, but having a player of Özil’s status allows a club to command a large up-front lump sum and better sponsorship agreements. That’s exactly what Arsenal were able to do when they signed a five-year €174m kit deal with Puma, which was the largest in British football history.
So if James were to sign for Chelsea or Manchester United, two of the teams he has regularly been linked with, the modern football phenomenon of following a player ahead of a team would bring his new club millions of fresh fans overnight. It would be foolish to believe that the increased revenue would completely offset the €75m fee, but the point is that a player of his stardom can boost a club’s balance books by an amount large enough to make the fee worth it from a sporting point of view. James’ off-the-pitch value makes such a high outlay easier to stomach.