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Transformation, framing and the cultural DNA of football’s transfer market in the postmodern era

Football’s transfer window activities have evolved over the years. Now, we are in the middle of another transfer window (January, 2014) and all the meaning associated with this. It marks isolated periods of time in which a football club can buy and sell and thus transfer players to re-structure its roster. In today’s professional football world, the transfer window is much more than buying and selling. It circulates around the centre of commercialization, which permeates professional football’s business model. According to data from FIFA’s Transfer Matching System, more than 5,000 clubs from 164 different countries were involved in transfer deals from the 1st of January, 2013 to the 2nd of September, 2013 and the total amount of these deals accounted for $3,367 billion. The latter was a 29% increase compared to 2012. Furthermore, commission to club intermediaries accounted for $169 mio., i.e. a 20 % increase compared to the previous year. In general, commission has increased rapidly over the past couple of years. When analyzing the transfer market activities thoroughly, it shines through that England is the most active league financially given the fact that the biggest transfer streams concerning transfer compensation are linked to transfers from Spain to England ($227 million, 38 players) and from Italy to England ($148 million, 25 players).

That’s part of the financial side but it is also interesting to look into other aspects of the transfer market and why it constitutes a focus for so much attention? Start by asking why players and managers are so essential for football’s business model and you seem to begin the first journey along an exciting path. What is the role of a star manager? Why has it come to the point that Jose Mourinho was able to label himself ‘the special one’ and why has that label sustained? Why was Guardiola’s move from Spain to Bayern Munich so anticipated? What about a team captain or a team leader? How important is that player and how much are clubs willing to pay to find the right one? These questions hold much meaning. FC Barcelona fans loved Michael Laudrup and his role as part of Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team. That FC Barcelona team succeeded in winning four consecutive domestic league titles from 1991 to 1994 and also international titles such as the UEFA European Cup in 1992 (UEFA Champions League). That may explain why some FC Barcelona did not like what happended in 1994. That year, Laudrup made a controversial move to league rivals Real Madrid and immediately had an impact in Madrid where he helped to guide the club to the league title. That is an example of the impact of a team leader with a natural gifted game intelligence capable of implementing a power shift in the league. Looking at another team leader, consider all the buzz that was related to the rumors about Wayne Rooney and whether or not he would move to another top club in England. This transforming capability of players, which is related to the transfer window may explain why participants such as managers, coaches, players and agents may see lucrative payments come true on the verge of the transfer window closure. It may also be relevant to raise questions like: what is most important for players? Is it money, trophies, playing time, fan culture & club legacy? How is the balance between different factors? I know that players, managers, coaches, agents and clubs are very different and that is what brings even more meaning and exciting diversity to transfer activities.

A couple of days ago, I noticed that David Moyes from Manchester United stated that Manchester United is the biggest club in the world and that “some of the results have been not what you want but I wouldn’t say the aura is fading. In fact, I think the opposite.” (see ESPN) He also indicated that many top players are interested in joining Manchester United. I do not want to go into a discussion of whether or not Manchester United is the biggest club in the world. Looking at the club’s history and legacy there are many positive factors. Though, my point when mentioning this is that Moyes has had a rough start in Manchester. The club did not come out of the previous transfer window successfully. Additionally, the club’s performances give them a position in the table, which is far from last year’s league title. That is a big gap in terms of what the club has been used to under Alex Ferguson’s guidance and it may be catastrophic if the club fail to qualify for next year’s UEFA Champions League. We have all see what that meant for Liverpool FC and how that affected their financial situation and thus freedom and power to act on the transfer market. Based on this, I am sure that Moyes is playing the rhetoric card to add some positive buzz to the club’s process in this transfer window so it will be exciting to see how Manchester United comes out of it. I am sure that his comments are part of the game that is played in this market place. Rumors are part of the processes on the transfer market and Moyes is definitely trying to create a sense of ‘framing’ where he seeks to manage the meaning that surrounds his club’s action on the transfer market.

Although, the transfer market is filled with dynamism and excitement the transfer window also brings some stability to the market, which is the basis for FIFA’s governing process. Still, this structure has also been a victim for criticism due to the fact that some stakeholders have said that the transfer window spreads a form of panic and unrest via the media’s intensive focus and results in rich clubs buying too many players and thus damaging young players’ development and adding to unfair competition (Chelsea’s approach has been linked to the latter). I do not think that the transfer window is likely to change. After all, football is about media and fan interest and this dynamism and excitement carried by media is a huge part of postmodern professional football business models. It underlines the ‘hybrid sport branding’ (Cortsen, 2013) potential of football and creates positive buzz and change, which help to keep football even more alive. This potential is also related to whether or not a club succeeds in getting the right player at the right price. All in all, football clubs do not necessarily live and die based on what happens on the transfer market but transfer activities hold a lot of meaning attached to the financial, commercial and sporting health of football clubs. The right deals can help to transform a club in that way and that puts emphasis on the fact that football’s transfer market is a great example of what is entailed in the attention and transformation economies. The attention seeking and transforming identity of football clubs’ actions manifested via the transfer market has played a central role financially for clubs worldwide and is also mirrored in clubs’ pursuit of global brand capital, e.g. consider how relative nouveau riche clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City have climbed their way up the ladder in terms of global brand status and income potential. It has become a bigger mediasport event than years ago and that will evolve even further with the years to come. My guess is that it will be boosted by connective television, sponsorship integration as the convergence between football and entertainment will continue to grow. Overall, the transfer window has changed in people’s perception due to the fact that the activities to some degree has become more open and accessible and that attracts a bigger audience and with that comes the interest of even more fans and corporate stakeholders. The show will go on and it is interesting from a commercial viewpoint as it display a good window for clubs to reveal new sponsor deals, for kit suppliers to present new collections and so on. We are in the middle of it right now and it is a great period for football lovers. A lot of digital content supports the transfer window’s fan engaging ability and it fits perfectly with clubs’ economic interests if this process is staged to meet interest of different stakeholder groups, e.g. for instance when football fans are engaged in transfer window discussions via social media in the form of opportunities for fan questions; this scenario may connect football fans, clubs and fantasy football brands. Moreover, it is about the economic extravaganza of many modern top clubs and the gaps between club strategies, e.g. the differences between Manchester City and FC Barcelona in terms of ‘free spending’ on players. This is another example of the transformation of football’s cultural DNA via the transfer market.

One of videos below also mentions how transfer activities may be tied to club strategies. Unfortunately, the football world also reflects different examples of poor strategic work. Brondby IF in Denmark had a period in that phase but seems to be improving. Portsmouth in England was a scary example of how bad it may go…


Cortsen, K. (2013). Annika Sörenstam–a hybrid personal sports brand. Sport, Business and Management: An International Journal3(1), 37-62.



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