9 August 2018

Why the transfer window should be given the boot


The new Premier League season is almost upon us. The first fixtures are this weekend and today is deadline day: the last day of the transfer window and the final chance that clubs will have to strengthen their squads until January.

The deadline day drama might be entertaining, but it’s time we gave the transfer window the boot. It was introduced to give clubs and leagues more stability. That sounds plausible, but it’s not how things have played out. Speculation outside of the transfer windows still creates a sense of instability. What is more, an unhappy player who is desperate to leave is not going to be much of an asset to their team.

The notion that transfer windows also help smaller, poorer clubs hang on to their best players is also unconvincing. It may keep the players at these clubs for a few months at most, but the richer clubs will still be able to sign them eventually.

Most importantly, the window distorts the football market. Given that clubs only have a limited time to buy players it results in prices and salary expectations rising. This means that clubs have less money available to spend on other things such as expanding their stadiums or investing in their youth teams.

The result is higher ticket prices for fans. English fans pay a premium compared to other leagues around the world, due in a large part to the government’s ban on safe standing at the grounds of Premier League and Championship teams. Any increased expenditure on players is going to place further pressure on ticket prices.

The window also makes injuries more important, with managers unable to replace players as and when they fall by the wayside. The current system can have a devastating impact on a team’s chance of winning tournaments or avoiding relegation if a key player gets injured. Club success determines the amount of money that they will receive from sponsors, ticket sales, and TV rights.

Abolishing the window would also help clubs dealing with financial difficulties. If they were free to sell players at any point in the season they could raise money this way when they were strapped for cash.

As Steve Coppell, who managed to gain a degree in economics while also playing for Man Utd, rightly pointed out: “I cannot see the logic in a transfer window. It brings on a fire-sale mentality, causes unrest via the media and means clubs buy too many players. The old system, where if you had a problem you could look at loans or make a short-term purchase, was far better than this system we have at the moment”.

The overwhelming majority of economists accept that labour mobility is a good thing. It allows businesses to hire the people they need, and also allows people to find work. This increases competition and so improves quality and productivity. It is no different with football, but transfer windows can restrict this.

There are also moral implications to all of this. Top footballers earning huge amounts of money are unlikely to elicit much sympathy. But they still have rights, and the transfer window curtails these rights. It stops players being able to move freely and to choose where to work, even if just temporarily.

Things could become even more problematic if the UK government decides to end freedom of movement for players from the EU. Thanks to a judgement in 1995 by the ECJ in the case of Union Royale Belge des Sociétés de Football Association ASBL v Jean-Marc Bosman, domestic quotas on players from other EU countries were banned. As such, the quota on players from other EU countries in England was lifted, and so teams were allowed to sign as many EU footballers as they liked.

This improved the quality of the Premier League dramatically. 

An end to free movement could mean that players from the EU would need to apply for a work permit as is the case with players from outside of the EU. This would mean that the players would have to have played a minimum amount of games for their national side. If this criteria is not met, then the club would have to prove that they valued the player sufficiently highly by being prepared to pay a high transfer and salary bill.

Such a system would further distort the market, with English clubs being forced to pay inflated prices to attract top talent. It could also mean that the Premier League misses out on promising young players who turn out to be the world class players of the future. The end result would be that the Premier League would lose much of its appeal and prestige, and clubs would get far less money.

Brexit gives the UK an opportunity to rethink its immigration policy. It should take football into consideration and ensure that it is as easy as possible for clubs to attract the best players, regardless of where they come from in the world.

Transfer windows lead to high ticket prices. They also place an unacceptable restriction on the freedom of footballers. It is time they were kicked out of football.

Ben Ramanauskas is a Policy Analyst at the Taxpayers' Alliance.