A Messi situation at Barca
It’s been a quiet month in Barcelona. After a year of negative headlines and lots of handwringing over the future of the club things have been mostly focused on the field since the election of Joan Laporta as president.
Laporta, with his connections to the glory days of the club is viewed as a cure all for what ails the Catalonian giants. In reality, he’s a Band-aid that is simply going to distract from the very real problems faced by the club.
Chief among those problems is the €1,173m of debt that are currently carrying, with €730m of that sum due in the short term, while €266m is owed to the banks by June 30. Those numbers are staggering and have some starting to use the b-word (bankruptcy) when talking about Barca’s near-term future.
It’s impossible to separate that problem with the second issue that is staring them down – that their most valuable asset – Lionel Messi – is out of contract at season’s end.
Messi currently makes €565k a week, which represents a massive part of the Barca wage bill. That wage bill is by far the biggest expense at the club, with 74 percent of the club’s total income used up by salaries.
Messi earls that money though. His presence on the club is a major driver of interest and is what has driven Barca from being just another big club to being the biggest sports team in the world.
So, they can’t afford to keep him while also not being able to let him go. It’s a classic catch-22.
But, maybe there’s room to be creative. Specifically, I wonder whether it’s time to re-visit the issue of third party ownership of players. It’s a touchy subject in the football world and, strictly speaking, it’s technically illegal under FIFA bylaws, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for creativity here.
To understand how you might be able to get around the bylaws it’s important to look at what it is that the rules are designed to protect players from.
Prior to the ban, third-party ownership was generally only found with young players coming from disadvantaged places. Agents, would “buy” a player from Africa or South America, shop that player to a European club and then take a cut of the transfer that the player commanded.
That set-up didn’t sit well with Western morals, which viewed it as being more than a tad bit synonymous with slavery in many people’s minds. I get that – and there were some ugly features to third-party ownership – but there were elements of the system that were beneficial to all parties involved.
For the clubs it could end up saving them money. In exchange for a stake in the commercial value of that player, they would get him at a much lower cost than he would demand on an open market.
One could see the benefit of Messi entering into such an arrangement with a third party now, then having that third party sell Messi’s playing rights back to Barcelona at a price that would work for them. So, the third party would “own” Messi, the brand, while essentially leasing Messi, the player, back to Barcelona.
Barca still benefits from being associated with arguably the world’s greatest player, but has far less of a financial burden attached to it. Messi, meanwhile, can stay in Barcelona and still get paid what he’s worth in the open market.
This type of arrangement has happened already, when Zlatan Ibrahimović signed with the LA Galaxy in Major League Soccer in 2018. Due to financial restrictions in the MLS salary cap, the Galaxy were only able to pay Ibrahimović a tiny percentage of what he is worth. However, the Galaxy are owned by IMG, one of the world’s largest entertainment companies. IMG has a significant relationship with Visa and they used that connection to get Ibrahimović a deal with the company that made up the difference.
In essence, Ibrahimović was working for Visa while he was in the United States. He just happened to play football for the Galaxy.
As the money in football increasingly grows it is imperative that clubs and players get creative in the ways that they get deals done.
Messi and Barcelona should take note.