Whenever I compare soccer (or association football, whatever name you feel is appropriate) to other major sports, particularly North American sports, the major element that strikes me as radically different is the transient nature of the top leagues. In the NFL, MLB, NHL, NBA, and MLS, each team operates as a franchise within the common ownership of the league itself. No matter how poorly a team performs during a given season, and barring a shutdown or move to a new city due to an unprofitable local market, they’ll always be back in the fold on day 1 of the next season. This is in stark contrast to the promotion and relegation system used by virtually all soccer leagues besides the MLS. Clubs need a strong finish at the end of the season, because if they finish near the bottom they’ll lose their invite to next year’s season, and are instead relegated to a lower, less profitable division. This is possible because the leagues themselves don’t have any ownership of the clubs; the clubs are distinct financial entities.
The distinction may seem minor, but the ramifications are huge. The financial performance and the athletic performance of any given club are intertwined in a way that just isn’t possible in a franchise system. Rich clubs attract more talent, which make them richer, and poor clubs can get caught in a downward spiral that sends even previously legendary teams into irrelevancy. Income inequality is a real issue in soccer, and the 1% of the soccer world gets richer every year. Forbes, a magazine focused on wealth, does an annual ranking of the richest clubs in the world. They incorporate revenues, debt, and brand value in their rankings, and then release them to the public towards the end of the regular season in the spring. This list will examine the 10 richest clubs in the world according to Forbes, to see which teams will be imposing their financial strength on their opponents in the coming years.
10 Liverpool - $651 Million
Liverpool FC is one of England’s oldest and most celebrated clubs. Founded in 1892, they are the most successful English club in European competition, with more European championships than any other English team, and 18 domestic league titles. Last season they pulled in $296 million in revenue, and saw their total brand value rise to $651 million, a 5% increase from the previous year. In 2010, Fenway Sports Group, the American parent company of the Boston Red Sox, purchased Liverpool – along with their home stadium, Anfield – for £300 million (approximately $490 million USD). Since then their valuation has risen, and it appears the Fenway Sports Group’s decision to purchase the English giants will pay dividends in the future.
9 Manchester City - $689 Million
As alluded to earlier, modern football is played in the back office as much as it is on the field. No team better represents this new era of the game than Manchester City. Manchester City enjoyed success in the 60s and 70s before entering a period of decline and being relegated to the lower divisions throughout much of the 80s and 90s. In the 2000s, they made their Premier League comeback, which culminated in their acquisition by the Abu Dhabi United Group in 2008, which instantly made them one of the richest clubs in the world. Since then they have broken the bank bringing in world-class talent for huge salaries, a strategy which came to fruition upon winning the 2012 Premier League title, their first in 44 years. Often derided as a ‘sugar daddy club’ by their rivals, the massive investment in the club has certainly paid off. In 2008, prior to the buyout, they were ranked #23 on Forbes' wealthiest clubs list, at a valuation of $191 million. In 2013, on the same list, they are ranked #9 with a valuation of 689$ million. In 5 years Manchester City went from an average English team to one of the most famous – or infamous, depending on who you ask – clubs in the world.
8 Juventus – $694 Million
Italian titans Juventus edge out Manchester City by $5 million to claim the #8 spot on the list, with a total valuation of $694 million. Juventus is the most successful Italian club in history, with more domestic and international titles than any of their contemporary or past rivals. Founded in 1897, they have spent nearly every season in the top flight of the Italian system, with the exception of the 2006-2007 season, when they were relegated to Serie B as punishment for allegations of match fixing. Since then they have returned to dominance both on the field and in the accounting books. Juventus’ total value grew an impressive 17% between 2012 and 2013, and at the time of writing they are on top of the Serie A with a 9 point lead, well on their way to yet another Scudetto, the Italian championship.
7 Chelsea - $901 Million
Like Manchester City, Chelsea is another example of a nouveau riche club enjoying success in the modern game. In 2003, Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich purchased the London club for £140 million (approximately $228.5 million USD). Since then Chelsea have enjoyed their most successful period in the club’s history, winning multiple domestic titles as well as the 2012 UEFA Champion’s League. In 2013 Chelsea had a valuation of $901 million – up 18% from the previous year and well in excess of what Roman Abramovich originally paid to purchase the club a decade earlier - with $409 million in revenue. Chelsea will be looking to capture another domestic league title this season under coach José Mourihno, as they battle Arsenal and Manchester City for this year’s top spot.
6 Milan - $945 Million
AC Milan are one of two big teams in the Italian city of Milan, but compared to their rivals Internazionale they are the richer squad. Founded in 1899 and owned by former Italian president Silvio Berlusconi, who purchased the club in 1986 and saved it from bankruptcy, Milan are one of the giants in Italian football. They have won 7 European Cup/Champion’s League titles, more than any other team in the world that isn’t named Real Madrid. In 2013 they were valued at $945 million, which was actually down 4% from the previous year. Milan have had a horrendous season this year, and currently sit 10th in the Serie A table, an embarrassment for a club that’s supposed to be one of Italy’s elite. They’ll be looking to rebound under the direction of new coach Clarence Seedorf with the few months they have left.
5 Bayern Munich – $1.31 Billion
The lone German team on the list is also, arguably, the best team in the world on current form. Bayern Munich won the 2013 Champion’s League against league rivals Borussia Dortmund, and since then has only strengthened its squad with the acquisition of Mario Gotze and, beginning next season, striker Robert Lewandowski. In 2013 they were valued at $1.31 billion, making them by far the most valuable German team in the world. New coach Pep Guardiola, who led Barcelona during their most dominant period in recent memory, has handled Bayern Munich exceptionally well so far. The club’s total value grew 6% from 2012 to 2013, and I can only imagine that it’ll grow at an even bigger pace when the 2014 report is released later this year.
4 Arsenal – $1.33 Billion
Arsenal is one of the most successful English clubs in history, and was founded in 1886 in London, where they remain to this day. Their modern success can be traced to the 1996 appointment of Arsène Wenger as head coach, who led them to multiple cup victories and domestic league titles during his tenure, notably the 2003-2004 season- “The Invincibles” - where they won without losing a single game. Although they have been in a championship drought since 2005, Arsenal is consistently near the top of the Premier League and in the Champion’s League. In 2013 they were valued at $1.33 billion, up 3% from 2012.
3 Barcelona – $2.6 Billion
Catalan giants Barcelona have been the most successful squad of the 21st century. Home to Lionel Messi, among other world-class players, Barcelona was valued at a massive $2.6 billion in 2013. The club operates under a unique financial structure; the club is owned and operated by the supporters themselves. Barcelona’s valuation in 2013 was up a ridiculous 99% from 2012, and they have become one of the richest and most supported sporting clubs, not just in soccer, but on the planet. They are the most successful team in Spanish league history, and this season are trying to defend their La Liga championship against longtime rivals Real Madrid and the surprising success of Atlético Madrid.
2 Manchester United - $3.17 Billion
Manchester United is without question the most prestigious English club of the modern era. Under longtime coach Alex Ferguson they achieved multiple Premier League and Champion’s League titles, and expanded the Man-U brand internationally. Like Barcelona and Real Madrid for the Spanish-speaking world, Manchester United is the most recognizable soccer brand across English-speaking nations. With a stock that is traded on the London Stock Exchange and a valuation of $3.17 billion, the red devils are force of nature in the sporting world. They reaped $502 million in revenues in 2013, and their valuation was up 42% from 2012. New coach David Moyes has had a difficult start, but the gargantuan that is Manchester United will undoubtedly return to their winning ways soon enough.
1 Real Madrid - $3.3 Billion
Real Madrid is the most successful team in European history, with 9 European Cup/Champion’s League titles. Although 2nd to Barcelona in terms of total Spanish championships, Real Madrid has been considered one of the elite-tier teams in the world for decades without interruption. They have a total brand value of $3.3 billion, up 76% from 2012, and in 2013 pulled in revenues of $650 million. The galácticos policy of bringing in huge stars by paying massive contracts has clearly worked out for the bottom line, if not always on the field. The Real Madrid brand is recognizable even to people who don’t follow soccer, which makes their valuation sky-high. As always, they’ll be looking to add to their legend this year by winning a record 10th European championship, a feat which would send their already astronomical value even further.