How will an influx of cash impact the English Premier League this season?


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USA TODAY Sports’ Martin Rogers discusses the record-setting transfer fee for Neymar from FC Barcelona.
USA TODAY Sports

Soccer’s English Premier League is many things to many people, in a huge and still-growing number of countries. You can find its replica jerseys everywhere from sub-Saharan Africa to the Middle East and with increasing frequency here in the United States, where the question of whether the world’s favorite game will “make it” long since became irrelevant.

For a significant portion of the post-Millennial generation and the one after it (goodness knows what they’ll be called), waking up to weekend mornings of action from the EPL will be part of the routine, the league’s very English quirks and peculiarities embraced and enjoyed. Tied games and no playoffs is an accepted if not beloved part of the appeal.

Yet there is one part of English soccer’s continued rise that never fails to elicit shock and awe, even as it becomes even more deeply entrenched in the fabric of the game.

Money – namely in the form of the extraordinary transfer fees clubs pay each other for the right to acquire a new player, and in turn pay him a further monstrous amount in wages – has a life of its own in the EPL.

Instruments of economics play here, but they are on steroids. Inflation happens just like in real life, but its magnified by a factor of plenty. Market forces mean the top players are the subject of intense bidding, negotiating and spending, and then some.

The world record figure paid for a player is no longer held by an English club. Paul Pogba’s $125 million move from Juventus to Manchester United was handsomely outstripped just last week with Neymar’s move from Barcelona to France’s Paris St. Germain (PSG) for more than double that figure.

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Yet the EPL is still so flushed with cash that it is spilling out of the pockets and littering the sidewalk, and that’s not going to change soon.

Last month Kyle Walker, a solid but unspectacular right back for last season’s second–placed finisher Tottenham, attracted the attention of Manchester City, consistently the biggest and most ambitious spender of the past few years. Like PSG, City is owned by an uber-wealthy group from the Middle East, and makes no bones about flaunting its riches.

Its latest showpiece was to sign Walker for the remarkable amount of $70 million. There’s nothing wrong with Walker, and he will be a serviceable addition to the roster. He works hard, gets forward, moves pretty well, tackles solidly and rarely strays too far out of position. His crossing isn’t the best but he won’t let you down, just as he isn’t going to win you games on his own or provide a heavy number of assists or match-turning moments.

That’s what $70 million gets you these days. Not a global icon, nor a sensational goalscorer. Not Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. Nope, a solid performer in the most replaceable position on the field.

It’s not Walker’s fault and it’s not City’s. The glut of television money flooding into the game, not only from the U.K. market but also overseas, including NBC, means wages and transfer payments are only going to head further north.

Such sums are no guarantee of success either. For the top clubs, that’s just the price of keeping up with the Joneses, or the Mourinhos, Klopps and Contes.

Jose Mourinho, the Manchester United chief who was adamant in his desire to sign Pogba, was seen as having had quite a good season, even with the club having finished fifth. After signing the world’s most expensive player. Go figure.

Such things make little sense on the surface, but then so few of us truly understand the intricacies of the financial markets too, and that’s what the EPL has become, an investment club for the super-rich, with players as commodities and a never-ending pot of riches streaming in from television, which basically means from us.

Talking of TV, the model looks a little different in the U.S. this time around. Gone is the unfettered access to every game, free of charge with a basic cable subscription. That kind of access was the envy of soccer fans worldwide, and certainly in Britain, where viewers pay far more for far less.

This time, NBC is charging a one-off fee of $49.95 for the premium full-service package, hardly extortionate, but clearly a test to see how much cost the viewership will bear.

On the field, it is the same historically dominant clubs expected to shine, with City the bookies’ favorite and United, reigning champion Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool and possibly Arsenal all in the mix.

There is some intrigue – Tottenham will play its home games at the iconic Wembley Stadium as it rebuilds its own arena, Chelsea owner and Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich is staring down the barrel of the world’s record multi-billion divorce settlement while his club boss Antonio Conte is at loggerheads with star striker Diego Costa and may not have invested enough to keep its title, and Mourinho is being as abrasive and controversial as ever.

The first full round of fixtures is this weekend and it starts on Friday with Arsenal hosting Leicester. Leicester, with the sole exception of the incredible 2015-16 campaign when it emerged as a 5000-to-1 champion, has long been a struggling club for the simple reason that it has never had much money. Arsenal is a fallen power largely because for years it refused to spend what it did have.

Neither of those things is a recipe for success in the EPL, where good money chases bad money, but there’s so much of it that no one can tell which is which.

PHOTOS: 2017 summer soccer transfers

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