How Messi’s PSG move shows athletes at the centre of a complex network

There are few phenomena in sport that have showcased the magnetism of elite athletes like football’s transfer market.

Season after season, fan interest in news about potential recruits drives ever greater volumes of media coverage but when the very biggest stars find a new place to play, it can provide an insight into the workings of the whole industry. That has definitely been true of Lionel Messi’s move from FC Barcelona, the only club he has ever known as a professional, to Paris Saint-Germain.

Revenues in a Post-Pandemic football world

The circumstances of the 34-year-old’s transfer reflect a financially difficult period for some of the giants of the European game. Ordinarily, a player of such stature would draw a record fee – Brazil’s Neymar, of course, made the same journey for in a €222 million deal in 2017. This time, arguably the world’s greatest ever footballer moved as a free agent.

The economic aftershocks of Covid-19 look especially dangerous for those who had already been operating at high risk. Even without Messi’s contract, which took them over Spain’s salary cap, on their books, Barcelona were heading into a new season in La Liga with player salaries accounting for 95 per cent of turnover. They had spent their income from the Neymar deal frivolously, attempting as much to restore some of the star power he took with him as to reorganise their team. The result has been dysfunction on and off the pitch. With key revenue streams turned off due to the pandemic, they were left exposed.

The result was a change that Messi does not appear to have wanted at this time – despite having pursued the termination of his contract back in 2020 – and which has dealt a blow to the prestige not just of Barcelona but of La Liga itself. The organisation that operates the league recently sold 10 per cent of its broadcast revenues for the next 50 years to private equity group CVC, in an arrangement that will see its clubs receive a €2.7 billion windfall. It will hope that security and stardust follow in the wake of that agreement.

Paris, Qatar, and Air Jordans

As much as the Messi transfer has damaged perceptions of La Liga and Barcelona, it has enhanced those of PSG – even if there are concerns that France’s Ligue 1 will become less competitive as a consequence. The French game has been reeling from the collapse of a four-season deal between the Ligue Professionel de Football (LFP) and lead broadcast partner Mediapro, worth almost €1 billion a season. That has been replaced by a lower-priced partnership with Amazon Prime Video, with the LFP betting on the long-term upside of a major alliance with a leading tech giant. All concerned will be looking for a halo effect from Messi’s presence in France.

Financial concerns are more or less alien to Qatar-owned PSG but in capitalising on Messi’s availability, they will be aiming to build their brand and credibility as well as making another tilt at a first Uefa Champions League title. The early indications are that engagement levels will be high. Between 9th August, when credible reports emerged that the Argentinian was about to confirm a two-year deal with the club, and 18thAugust, PSG added over 9.4 million followers to their Instagram account. That took their audience on the platform to 48.2 million, an uplift of 24 per cent.

That will delight the French side’s partners – most notably Nike, which has taken the atypical step in football of aligning the team with basketball label Jordan Brand, in a bid to connect PSG with urban culture in Paris. Shirt sales and logo impressions can both be expected to climb steeply in places where the club’s profile had been more limited in the past, while the amplification effect of putting Messi next to fellow megastars like Neymar and France’s own Kylian Mbappe will be significant.

$PSG and the rising stakes in modern football

There are often examples of landmark transfers acting as milestones in the evolution of the sports business. In Messi’s case, that has come in a small detail of his remuneration package. He was reportedly paid a signing-on bonus of around €25 million to €30 million, with PSG confirming that a ‘significant’ part of that was issued in blockchain-based ‘fan tokens’.

The value of the $PSG token, which are issued by Socios and based on the Chiliz cryptocurrency, went up more than 130 per cent in five days as speculation flared about Messi’s imminent arrival in Paris. That flurry of trading was then followed by an apparent sell-off of the token by more experienced crypto operators, which brought about a pronounced decline in its market price. The whole episode has brought renewed scrutiny to the use of potentially volatile cryptocurrencies to underwrite such fan tokens, which some clubs are using to give fans membership rights, access to experiences, and other offers. But it has also underscored just how reliably big transfers capture mass public attention.

Meanwhile, the importance of Messi’s presence at PSG will take on a further dimension for the club’s owners in the next 18 months. Qatar will be the host of the Fifa World Cup in November and December 2022, with the tournament almost certain to represent Messi’s last chance of winning football’s biggest prize. There is no question that attempts will be made to harness the power of that story and make Messi the face of an event that has seen its share of intrigue and contention.

The careers of top athletes have long since been about more than the fate of each individual. Even so, the complexity, and the stakes, continue to rise.