Captured: Neymar and FFP

Neymar’s transfer to Paris Saint-Germain has caused understandable upset. It was unexpected, involved a player who had been believed to be happy and part of a (mostly) winning side, and most importantly cost more money than any other transfer in history, more than twice the previous transfer fee record.

Because transfer fees are listed in unadjusted dollars (or pounds or euros), they are often misleading, inflation ensuring that the most recent fees will seem larger regardless of actual value. But Neymar’s fee of £200 million more than doubled Paul Pogba’s £89.3 million fee from last year, ensuring at a minimum a fairly reasonable comparison of those two fees. It also doubles the £98.4 million adjusted pounds of Ronaldo’s 2009 transfer that was the most expensive transfer in real terms prior to this deal.

Beyond comparisons, the sense that this is too much money for anything–certainly for a footballer–is understandable. Neymar’s £200 million buy-out clause was meant to rule out the possibility of his sale rather than to serve as a real offer. As Barry Glendenning queried on the Guardian’s Football Weekly podcast, “Do you think Barcelona is wishing they had put £400 million in the contract rather than just £200?”

There has been a lot of good writing on the transfer already, and I would direct readers to Jonathan Wilson’s short piece for Sports Illustrated and Sid Lowe’s longer one for The Guardian. Wilson’s piece is particularly interesting in its suggestion that a key factor in enabling the deal might have been Barcelona’s decision to end their jersey sponsorship deal with Qatar Airlines in July. The Qatari royal family owns Paris Saint-Germain, and might well have been piqued not so much at the end of the sponsorship deal than with Barcelona’s moral high-handedness in the matter. Barcelona made quite clear that they disapproved of the abusive labor conditions and other ethical questions emerging from Qatar’s World Cup bid, and one can imagine this move as in part a response to that finger-wagging.

What I want to respond to here are the invocations of financial fair play in regard to Neymar’s transfer. Those invocations have come from a variety of places. Barcelona threatened to file an FFP complaint against PSG. La Liga symbolically refused to accept PSG’s payment of the transfer fee, citing financial doping. Even FIFPro, an international federation of players associations, has called for an investigation of the transfer, seemingly an odd way of representing the interests of the player in question. For their part, PSG has declared that they are not really worried at all about FFP with regard to the transfer.

The question of whether PSG is in violation of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations–or will be, or should be–is at one level simply a legal issue, and one that will play out over the course of several years. But it is worth pointing out that this is a deal between the 6th and 2nd richest football teams in the world, and one in which the poorer and less well-established of the two clubs is supposedly bullying their richer, more successful, and more powerful rivals. One can see how financial fair play might be at issue in the systematic dismantling of last year’s Monaco side by the European elite, but surely the point of financial fair play is not to protect a team like Barcelona. Is it?

In fact, that is almost certainly what financial fair play is designed to do (though whether that design was intended or not is more difficult to judge, and depends on whose intentions you are trying to determine). Financial fair play could be a textbook illustration of the concept of regulatory capture, a theory that explains why regulations that are at least ostensibly designed to regulate powerful institutions almost inevitably end up serving their interests.

Here’s how the theory works: regulations always end up being complex, detail-oriented, and boring. And while the public may have significant interest in a broad principle or issue, it does not generally have much stomach for sustained attention to complex, detail-oriented, boring rules (think 2000+ pages of the ACA/Obamacare). But powerful institutions with deep pockets can hire lawyers to pay VERY close attention, and lobbyists to help craft the details of those rules. While rule-makers need regulations that at least appear to achieve their intended goals, the complex details that determine what impact those regulations will actually have can often be shaped powerfully–or captured–by the very institutions that are supposed to be the objects of regulation.  Like, say, the 2nd richest sports franchise in the world (or the 6th, which may explain why PSG is not very worried about the threat of FFP).

This looks very much like what has happened with Financial Fair Play. If you don’t trust me–and you shouldn’t, I’m not an economist or social scientist of any kind–here’s what University of Michigan economist Stefan Syzmanski has to say about Financial Fair Play:

(If you prefer to be in the weeds, here’s the paper he co-authored on this topic in the journal Economic Policy.)

Note that Syzmanski’s explanation exactly fits the Neymar scenario. Financial fair play is being invoked against a “sugar daddy” team–but not in defense of a smaller or poorer team, but instead against one of Europe’s few wealthier teams. Although Syzmanski doesn’t explain how UEFA’s interest in “fair play” could end up protecting the Barcelonas of the world, regulatory capture offers a powerful answer.

Whatever one thinks about the state of modern football, whether Neymar is playing for the 2nd or the 6th richest team in the world, and whether that team paid £48.6 or £85 or £200 million pounds for the right to have him do so, has little impact on its overall fairness. And any set of regulations that are more concerned about protecting Barcelona from the unfair competition of poorer rivals are not producing any real fair play. Those regulations have been captured, unless they were born in captivity.

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