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How Silly Season Got Sillier - Or Why Transfer Fees Are Bigger Than Ever

24/07/2015 17:50 BST | Updated 24/07/2016 10:59 BST

Remember when a £20million transfer was a headline-making deal, rather than the norm? Unless you're a pretty young teenager, you probably do, which speaks to how quickly the transfer market has twisted and evolved in the last decade or so.

There's already been around £500million of spending by English clubs this summer, Manchester United, Arsenal and Manchester City all set to make some more big moves with well over a month left in the transfer window.

Summer spending has almost tripled in the last ten years and is still rising - but why? How on earth has spending gone up quite this much, and is it sustainable?

The growth has come in two waves - both vastly different in origin, and both influencing the other upwards. First came the influx of foreign billionaires. When it was 'just' Roman Abramovich coming in and 'buying the title' at Chelsea, things didn't go too mad. Transfer spending increased, but not by too much.

Then came Manchester City and the Abu Dhabi United Group. In the group's first summer at the club, British transfer spending doubled. In a year. £320million in a summer became £645million in a summer, and nothing was ever quite the same again.

As for why City's emergence as major players changed the landscape in a way that Chelsea never did, there are a couple of explanations. One is the club's scattergun approach to signings. Where Chelsea still picked their big-money players carefully, City picked up everyone they could, and paid well over the odds to do it.

That's enough to cause a one-off spike and it's worth noting that overall spending did decrease slightly for a while after City's two-year buying spree, but their main contribution to the transfer madness was just their presence in the background of other deals.

If Chelsea had offered £20million for a player in 2007, there weren't any free-spending clubs to oppose them. With City on the scene, the clubs could be leveraged against each other to drive the price up, even if they weren't particularly interested. Long-term, that's probably the bigger impact.

City's emergence coincided almost perfectly with the second phase of expansion, which has been triggered almost entirely by TV rights packages.

The last increase in payments came in time for last summer's transfer window - and was worth around 70% more on average.

Cardiff City were the lowest earning side in the league that year and still got £62million in payments from the league. For context, that's more than Manchester United got for winning the league the previous season.

It's a seismic shift in the landscape and attitudes have changed accordingly. The teams at the top end have - by and large - reined their spending in a little, but the rest of the top flight can happily go and blow £10million on a single player.

This is the long-term shift and it's just going to keep getting bigger. Watch out for another massive jump in the summer of 2017 when the latest rights deal comes into play and bumps the pot up by a further 70%.

Is it really sustainable? It's tough to tell. The footballing world is always expanding, so there's still more money to be made for the TV companies. If they keep making money, they'll keep pumping it into the game. If they keep spending megabucks on the coverage, then teams can afford to spend on players.

... Unless they're relegated. If there isn't a sharp injection of cash into lower league football, then we're going to see more and more clubs go bust over the next decade as they strive desperately to keep up with the Premier League money despite not making any more themselves.

Unfortunately, the real thing to keep an eye on is something we rarely have as much access to - wages. If a club gets a lump sum of £50million and spend it all then fair enough and that money just circulates between clubs and stays in the system.

When players like Kenwyne Jones are on £30k+ a week in the Championship - that's the kind of thing that cripples clubs. Wages have had a similar upturn to the transfer fees, but unlike the one-off fees, they're balanced against what a side expects to make in the future.

So while the big, impressive "£50MILLION MOVE" headlines are all well and good, they're not the real story here. If you're worried about sustainability - and unless you're one of the top six, you probably should be - then it's all about the wages these days.

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