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Sporting Econ 101: French Football – Strong National Team, Weak Domestic League

France is one of the best footballing nations of the 21st century. Since making and winning the World Cup final in 1998, France has qualified for every World Cup, making the Final in 2002, 2006, 2018 (which they won), and 2022. The French national setup has probably the deepest ranks on both the men’s and women’s sides. 

Kylian Mbappe, France’s undisputed mega-star and arguably the best player in the world, was born to an Algerian mother and a Cameroonian-Nigerian father in the suburb of Bondy outside Paris. He honed his craft in Bondy’s streets, then joined AS Monaco in Ligue 1 before his massive move to Paris Saint-Germain, PSG, in 2017. 

The Paris metropolitan area has produced approximately a third of France’s national team. Mbappe’s story is the same as that of many modern French players: the sons and daughters of North and Sub-Saharan African diaspora living in France, playing street ball before signing up with legitimate clubs. Just look at a few names in the national team: Aurelian Tchouameni, N’Golo Kante, Karim Benzema, Ousmane Dembele, Rayan Cherki, Christopher Nkunku, Randal Kolo Muani, etc. This influx of talent has changed French football; they’ve rarely had a team without a solid foundation and tactical superiority. There is a weird caveat with many of these players: they don’t play in France. 

Photo courtesy Ligue 1

Interestingly, if you examine the roster of the French national team, you’ll notice multiple elite French footballers actually play in England, Spain, Germany, Italy, and even Saudi Arabia. Mbappe and Kolo Muani are some of the more high-profile names who play in their home nation. 

France’s top flight, Ligue 1 UberEats, is not an attractive league. In the mid-2000s, it was considered one of the most competitive leagues, but since 2011, it has fallen out of favor with football fans. It has the lowest-ranked league coefficient out of the Big 5 in Europe (Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A, and at the time of writing the Netherlands’s Eredivisie). Though these rankings don’t carry much significance, the fact Dutch clubs are going further in UEFA competitions like the Champions League says a lot about the state of French domestic football. 

Ligue 1 clubs make money like most football clubs. Sponsorships, ticket sales, merchandise sales, concessions, player sales, and broadcast revenue are the main cash cows.

A report from Statista said that in 2021, ticketing was the lowest revenue generator, and broadcast revenue was the largest.

The teams split the TV money across the 18-team table. At the end of each season, two teams are relegated to Ligue 2. 16th place plays the team that finished in 3rd in Ligue 2 in a relegation playoff, determining who stays and who goes. Dropping to Ligue 2 hurts a team’s finances badly. 

It seems like Ligue 1 has all the right tools to be a fantastic football league. It boasts quality stadiums, has a legitimate European force in PSG, and has loyal fans. It attracts players from South America, Africa, and all over Europe. So why isn’t it a top league?

According to football business blogger The Swiss Ramble, Ligue 1 clubs are not profitable. He analyzed all Ligue 1 seasons from 2012-13 to 2018-19. There was only one financially positive season: 2015-16 had only 20 million euros made; each season before and after experienced losses. The 2018-19 season saw a loss of 126 million euros. Only one club made money that season: PSG. Other French clubs like Marseille posted losses of 91 million euros in 2018-19. Many consider Marseille the second-biggest team in France. 

Photo courtesy Ligue 1

PSG is a divisive topic among football fans and journalists. They are different from other Ligue 1 clubs because Qatar Sports Investments (QSI) owns the club. Much like Manchester City and Newcastle in England, PSG’s benefactors are from sovereign states with oil wealth and questionable human rights records. The money has given the Parisian club access to the best players, scouts, coaches, facilities, and, most importantly, broadcasts. 

They have always been bold in splashing the cash. Signing Neymar from Barcelona for 222 million euros in 2017 showed that.  Five years later, they signed Lionel Messi as a free agent. This was the moment that inflated the transfer market, affecting all of world football. Just this summer, PSG spent 95 million euros on Randal Kolo Muani alone, and he’s only 24 years old. That’s a direct effect of the Neymar transfer.  

No other French clubs can do what PSG can do. The possible exception could be AS Monaco, backed by Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev. However, the Monaco club hasn’t spent like their Parisian rivals. Like many other Ligue 1 clubs, the club sells its top players to raise money for operating costs. The Swiss Ramble pointed out that PSG had the most advertising and broadcast revenue in 2018-19 but trailed Monaco in funds generated through player sales. Even with Russian petrochemical wealth backing Monaco, the Qatari money is otherworldly. 

Ligue 1 went from being dominated by Lyon in the mid-2000s to splitting the title between four clubs before 2011-12. Since then, PSG has won 9 out of the last 11 French titles. Call it a vicious cycle, but Ligue 1 was going through this competitive disparity before PSG’s new wealth. Perhaps it is systemic of world football: Manchester City won 6 of the past 7 English league titles, Bayern Munich won the past 11 German titles, Juventus had won 10 in a row in Italy before Inter Milan ended their streak in 2021, and Ajax have won the past 7 out of 12 Dutch league campaigns. It’s different when you have oodles of oil wealth backing you and less competition, though.  

Despite a vast wealth gap between PSG, Monaco, Marseille, and the rest of the league, Ligue 1 clubs are self-sustaining. French clubs have some of the lowest debts in European football.

Most player sales go toward stadium improvements or finding new, cheaper players. France is known to be a hotbed for young, talented footballers to thrive. PSG is an outlier because they can afford the mega-stars. Even so, Monaco and Lille disrupted PSG’s monopoly with half their budget in 2016-17 and 2020-21, respectively. 

Ligue 1 could be more profitable if broadcast deals were more lucrative. When QSI took over PSG, they also made their state-owned media outlet BeIN Sports, the primary broadcaster for all Ligue 1 matches. The deal runs from 2011 to the end of the 2023-24 season. The league and France’s football oversight committee, Ligue de Football Professional (LFP), seek a new broadcast deal worth around 200 million euros annually. 

Arguably, setting up shop with BeIN was unwise. The channel doesn’t get much exposure outside Europe or the Middle East. BeIN has a presence in the U.S., but it gets buried in specific cable packages, killing its American viewership. Look up any case study about the Premier League’s financial success, and you can’t ignore the U.S. market as a contributing factor.

French football is still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. It went two full seasons without any matchday revenue. After outright canceling the final weeks of the 2019-20 season, 2020-21 was rocked with problems. Many teams suffered losses as the stadiums they built could not support them, according to The Athletic’s report in June 2021. A new broadcast deal with a Chinese-backed firm called Mediapro was in the works, but in October 2020, after the company failed to make payments, signs showed it was breaking down. By December 2020, Mediapro’s deal had collapsed. The French football league took out two government loans just to avoid bankruptcy. It had a devastating effect on clubs, who were already struggling.

Photo courtesy Ligue 1

Now, Ligue 1 has deals with Canal+, a French subscription service that’s worked with the league for years. The league inked a deal with Amazon Prime in addition to BeIN. The league took in a 1.5 billion euro cash injection from Luxembourg capital firm CVC Capital Partners, who are helping sell the media rights to the highest bidder.

Amazon’s purchase of Ligue 1’s streaming rights was another step in American involvement in French football. McCourt Global executive chairman Frank McCourt owns Marseille. Lyon recently came under the ownership of John Textor, a lucrative football investor from the States. Bordeaux was owned by General American Capital Partners until 2019, then sold to King Street Capital Management before becoming Luxembourg businessman Gerard Lopez’s property. More American businessmen recognize the profitability of professional soccer in Europe, eyeing leagues and clubs that have struggled financially. Whether they can resurrect Ligue 1 as an attractive league remains to be seen. 

The key takeaway from French football is that they have developed outstanding players. While many of the best don’t play in France anymore, it doesn’t dismiss France’s achievements on the international stage. Ligue 1 is still looking for sustained success in the European competitions. Marseille is the only French team to win the Champions League, yet there is controversy surrounding their 1992 triumph. PSG made the 2020 final but lost to Bayern Munich. If PSG can win the Champions League, Ligue 1 will get the reputation boost it needs. That will bring in more sponsors and more potential investors.    

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