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LONDON - The departure of six-time Ballon d'Or winner Lionel Messi from Barcelona has confirmed what many fans have feared for years - star player wages are now so stratospheric that they risk bankrupting even the grandest clubs.
The charts below show some of the mind-boggling numbers involved in the world's richest leagues, where the financial strains are most acute, and how COVID-19 has compounded the problems.
Barcelona President Joan Laporta said the club was forced to let Messi leave because his wage demands would have jeopardised its future.
He estimated the Argentine's new contract would have meant the club was paying out more on wages than it earns - 110% of its revenues to be exact. Without Messi it will be around 95%. "The club is above everything - even above the best player in the world," Laporta said.
Graphic: Wage-to-revenue ratios in Europe's top soccer leagues - https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/mkt/akpezgllkvr/Pasted%20image%201628255753945.png
A decade ago, wages in the Big Five leagues added up to around 5.6 billion euros ($6.6 billion), Deloitte estimates. Wage-to-revenue ratios - the money clubs pay players and other staff - amounted to 51% in Germany, 70% in the Premier League and 75% in Italy's Serie A and France's Ligue 1.
By last season, that combined European wage bill had ballooned to 17 billion euros.
COVID-19 and empty stadiums though meant the leagues' revenues fell by an average of 11%. It meant wage-to-revenue ratios rose to 73% from 2018-19's 61% in Britain's Premier League, to 67% from 62% in Spain's La Liga, to 78% from 70% in Italy, 56% from 54% in Germany and to 89% from 73% in France.
Graphic:Wage-to-revenue ratios at Europe's top soccer clubs - https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/mkt/movanmredpa/Pasted%20image%201628263391131.png
"UEFA has historically said that a 70% wage-to-revenue ratio should be the upper limit for clubs to target, but we may see a number of large clubs go past that figure and possibly even breach 100% in the short term." Sam Boor, a senior manager in Deloitte's sports business group, told Reuters in April.
Even before COVID-19, the wage-to-revenue ratio in England's second tier Championship was already 107%, he said.
The combined value of the top 32 European teams has grown over 50% since 2016, according to accountancy firm KPMG's Football Benchmark team, which looks at clubs' overall 'enterprise value' - their owners’ equity, plus total debt, minus cash.
Graphic:Revenue growth of Europe's 'Big 5' soccer leagues - https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/mkt/rlgvdzqznvo/Pasted%20image%201619093328235.png