HONG KONG — The front cover of the report by the respected audit and consulting concern Deloitte is dramatic and eye-catching: It consists of just a picture of a fedora hat reminiscent of the 1930s and, above it, a stark headline, “The Untouchables.”

It is a little clumsy to make such references with their obvious echoes of 1929 and the Great Depression, widespread unemployment, economic distress and gangland killings and lawlessness. But the people about whom the report is written will probably not complain, since the original “Untouchables” were the good guys.

Deloitte is (presumably) using the expression in its broader sense that the modern untouchables are untouched or unaffected by the prevailing economic mess all around them. But the subjects of its report are not the financiers and bankers who escaped virtually unscathed from the mess they created; they are the big European soccer clubs, or the “Soccer Money League.”

“Recession” is clearly not a word that figures in the vocabulary of the leading football clubs. Deloitte reports that the 20 highest earning clubs saw an 8 percent increase in their revenues in the past year to 4.3 billion euro, the first time it has topped 4 billion euro in the 14 years that Deloitte’s sport and business arm has been compiling the records.

Real Madrid topped the money league with revenues of 438.6 million euro or 40 million euro more than its Spanish archrival Barcelona in second place. Manchester United, the English Premier League leader, was in third place with almost 350 million euro. English soccer supporters of Manchester United, and their many millions of fans worldwide, may be surprised that the Red Devils of Manchester are not on top.

Forbes magazine last year did its own assessment of the value of the giants of the sporting world, including soccer, American football, baseball, basketball, motor racing and other major sports. Traditionally, U.S. sports teams have been valued by ticket sales. Forbes used what it called a new formula to include the value of stadiums, sponsorships and television to calculate the worth of teams as “entertainment brands.” The magazine rated Manchester United as worth $1.83 billion, and the biggest of all sports teams, considerably larger than the Dallas Cowboys, the American football team, which it valued at $1.65 billion and the New York Yankees baseball team, which is third at $1.6 billion.

Real Madrid came in sixth, worth $1.32 billion, though with superior revenues to Manchester United, $563 million against $459 million. Barcelona trailed in 25th place, worth $1 billion, in a list dominated by American football teams, with baseball, basketball and motor racing teams trailing behind. The other big European soccer names, apart from the London club Arsenal (in eighth place), occupied the bottom half of the list, including Bayern Munich (in 27th place), Liverpool (41), AC Milan (43), Juventus (47) and Chelsea (48).

Rumors recently have been rife again in the British press that Qatar Holdings, the investment arm of the royal family of Qatar, is about to buy Manchester United for a sum somewhere around £1.6 billion, money that would almost certainly increase the club’s value. United denied that there are any such talks, but such denials are often a precursor to a deal. On the other hand, it may be just another clever marketing ploy by the Qataris, who have shown immense skill in getting free publicity. But the wider point is that soccer is a big and profitable business, at least for the big boys.

Another way of assessing the value of sports teams is by calculating what their players cost. In a single recent English soccer game between Manchester United and their crosstown rivals Manchester City, it cost about $850 million to buy the players on the field and on the substitutes’ bench. The following weekend, Manchester City met Chelsea, and there was $900 million worth of talent on view. By comparison, the players of the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox cost about $380 million, and those of the Dallas Cowboys or Washington Redskins cost about $350 million.

Some fans cite the worldwide appeal that their sports teams have. Young men and boys wearing the shirts of Barcelona, Manchester United, or Real Madrid, often with the name and number of their favorite player, are a common sight across Asia. But it is difficult to work out the real number of supporters a team has — apart from those who show up and pay to watch matches, and sample surveys are notoriously unreliable, making the fan base a contentious calculation.

But supporters of Facebook say that their site for the first time offers a properly tried and tested way of assessing fan support since you have to sign in and put the team on your list of favorites. As of last week, Barcelona and Manchester United were neck and neck, each with about 9.2 million supporters on Facebook. Real Madrid (8.7 million) and the LA Lakers (5.99 million) trailed behind.

For all this Deloitte, which has considerable experience in calculating what people and companies are worth, sticks to published financial figures. Its report admits that there are many ways of estimating a soccer club’s worth, including the number of its fans, its performance on the pitch, gate receipts, broadcast audience, and even the wealth of the club owners, but it prefers to concentrate on counting the hard brass of revenue from soccer operations.

Its report this year predicts more of the same: “We expect a battle between Spain’s two super clubs for top spot in the Money League for the next few years at least.” Barcelona’s revenue will be boosted by a shirt sponsorship deal with the Qatar Sports Investment Agency, worth a guaranteed 165 million euro over 5 1/2 seasons.

English Premier League clubs have seven of the top 20 places, the most of any country, followed by other members of the big five leagues, four each from Germany and Italy, three from Spain and two from France. The poorer countries don’t get a look in.

New European soccer rules supposed to ensure financial fair play will require clubs to balance their books, ensuring that expenditure does not exceed revenue over time, with exceptions allowed for building of a new stadium or a change of owners. Barcelona and Chelsea and Manchester City in England have all recorded large losses recently, thanks to splurging on new players.

However, it is doubtful whether the new financial restrictions will level the playing field in favor of poorer clubs from poorer countries.

The big clubs in Spain have huge advantages, particularly over the English ones. British taxation takes up to 50 percent of high-earning players’ salaries, whereas in Spain the rate is 22 percent. The abiding lesson of recent years has been that the clubs that are most successful are those that pay their players most. High taxation means it will be easier for Spain’s La Liga to poach from the Premier League, especially those players who are homesick for sunshine and resent the dreary English winter football scene.

Clubs in Spain can also negotiate their own TV rights, and Real Madrid picks up more than $250 million a year. Against this, Spain’s La Liga tends to be a two-horse race between Real Madrid and Barcelona with a handful of also-rans, whereas the Premier League is a tightly competitive championship in which even Manchester United has to fight hard to win each game.

The excitement of the competitive spirit and the battle for places in the lucrative European Champions League competition gives the Premier League an exciting international edge and assures the worldwide following of Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and even the ailing Liverpool. The elite English clubs will get a £600 million boost over the next three years from international broadcasting rights. English supporters who worry about possible challenges say the well-organized German Bundesliga, with 18 tightly matched teams, is their biggest threat.

If the American Glazer family, who controversially own Manchester United, do decide to sell the club, perhaps for £1.8 billion, some soccer insiders whisper, it would raise the value and the profile of the club and perhaps remove the shadows of the Glazer era. Malcolm Glazer, owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, bought out the shareholders of Manchester United in the 2003-2005 period in a deal worth almost $1.5 billion. To the anger of many diehard United fans, he saddled the club with the heavy debt, including interest of £60 million a year, and raised ticket prices.

Swapping an American owner for a Middle Eastern oil ruler would hardly raise eyebrows in England, where so much of the game is foreign-owned. It would intensify the rivalry with Manchester City, owned by Abu Dhabi interests. If the European football authorities really wanted to level the playing fields they could try to insist that clubs should have owners and players at least from their own country, if not from their own city.

England gave the world the modern game of soccer (even if hardline Chinese say that it was an invention stolen from them), and English fans are so passionate that almost 60 percent of them say they would rather spend a night watching a game rather than with the woman they love, but the English owners of clubs have largely sold out. Such is the attraction and the potential money to be made in the Premier League that half of the 20 clubs, and all of the most famous, have foreign owners, from the U.S., Russia, Hong Kong, Egypt, Abu Dhabi and Iceland. Of the managers, as the English call the coaches, seven are English, four Scottish, three Italian, two French, two Welsh and one each Israeli and Spanish. Both Barcelona and Real Madrid, in contrast to the English practice, are owned by their club members.

Ownership is one thing, but only 39 percent of the almost 600 players on the roster of the English Premier League clubs are English, something that the England soccer team manager, an Italian, Fabio Capello, has complained of. Soccer stardom in the big league does not translate so easily into top financial rewards. Forbes magazine also ranked individuals. Tiger Woods, who had not quite descended into limbo after the break up of his marriage and the crumbling of his game, was still top earner with $105 million, though most of this was in sponsorship deals, some of which he has lost.

The highest ranked soccer player was L.A. Galaxy’s David Beckham, formerly of Manchester United and Real Madrid, whom Forbes reckoned to earn $43.7 million, mostly from sponsorships and his burgeoning business brands. Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid came 13th with earnings of $35.8 million in a list dominated by golf, boxing, basketball, baseball and American football stars.

English Premier League players get an average of £28,230 a week, but that is less than half what Dallas Mavericks’ basketball players get and a third of the salary of the New York Yankees. And all of this, of course, comes with a job and livelihood that can be savagely cut short by a single tackle.

Leading actor such as Johnny Depp, earning $100 million in the last year, Leonardo DiCaprio ($62 million) or Kristen Stewart ($28.5 million) wouldn’t even think of getting out of bed even to play-act the game for the sums that soccer players make. And far beyond them are the real Masters of the Universe, the hedge fund managers, who make plus or minus $5 billion a year; to them the average soccer player’s annual earnings would be a poor day at the computer.

Kevin Rafferty, who began his reporting career writing about football for the Oxford University newspaper and The Observer, is editor in chief of PlainWords Media.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.