More than 800 football players have been bought, sold, or loaned out in the last three seasons of the South African Premiership Division, also known as the DStv Premiership.
This is amid widespread sentiments that it is getting harder for some local football clubs to compete with the likes of Gauteng-based Mamelodi Sundowns for the best talent in the league.
Sundowns, owned by billionaire mining magnate Patrice Motsepe, has just clinched its fifth consecutive league title. A large part of the club’s success is because of the depth and quality of its talent pool, which is not cheap to come by.
In 2019/20, 312 players were acquired by South Africa’s top-flight clubs, 253 players were acquired in 2020/21, and a further 261 players were acquired in 2021/22.
There are two transfer windows per season in the Premier Soccer League (PSL), the first between July and August and the second in January each year.
The PSL has 32 member clubs equally separated into two leagues: the top flight DStv Premiership and the second-tier GladAfrica Championship, also known as the National First Division.
“The transfer window is a set period within which clubs are allowed to buy and sell contracted players. Free agents [players who are not attached to any team] are allowed to sign contracts with clubs at any time throughout the year,” said Lawtons Africa associate Clinton Mphahlele, a commercial litigation attorney involved in sports law.
Clubs may enter into negotiations for contracted players outside of the transfer window, but they would only be able to complete the players’ moves to other clubs, and register their transfer agreements with the league, within the transfer window period.
“This is how the league plays a regulatory role, which ensures that everything is done in accordance with its rules and [that] if there are any issues, it can intervene and take appropriate measures, for the benefit of the sport and players,” said Lawtons Africa director Palesa Maseko, also a commercial litigation attorney involved in sports law.
Mphahlele said that while the PSL’s transfer market is well-structured and in line with international best practices, for smaller clubs, the lack of finances can make things difficult for them.
How clubs acquired players
The most active club during transfer windows in the last three seasons was Eastern Cape-based Chippa United, owned by businessman Chippa Mpengesi. The club acquired 72 players – the most of any club – and almost 10% of all the signings made by DStv Premiership clubs since 2019/20.
The club’s signings peaked during 2020/21, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, when most clubs were experiencing a decline in player acquisitions.
Note: Baroka FC’s highest log placement between 2019/20 and 2021/22 was 10th position, not 16th, as per our initial visualisation. We have amended the above chart to reflect this correction.
Chippa registered 43 players by the beginning of the second half of the 2021/22 season, earlier this year. This was seven more players than the league’s average squad size of 36, making it the club with the largest squad.
But, Chippa seems to have prioritised quantity over quality, having failed to escape the clutches of the bottom half of the DStv Premiership log in the last three seasons. Chippa United achieved its highest log placing in 2019/20, managing to reach position 12.
Unpacking football contracts
The acquisition of a player is essentially a contract of employment between a club and a player, which cannot, at any given time, exceed a period of five years, said Mphahlele.
DStv Premiership clubs had acquired a total of 826 players, under six types of agreements, in the last three seasons:
1. Transfer agreement: The sale of a contracted player from one club to another.
Almost half, 46%, of the DStv Premiership’s player acquisitions, were signed through transfer agreements.
Contracted players are only allowed to move between clubs within the transfer window.
Maseko said that the buying club would have to approach the club at which the specific footballer it is interested in buying is registered, to enter into negotiations with it before they even approach the player.
Unlike in other football leagues elsewhere in the world, there is no verifiable information regarding the exact amount of money that is exchanged between clubs when local player sales occur.
She explained that clubs prefer to keep their negotiations confidential because even when negotiations between clubs have been finalised, the transfer agreement still needs to be approved and registered with the league.
The confidentiality also speaks to the competitive nature of the football space, where massive player poaching occurs.
2. Free transfer: The acquisition of a contracted player who was given clearance by their club to join another team of their choice, with no fee payable. More than one in every 10 of the DStv Premiership’s player acquisitions, 16%, were through free transfers.
Additionally, a contracted player is legally allowed to enter into a pre-contract agreement with a club of their choice six months before their current contract ends, and no fee would be payable in this instance as well.
3. Free agent: The acquisition of a player who is currently not under contract with any club. One in every 10 of the league’s player acquisitions were free agents.
“If you are signing a player who is not registered with any club, that is an easy acquisition because you can sign them without having to enter into negotiations with another club. Once the player and the club agree to terms, it can then get registered with the league,” said Maseko.
4. Loan agreement: The acquisition of another club’s player on loan for an agreed-upon period. Five percent of the DStv Premiership’s player acquisitions were signed through loan agreements.
When a loan deal occurs, a player’s registration is transferred from their parent club to another club for a short-term period, Mphahlele said.
The club that is taking on that particular player on loan, will usually pay the most part of the player’s salary for their duration there.
“In some cases, the two clubs may share the player’s salary on agreed-upon percentages, split between the two, or they can come to the agreement that the parent club will pay the player’s salary in full for the duration of the loan period,” he explained.
When a player goes on loan, the club that they are being loaned to cannot further loan the player out to another club, or enter into any kind of transactions regarding that player, Maseko said.
5. Loan returnee: A player rejoining their parent club after spending time on loan at another club. Just over one in every 10 of the league’s player acquisitions, 12%, were made up of loan returnees.
6. Promotion: Clubs acquire a player, usually a youngster, by promoting them from their development structures to their senior team. Eleven percent of the DStv Premiership’s player acquisitions were by way of promotion.
For a player to be able to conclude commercial agreements with clubs in order to play in the PSL, they would have to be an adult over the age of 18.
In the junior ranks, players are not offered contracts of employment which are registered with the league. When the transition is made from development to professional ranks, a contract of employment is critical to that status change, Mphahlele said.
In the case where the player being promoted to the senior team is under the age of 18, a parent or legal guardian would have to conclude that agreement on their behalf.
What determines the value of a footballer?
There are many factors that clubs take into consideration when buying or selling players. These include, but are not limited to their age, current contract duration, on-field performances, off-field disciplinary records, and national team appearances.
These elements, along with other supply and demand considerations, specifically speak to how the value of a footballer is determined, said Mphahlele.
“Strikers who score many goals will typically be the most expensive but players in other positions can be bought for a lot of money if the buying club believes that they desperately need that particular player at that time,” he told The Outlier.
Footballers were more likely to be acquired by DStv Premiership clubs if they were above the age of 24, or below the age of 27, as the average and median ages of all the players who were involved in transfer market activity in the last three seasons are 26 and 25 respectively.
With football being a high-intensity sport, the age at which you buy a player also determines their value. As such, the older a player gets, the more their value is likely to depreciate, said Mphahlele.
“Another aspect which has now come into play is the player’s history with injuries, as this impacts how they would train and play. Clubs are now seeking disclosures regarding injuries, which are becoming key in determining the value of a player,” said Maseko.
We visualised the 2021/22 DStv Premiership starting line-up below, based on data that we had collected at the beginning of the second half of the season:
Methodology: We looked at the DStv Premiership’s 100 most valuable players list for 2021/22, and we plotted this line-up making use of the highest-ranking players in each position under the 1-4-3-3 formation, comprising one goalkeeper, four defenders behind a midfield of three, and a front line with two wide attackers playing on either side of the centre forward.
The exact valuation of a player, numbers-wise, is usually confidential, with the publicly cited player transfer and salary figures available in local news reports being mere speculation.
South African football clubs are registered as private companies and have no legal obligation to share details surrounding their financial information.
“These contacts are commercially sensitive because there is money involved. For example, some players may be happy with the terms they agreed to when signing with a certain club, but the moment another player is brought in and information surrounding the terms of their agreement gets leaked, it might create problems for the club with their current players,” Maseko explained.
Moreover, the PSL, unlike other football administrators globally, does not publish the amounts stipulated in its member clubs’ player contracts.
Why are footballer values important?
With local clubs mainly relying on the owner’s personal finances to keep afloat, smaller clubs usually have to part with their best talent, as this presents them with an opportunity to make more money.
DStv Premiership clubs make just under R3-million a month through grants from the PSL and broadcast rights fees, with the prospect of more revenue coming from their performance in the league’s competitions.
This is hardly enough money to sustain their operational expenses, which include player salaries, travelling costs, in-house staff salaries, and stadium lease fees, among others.
Worryingly, only seven of the 16 clubs in the 2021/22 DStv Premiership season had title sponsors, while only five clubs had sleeve sponsors.
This means that more than half of the top-flight clubs in the league do not make any additional revenue through sponsorships – a missed opportunity – which has proven to be commercially viable for traditional powerhouses such as Johannesburg-based Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates.
This is why acquiring players who are poised to become more valuable overtime is important, especially for smaller clubs, as this is usually their core money-making avenue.
Such an approach requires proper talent identification methods, along with development structures which can get the best out of talented young players, in anticipation of their eventual sale to the league’s bigger clubs and on occasion, to clubs overseas.
With very few income pathways available for small clubs in the current environment, player sales are a focal part of their sustainability, which is usually hanging by a thread.
This data reflects the total number of players who were acquired by DStv Premiership clubs at the conclusion of the 2022 summer transfer window period in January.