The past week has been interesting to say the least for Philadelphia Union fans. The team has been connected in passing to one of the great strikers in the world, Swedish national and Paris Saint-Germain superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Last week a picture by a Union fan surfaced revealing that Ibrahimovic was on the Union's Discovery List. That prompted the Union to acknowledge that simple truth and for writers and fans everywhere to educate themselves on what that bizarre list really gets a team. At best, it gets the Union the right of first refusal to make an offer to a player should they want to come to MLS. At worst, in nets them $50K if the player comes to MLS and they don't want them. Or so everyone thought.
Then Zlatan himself acknowledged interest in extending his career in MLS. The LA Galaxy were linked as the likely destination, and the Union were passed over as a mere speed bump. His agent said there is a 90% chance of his landing in the league. Well, at least the Union would get that $50K, right? Not so fast.
Sunday, former U.S. soccer star and current ESPN anchor Taylor Twellman blew up everything we know about said rumors and rules and revealed that the Galaxy wouldn't be his MLS destination and the Union wouldn't be getting their $50K. Union fans weren't happy. Twellman pointed to an unwritten and previously unknown wrinkle in the Discovery List rules, suggesting that the Union need to make Zlatan a fair offer to be eligible to receive the money.
But all of this back and forth brushes off the question of whether or not the Union would benefit from paying Ibrahimovic his salary demands. And by benefit I mean create more value for the club than his salary costs them. This past season, his salary was reported at €15 million, and a recent story suggests that Manchester United is set to offer the striker the equivalent of approximately $17 million dollars per year. Given the Union would likely have to pay him for a season and a half that's a minimum of $20 million they'd have to offer to be in the mix.
Just to even entertain this question, a few things need to be assumed away. First, we have to assume that MLS would actually let the Union have Zlatan. Bringing a player of that stature to the league would be the biggest league acquisition since David Beckham, and would be likely hailed as bigger. Would it be in the best interest of the league, where all the owners own the same asset, to have that player land in Philadelphia? While it's a large sports market, it is not a glamorous one and not one where advertising dollars would heavily flow, whether to Zlatan or the league. Philadelphia wouldn't be the league's first choice, but if no one else was interested in making that offer they'd likely acquiesce. Let's assume that's the case.
Then we would need to assume that Zlatan would play in Philadelphia. From Paris to Philly? Or would New York or Los Angeles be the only options? Cheesesteaks or models? Let's believe in the lure of Pat's versus Geno's. Moving on.
Last we need to assume that Jay Sugarman and his fellow investors have $20,000,000 lying around to pay Zlatan for the next year and a half. That's a big if given rumors of their tight purse strings and the fact that the Union are one of a handful of MLS teams who have yet to pay a player even a million dollar salary.
With all that swept under the rug, let's explore what Zlatan could mean to the Union.
Before looking at the money let's land on the fact that the Union would be an instant contender for the MLS Cup. Already third place in the East, the Union would receive a boost at least as big as what Sebastian Giovinco has meant to Toronto FC, and probably more. And in the crap shoot that is the MLS playoffs, the Union would have as good a chance as any team to get on a good streak and win it all. So Sugarman would be buying two tilted rolls of the dice.
From a financial point of view there would obviously be increased revenues. According to work by Forbes the Union pulled in $25 million in revenues in 2014. Let's take that number at face value. With increased television revenue and sponsorships that number has since increased, however even if that number was $30 million today despite slipping ticket sales, Zlatan would command more than half of those revenues for himself. The Union payroll has never exceeded $5M after accounting for loans and allocation money, so Zlatan would basically quadruple the team's spend on salary.
Could the Union make up that revenue? Without understanding how the single-entity structure of the league works financially it's hard to tell, but even if the Union keep all of the extra revenues it's hard to see how they'd increase revenues by $17,000,000 per season. Go ahead and imagine a scenario of sell out crowds and increased ticket prices. The numbers don't get close. Tack on new sponsorships and jersey sales. Probably still not close.
The reality is the Union wouldn't make back that investment in the near term. Rather the decision to sign Zlatan Ibrahimovic would be a move to put the Philadelphia Union in the collective consciousness of the Philadelphia sports community, and to raise the stature of the team outside of the city limits.
Right now the Union rank a distant fifth in the sports landscape in Philadelphia. That's still good enough to provide a rabid fan base, but for the Union to be held in the same esteem as the Flyers, Phillies, Sixers or Eagles they need to create a significant stir.
Is Zlatan Ibrahimovic big enough to bring that buzz to Philadelphia? Arguably not. Outside of the soccer world and certainly in the United States, Zlatan does not bring the global cache of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. The Philadelphia community would need a good education before embracing the true talent that just arrived on the shores of the Delaware (otherwise known as I-95). But imagine the city rallying behind a club making a run at a championship as Zlatan scores goal after goal in the playoffs.
The Union put Ibrahimovic on a bizarre Discovery list and all of a sudden they (might) have the chance to dress one of the world's greats in the blue and gold. The reward isn't necessarily immediate riches but the chance to win and the chance to put a club on the map. Is that worth over $20 million?