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  • Professionals
  • Talent Development
How innovative club academies work to boost revenue
Data as a key to the American dream
Andreas Terler
Investition in die Zukunft: Der Wert von Akademien im modernen Fußball
More and more clubs are relying on their talent as a key asset, achieving sustained success both on the field and economically.

Developing a team from its own youth ranks was a recipe for success in football for decades. Whether it was Milan under Arrigo Sacchi, the Class of 92 at Manchester United, or Pep Guardiola’s FC Barcelona – they all followed this pattern and left an indelible mark on an era.


Can this approach still work in football in 2024? Probably not.


Recent activities in the transfer market illustrate that young players are switching clubs for increasingly higher sums, leaving their home clubs long before reaching their peak development. Nowadays, youth teams are less likely to form the sporting foundation of a club in the traditional sense but are becoming a fundamental source of revenue in the big business of football.


The CIES Football Observatory, an international research institute, regularly examines the return on investment for well-trained talents. The latest study compares the 100 clubs with the most profitable academies in the world. This is measured by the revenue generated over the past ten years from the transfer of players who have been trained by a club for at least three years between the ages of 15 and 21.

Undisputedly leading this ranking is SL Benfica. In the examined period, the Portuguese record champion accrued earnings of €516 million from a total of 30 players. In the last five years alone, Benfica generated €335 million, primarily from the departures of Joao Felix to Atlético and Rúben Dias to FC Liverpool. The Portuguese club is followed by AFC Ajax (€376 million), another big-name club known for its professional talent development. The top five clubs are completed by Olympique Lyonnais (€370 million), Real Madrid (€364 million) and Chelsea (€347 million).


Sustainable investments bring long-term success

Why does Benfica clearly top this ranking? Because the club is fully committed to identifying and developing talent. Benfica seeks, finds and develops players aged between six and twelve at five talent centres in Portugal. The academy consistently hosts 500 players, supported by 115 coaches and 90 additional staff. Commitment that naturally comes at a price. According to the financial consultancy “Oakwell Sports”, Benfica spends 10 to 12 million euros a year just on young talent. This is undoubtedly a lot of money, but compared to the hundreds of millions in revenue on the transfer market, the sum is hardly significant.


By identifying and nurturing talents early on, Benfica can invest significant time in training players individually, with a particular focus on their technique. All of this takes place on nine fields, three indoor fields, and using state-of-the-art technology at the club’s campus. The reason the club has been heavily focused on its youth development for years is also due to financial constraints. Compared to clubs in the Premier League or La Liga, Benfica receives far fewer revenues from TV rights or sponsorship deals in the Portuguese Liga. Developing and selling top talents is crucial for the club to remain internationally competitive.


Similar strategies are being adopted by more and more clubs outside the top-5 leagues in Europe, achieving considerable revenues through clear strategies and sustainable investments in their academies. In Austria, Red Bull Salzburg, through high-quality training and excellent scouting, has generated transfer revenues of €203 million with self-developed players in the last five years. This is as much as Real Madrid.


Holistic training with state-of-the-art technology

In the Netherlands, there is a fourth club behind the well-known big clubs Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV, AZ Alkmaar, which has made a name for itself in the recent past with outstanding youth development and a correspondingly remarkable transfer record. Teun Koopmeiners, Myron Boadu and Calvin Stengs are just three of several youngsters that AZ have been able to sell for between 15 and 20 million euros each in recent years. Here, too, the success is no coincidence and was crowned as recently as 2023 with the UEFA Youth League win.


As one of the first Dutch teams, AZ has professionally engaged in football data analysis. In its academy, established in 2016, the club implemented its analysis department, utilized for recruiting and developing young talents. Like other talent factories in Europe, AZ demonstrates a holistic approach to training, using VR tools and training technology in analysis to specifically promote the cognitive development of players. It is no coincidence that Billy Beane, the former baseball GM of the Oakland Athletics who became known to a wider public through the film “Moneyball”, has been an advisor to AZ Alkmaar since 2015 and a shareholder since 2020.


Whether it’s Benfica, Salzburg, Alkmaar, or other teams that have embraced the value and success of talent development – they all commit to this throughout the entire club. This commitment is evident in conscious investments in expertise, training facilities, the use of cutting-edge technology, and the development of a clear and holistic education and training strategy, where each talent is individually nurtured, paving a clear path for every player to become a professional. The rest is decided on the field.