According to the latest Twitter Rumour From Absolutely Nothing™, Spanish paper MARCA are reporting that Chelsea are earning $21m annually from sales of Fernando Torres' No. 9 shirt. Besides the fact that this is totally unsourced, there are a number of other huge problems with the idea. The first is simply that $21 million is a ludicrous amount for any club to make from shirt sales overall. Clubs simply don't sell that many shirts. Beyond that, clubs tend to sell a mix of shirt printings on their shirts, and simply don't make all that much money per shirt. It's hard to see how this rumour could have any legs.
On that first point, people tend to simply overestimate the number of shirts a club sells. Looking at the global list of top shirt-sellers, you can see Chelsea average around 900,000 shirts sold per year. Those numbers are a five-year average, though, so let's be generous and say Chelsea are now selling around a million per year. To put that into perspective, Chelsea have more than 18,000,000 "likes" on Facebook. It's hard to pin a good estimate on the Chelsea-supporting populace, but what is apparent is that only a small fraction of them are able and willing to purchase a shirt every year.
The second point, that clubs sell a diverse mix of player-printed shirts and even unprinted ones, is also key to understanding the economics of football shirt sales. While Fernando Torres remains one of the most-popular player printings, as shown by the list of best-selling player shirts in the Premier League, it's unlikely he's selling a majority of Chelsea shirts. After all, Eden Hazard is close on his heels in the aforementioned best-sellers list. If we take the generous figure of 1,000,000 shirts sold annually, it's likely that Torres appears on around 300,000 Chelsea shirts per year, maybe as many as 400,000 at a stretch. Neither of those figures is anything to scoff at, but it means that, to reach our mythical $21,000,000 figure, Chelsea need to be making between $50 and $70 per shirt.
We all know that Chelsea shirts are expensive, and, really $50-70 would actually be something of a bargain for a printed shirt. This is starting to look kind of plausible isn't it? There's just one rather large and inconvenient problem with that. No club, Chelsea included, makes a significant proportion of the final retail price. You see, Chelsea kits are an adidas product. They licence the rights to produce our kits, which is a big part of their sponsorship fee, incidentally. That isn't the end of the story, though. The retailers have to make a bit of money as well. [Even if the retailer is adidas or Chelsea, some of your money is probably going to a third party for running the shop.] In addition, the tax man, shipping company, and assorted involved businesses get a slice.
What does that all mean for our figures, then? According to the most accurate figures anyone has been able to pin down, a club tends to make, at most, around €12 per shirt. If we run that figure through the old exchange rate calculator, we get a figure just shy of $16. Now we have enough data to run through the maths. First off, even with the generous figure of 1,000,000 shirts, Chelsea are making less than $16m per year, which flat rules out Torres producing $21m annually.
How much, then, does he produce through shirt sales? If we take our earlier figures of 300,000 to 400,000 Torres shirts, and around $16 to Chelsea for each one, the answer is clear. Between $4.7m and $6.3m. If we run that back through our exchange rate calculator, we get figures between £3m and £4m, and that's being generous with every figure. Again, it's not anything to scoff at, but with an annual cost of around £18m, shirt sales aren't ever going to save Chelsea's financial bacon on the deal. Still, though, that's about enough to pay for Cesar Azpilicueta*, I guess.
[*If we choose to ignore the fact that most of those Torres sales would probably still happen, just with other players on the shirts.]