LONDON (Reuters) - Premier League clubs have spent a record amount on January transfer deals this year, despite the threat of global recession and chaos in credit markets around the world.
With nine days remaining before the transfer window closes for the season, around 93 million pounds ($181.3 million) has been spent by English clubs on new signings, already eclipsing the 81 million pounds spent two years ago and the 63 million last year.
Earlier this month, Chelsea, protected from the real economy by billionaire owner Roman Abramovich's check book, paid Bolton 15 million pounds for French striker Nicolas Anelka and spent nine million on Lokomotiv Moscow defender Branislav Ivanovic.
Moving from Bolton to Stamford Bridge also made Anelka the most expensive player ever, with a total of 86 million pounds spent by various clubs wanting his services since he moved from Paris St Germain to Arsenal as a 17-year-old for 500,000 pounds in 1997.
Rivals Liverpool spent six million pounds on 23-year-old defender Martin Skrtel from Zenit St Petersburg, making the Slovakian the most expensive defender in Liverpool history.
Liverpool themselves are the target of a buyout, with sovereign investment fund Dubai International Capital widely reported in the English media as offering their American owners 300 million pounds for the club.
John Williams, director of the Centre for the Sociology of Sport at the University of Leicester, told Reuters the continually rising revenue from television coverage was the main factor affecting the record spending.
"Consistently since 1992, pundits have speculated that the next television deal must be lower," Williams said. "And every year since 1992 the television deal has actually been higher."
The most recent three-year television rights sale, covering seasons until 2010, brought in 1.7 billion pounds for the Premier League, two-thirds more than the previous agreement.
Rights for television highlights packages and overseas broadcasting rights are negotiated separately.
"The clubs are happy to pay these sums of money because they presumably feel that on the basis of the evidence they have, the television income for the game will remain as solid and as buoyant as it is now," Williams said.
Another factor encouraging investment is the financial reward available for teams staying in the top tier and qualifying for the Champions League.
Williams estimates that relegation from the Premier League costs a club up to 50 million pounds, while the immediate benefit of Champions League qualification to a group-stage level could be worth up to 20 million pounds.
"The other returns are potentially much larger than that," Williams said. "If a club can stay in the Champions League for a while they can recruit better players, it means you get better sponsors, it means you can raise your ticket prices, it means you can get people buying shirts from around the world."
At least one million pounds has been spent on 22 other transfers so far, with some of the Premier League's struggling clubs spending heavily in an attempt to avoid relegation.
Derby, almost certain to go straight back to the Championship (second division) after winning just one of their 23 league games to date, paid 1.1 million pounds to Blackburn Rovers for Welsh international midfielder Robbie Savage and spent two million on 25-year-old Argentine striker Emanuel Villa.
Among other clubs looking over their shoulders at the drop, 16th-placed Birmingham paid Everton five million pounds for Scottish international James McFadden and bought David Murphy from Hibernian for 1.5 million.
Fulham, who have also plummeted down the table after a poor run of form, appointed Roy Hodgson to turn around fortunes at the club.
He promptly signed Brede Hangeland from FC Copenhagen and a five-million-pound bid for Watford striker Marlon King is still being negotiated.
For now, English Premier League clubs can be sure of a strong balance sheet due to television fees and healthy sponsorship deals.
However, the next auction of Premier League coverage is due in 2009 and, with a global slowdown looming, may not bring in as much money.
"They (clubs) may look at the wider economic picture and maybe begin to question their assumptions," Williams said.
Editing by Mike Collett