Sunday, 28 August 2011

How can footballers' salaries be justified?

In the media, few professions (bankers and politicians aside) collectively cause as much ire as that of the footballer. Each day he gets up, goes to the training ground, does some light training, has a rest, some more training, then goes home. He often travels to other cities, sometimes to other countries, trains there, then once or twice a week he has to put his training into practice and play a full game of football, where he will be scrutinised by the crowd and the various media outlets. Some retrospective analysis, a shower and a meal and some drinks later, he will head home. A few press conferences to attend, some community activities to partake in, and if he’s particularly good, the odd awards ceremony. Not so much a job as part holiday, part exercise. His weekly exploits are regional news, sometimes national or even global. Okay, they have to work weekends and bank holidays, but it’s a tiny price to pay for all the perks.

The average person has to pay a few hundred pounds a year for the same exercise and many hundreds of pounds to rack up the same air miles. And on top of all this, the top league footballer gets thousands of pounds for the troubles. Not a year, not a month, not even a week, but daily. In October 2010, Wayne Rooney signed a deal at Manchester United worth around £160,000 a week basic, and features a “break clause” where he can leave for as “little” as £30m if Manchester United doesn’t meet its targets. You read that right - whereas in the real world, people lose their jobs if they don’t meet targets, in the world of football, it’s the employer that has to meet targets to stop losing its employees!

In addition to the wages and the job security, there’s bonuses, endorsements, sponsors and image rights - Rooney will become a wealthy man indeed, despite having contributed little to society. “Why do footballers get paid so much?!” moan the masses. “Why don’t soldiers or nurses get paid that much? They sacrifice their lives and/or save lives!”.

The simple reason why footballers get paid so much: it’s the nature of the industry.

Think about it: football is the biggest and most global single sport on the planet. The World Cup final in 2010 was watched by over 700 million people, with over 90% of Spain and the Netherlands’ viewing populations tuning in to watch their teams jostle for the trophy. The English Premier League’s overseas broadcasting rights deal between 2010 and 2013 stands at £1.4bn, and its games are watched in nearly 600,000 homes in 211 countries and territories worldwide. With so many people out there interested in football as a product, and willing to pay for it, this translates into astronomical sums of money to be made, and in turn, this means that football, by its very nature, will have astronomical sums swilling around in the industry.

The game has always been global. The first World Cup was all the way back in 1930, and with the advent of globalisation and technological advances facilitating communication and travel, it was always scheduled to become even bigger, but financially, it wasn’t always like it is. Back in 1968, the average wage in the English top division was £68 per week, although the wages of the standout superstar of his day, George Best, £1,000 a week, was an early sign of the impending marriage between football and global fame. Even as recently as 15 years ago, the average weekly wage was just under four grand. Today, it’s nearly thirty-four, and even this is offset by each year’s promoted clubs whose wage bills will be relatively modest - regarding the financially bigger clubs, Chelsea’s annual player wage bill is £174m, Manchester City £133m and Manchester United £132m.

On a side note, it’s only really top league footballers who get paid astronomical salaries - a BBC article in 2006 highlighted a substantial drop in wages down in the divisions. In England, League One players earned £67,850 pa and League Two £49,600 pa - that’s less than some doctors, managing directors or public servants. Also, footballers in England are lucky compared to other countries in Europe - third or fourth divisions in most other countries, Spain and Italy included, tend to be part-time or amateur, thus not making nearly as much money as their English counterparts.

Football, as a sport, capitalises on being simple to follow and to play, meaning it’s easy to take an interest in, and on the free-flowing, unpredictable, exciting nature of the game. Football means a lot emotionally to millions of people worldwide, who are prepared to invest a sizeable chunk of their income in order to follow and support their team. Stephen Tomkins of the BBC likened football to a religion in 2004, and seeing people’s faces contort from disbelief at the star striker’s penalty miss, to anger at the referee’s shocking decision, to tense agony at running down the clock on a 3-2 lead with 5 minutes to go, to euphoria when the referee’s whistle blows to signal the confirmation of the result, or despair when the opposition team bundles the ball in on the final kick of the game, it’s testament to how much it means to people. They identify with football.

Thanks to the above reasons, the money-minded of this world have figured out that such a captive, devoted audience is prime ground for profits, and thanks to such things as the formation of the Premier League in 1992, providing premium TV revenue for the top tier teams, advances in technology leading to saturation of football coverage, ie the voyeuristic nature of 24-hour football coverage on Sky Sports News and online sites, the front page headline-hogging, celebrity-mingling and scandal-perpetuating antics of the likes of David Beckham and Wayne Rooney, and the emergence of new global markets like China, India, the Middle East and Africa, football has snowballed into the global behemoth it is today.

David Mitchell's great satire of how Sky Sports sensationalises football just a bit too much.

Players which have marketability have a distinct advantage - Cristiano Ronaldo was bought for £80 million in 2009, and according to Real Madrid, his fee has already been repaid in merchandising sales alone. Likewise, whenever a major English player is traded in the transfer window, it’s like they’re in a market of their own, so skewed are the fees incurred by the “English Premium” (Andy Carroll for £35 million, anybody?). The reason? Big English players will more likely sell more shirts, as English fans will look up to them as England players as well as club players, the media will cover them more for the same reason, and also respect the club for “giving English players a chance”.

It’s got to a point where the actual competitive games, both in the league and cups, have become a bit of a distraction to the off-pitch aspects, like marketing, merchandise, transfer window activity etc. But, in the midst of all this, what it boils down to at the end of the day, both for the suits and the fans, is the 90 minutes (plus added extra time if necessary) of football between the two teams, the result which determines which team wins and which team loses, and the many possible permutations which determine, in the long run, who wins the trophy (and prize money), who ends up in which European competition (with varying degrees of TV and prize money), and who drops down a league and loses out on huge amounts of money. Money which, alongside being used as disposable income by everyone involved in the club, also ensures the future purchase and development of future players and staff, as well as paying back debts, and in some cases can keep a club in existence.

And although the managers, coaches, scouts etc play a big part in getting the teams ready, it’s the frontline troops, the players themselves, who have the last say on whether the above are or aren’t achieved. And as a result, it’s crucial to buy the best players, and because genuinely outstanding players are rare, it’s a case of who can bid the most, both in terms of transfer fees and in wages and incentives. And the more money there is to be made, the more money there is to lose, and with the stakes so high, paying £100,000 a week to a player whose twenty goals a season will ensure a club’s automatic qualification in the Champions’ League, or avoid a drop to the Championship, makes perfect financial sense.

In response to those who reckon a salary cap would be beneficial to football, I ask them to contemplate how such a scheme would be implementable worldwide, because if it was applied solely to the English leagues, then all the best players would simply move overseas to the highest bidder, as we are seeing with British rugby talent playing in the French league. Even a EU-wide ban would simply mean easy pickings for the likes of Qatar, the Emirates and Russia offering bumper contracts to players, who’d then move there en masse and preach about how competitive their league is, or how they’re proud to be part of a “new project” and “creating history”, and how they’re not in it for the money. And if money can persuade Samuel Eto’o, one of the most gifted footballers of his generation, to play in Dagestan, one of the most volatile regions in Russia, then what hope have we to convince other players to stay put in the UK or the EU if the money’s elsewhere?

Marquee players in the twilight of their careers have often opted for short-term contracts in leagues that offer high wages.

Football’s money does trickle down to communities. Typing in “Blackburn” in a search engine brings up several matches for the club before any article about the town, which makes you wonder if losing the club, and as a result the media interest, would severely impact the town’s economy. And likewise, Blackpool’s promotion into the Premier League in 2010 wasn’t only fantastic from a footballing sense, but it was also lauded by the town’s council, claiming their club’s top-flight status, and the visitors and media interest it would bring, would regenerate the whole town. As a result, we’re left in a position where people are rightly unhappy with the status quo and having footballers earn millions for doing something which isn’t greatly beneficial to society, but the only way of addressing that - enforcing a salary cap in the UK - would drive all the talent away, and with it the interest of the people and potential investors, and with it the money.

We can’t hate the players for accepting the money, we would do the same. We can’t hate the game of football, because it provides us with emotions. But hating what the game has become? The gentrification, the marketing, the hijacking from multinational corporations, dodgy tax-avoiding businessmen and even dictators, who abuse the masses’ love and devotion to line their pockets? The inability to enforce a salary cap, lest it destroys the quality of the league and deprives towns and cities of the trickle-down money which can revive enterprise and provide jobs and happiness? Yes, we have every right to hate that.

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