Why do we care how much footballers earn?

Date published: Monday 13th April 2020 10:17

Last week we all flocked to defend Premier League footballers from the Conservative politician Matt Hancock and his pathetic, nakedly populist attempt to garner the praise and respect that his own watery intellect, failed promises and obfuscations cannot muster, by singling out footballers and suggesting they put their hands in their pockets for the NHS.

But as we rightly defended them from the hopeless ‘cock, we should understand just why having a go at footballers about money matters has a widespread, commonplace and populist appeal. So why are so many people so aggrieved specifically about footballers’ wages?

I will attempt to answer the 12 most commonly asked questions about footballers and money…

 

Why do people think Premier League footballers are overpaid?
Mostly because the numbers are just so you-can-never-spend-it-all high, but also because being on a Joelinton-style six-year contract means the club has to pay your money regardless of if you are on top form or rubbish. If you get injured for a few months, you still get your money. If you are ill, you still get your money. There’s no existing 28 weeks on a mere £95.85 per week sick pay for footballers.

But it doesn’t stop there; if you are injured or ill, you have as much medical help, physiotherapy, psychotherapy or indeed anything that might aid your recovery or comfort you, free of charge via the club. You have access to a gym, pool, massages and sauna at no cost. Most clubs even have a priest you can see for spiritual guidance. The club is probably even buying your match-day underpants whilst, if you are Joelinton, paying you nearly £4 million per year and others up to £15 million or more. In other words this is protection and pampering on an OTT industrial scale the likes of which almost no-one in normal life enjoys and is so extreme it wouldn’t feel earned or deserved, no matter who was earning it.

 

Okay, so why don’t other rich sports people attract the same criticism?
Because football is the most popular sport on earth, thus in the forefront of a lot of minds. Also, and importantly, the money they earn is guaranteed wages as opposed to winnings. Golfers, tennis players and boxers earn most of their income from prize money, or from endorsements which are a result of being a winner. To earn big they need to win big and win often and they don’t have 10 other team-mates to support them or make them look good. That’s why some people see theirs as the far bigger achievements and more worthy of the reward. Joelinton on the other hand will earn £320,000 quid every month of his six-year contract at Newcastle regardless of whether they win anything, regardless if he ever plays a first-team game again. That just doesn’t seem right to some people.

 

But what about F1 drivers? They’re on big wages and no-one is telling them to contribute to the NHS
To some extent it’s a numbers game. There are just a lot more footballers than F1 drivers and only six F1 drivers earn more in a year than Joelinton, who earns more even than Kimi Raikkonen, who has won 21 races and a championship. Joelinton hasn’t won anything and has scored one goal in 25 league games. That’s why some people think footballers are paid too much for doing and achieving too little.

 

But football is an entertainment business, and no-one has a go at musicians who earn big money…
That’s because their income is seen as deserved through popularity. Ed Sheeran earned an eye-watering £339,000 per day last year through sales, royalties and touring. People love him and his music. But if he starts doing two-hour cover versions of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, no-one will buy a ticket or the songs, as it is largely industrial noise and thus of niche appeal, so his income would drop commensurately. However, if Joelinton plays football that no-one wants to see, his income won’t drop by a penny. He doesn’t even need to play in the first team for his whole six-year contract and still collect 25 million quid in wages. To many that feels very lop-sided in the player’s favour and it aggravates fans to know a player is in poor form and still hoovering up vast sums of cash.

 

But what about movie stars then? They can earn loads, why don’t people criticise their pay?
Because they are contracted to perform to a standard based on past performances and their own personal commerciality. Their remuneration is contingent on reaching that standard. If they turn up and can’t remember their lines, recite them badly, act terribly, or if they are injured and can’t work, they’ll likely be sued for breach of contract. If Joelinton never scores another goal in the duration of his six-year deal – which is his job as a striker – Newcastle United cannot expect such legal remedy. There is no financial jeopardy related to performance; that’s another reason people naturally see the footballer as undeservingly rewarded.

 

But almost no-one is a talented footballer, they’re paid highly for being in an elite and have spent years honing their talent. Why is that a problem for people?
Because other important elites who have also spent years honing their talent are rarely paid anywhere near as much. For example, the average pay for a neurosurgeon in the UK is £91k per year while top earners get nearer £300k, which is less than many footballers. Training to be a neurosurgeon typically takes eight years and you don’t even get free underwear. There were 301 neurosurgeons in England in 2016. There are 511 Premier League footballers. Joelinton earns more in a month than the highest-paid brain driller in a year, and if he has an off-day he won’t kill anyone. That’s why some people don’t buy the ‘elite’ argument for their level of pay.

 

Okay, but you can’t blame the players. Everyone wants to be rich. Nobody would turn down the money.
You can’t blame the players, no, but not everyone wants to be massively rich and neither needs nor has any use for so much money. We all know that money can’t buy you love. Increasingly, there is an understanding that there is clinical evidence that happiness or contentment does not increase with ever-greater wealth after around £70k per year. Endless consumption is also overusing the earth’s resources and largely behind climate change. To some, this just makes footballers’ wages seem not merely ridiculous, but pointless and actually environmentally destructive.

 

But footballers work hard at training, keeping fit and have to be incredible athletes. That’s why they get paid so much.
Some critics don’t see this as exceptional enough behaviour for the level of reward. Paying Joelinton nearly £4 million a year to do a few hours in the gym every week and sometimes play two games of football looks pretty much like a part-time job to many regular workers. And even then, like every amateur player, most players can still only kick the ball with one foot and still hit the first man when taking a corner. That’s why it feels like too much money for not enough work to some people. If the training made everyone as brilliant as Lionel Messi or CR7, perhaps many would feel differently, But it doesn’t.

 

Club owners are all billionaires, why aren’t they getting it in the neck for not bailing the game out of its current financial hole?
Because they’re distant and anonymous, whereas footballers are near and prominent. Also the players, managers and agents are the only people who make money out of football and are the reason so few clubs make a profit. So it’s inevitable many people will logically think the onus lies with the biggest beneficiaries like Joelinton to allow the clubs to survive. When you’re the biggest drain on income and you won’t help reduce those costs in order to keep the lowest-paid people at the club in employment, you can expect that to provoke critics. There is no innate right for a club to exist and no right for its owners to keep hosing money into the playing staff accounts when no income is coming into the business.

 

Football clubs are packed every week. They’re a massively popular attraction, so why can’t people accept that the performers fans come to see are deservedly highly paid?
Because football has always been a really popular game. The current players are not making it any more popular or inventing anything new; they are merely the beneficiaries of football’s pre-existing popularity. And anyway, a club is much more than those who briefly play for it. It is an entity above and beyond its current employees or owners in a way that no other business really is. People are, in essence, supporting the shirt. As Jerry Seinfeld once said, at the end of the day, we’re all just cheering on laundry.

Think of it this way: thousands will still go to St James’ Park to watch the Magpies regardless of whether Joelinton is playing or not, and they will go in their thousands long after Joelinton has gone. There is little or no demand to see Joelinton play football. That’s why many will inevitably and logically ask, why is Joelinton being so highly paid?

 

Isn’t this all just market forces? They get what the market will pay. It’s all supply and demand.
That is an easy conclusion to come to and there must be a supply and demand element somewhere in the equation. But is there really any demand to see Joelinton play? No. There’s a demand to see Newcastle United play. That’s different. Traditionally, the way market forces work is when lots of people really want something there isn’t much of – in this case an excellent footballer – the price is driven up and up until it is beyond the reach of all but one.

But was there really another club who would have bought Joelinton for £39 million, so Newcastle HAD to pay 40? It seems unlikely. If so, which club was it? And did Newcastle really have to pay him £80,000 per week? Would he not sign to play for £79K? Or was there another club who were prepared to pay him £79,000 so Newcastle had to pay 80 to get his services? That also seems very unlikely. So where are the traditional market forces competing with each other and driving up Joelinton’s transfer fee and wages? They don’t seem present.

Obviously, any player’s club can name their price and another club can either match it or just not get the player, maybe that’s what happened with the Brazilian and Hoffenheim, but that’s not competitive market forces in the way we normally mean. All too often transfer fees and wages just seem utterly arbitrary and impossible to rationalise.

 

They’re just working class lads who’ve done well for themselves. They do lots of good work in the community and I’d rather they got the money than anyone else.
Many agree, but still feel that it shouldn’t be down to the individual generosity and largesse of rich footballers, or anyone else for that matter, to effectively bail out governments from properly funding things such as the NHS.

NHS charities shouldn’t need to exist to provide money for the service and only do so because of systemic underfunding, which is a wilful and deliberate political choice. It shouldn’t be a footballer’s job to individually ameliorate an economic system which requires food banks to exist in a country that is often trumpeted as the fifth biggest economy on the planet. If you want everyone to feel included and valued in society, do not make some of them dependent on the voluntarily donated crumbs from the groaning table of the richest, even if those donations are made out of kindness and in good faith. No-one should be relying on a handout from Joelinton, so to endorse his and other players’ wage levels is to harden and embed such dependencies, rather than finding a systemic solution to the problem.

But obviously, mostly, it’s all about the free underpants. What sort of world is it where multi-millionaires get free underpants?

 

John Nicholson

More Related Articles