Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you have probably heard that Lionel Messi has just tearfully ended his glittering 21-year football career at Barcelona. As expected, his farewell speech was quite an emotional affair.
Thankfully for Mr Messi, his new contract at Paris Saint-Germain, and the resultant €30 million-per-year windfall in his bank account, can be quite an effective consolation. So why are footballers paid so much for doing so little?
During the recent Tokyo Olympics, we had the privilege to see some of the world’s top athletes in action. While a lot of these sports require just as much talent and hard work as football, very few of them, if any, can compete in terms of their money-making capabilities. The latter happens to be a more popular sport, which has been successfully commercialised.
When companies recognised the potential of football for marketing purposes, commercial revenues such as sponsorship contracts and merchandising sales went through the roof. For example, PSG will be able to fully cover Messi’s wages by just one bumper sponsorship deal, an €80 million per year contract with their kit manufacturer, Nike.
Another game-changer was the development of broadcasting deals. To put things in perspective, the first package of the English Premier League TV rights was sold at an inflation-adjusted figure of £404 million for the 1992-1995 period. For the upcoming 2022-2025 period, the Premier League has renewed its TV rights deal for £4.8 billion.
Through commercialisation, the possibility of a football career is as within reach as it has ever been, however, the odds of making it as a professional player are still immensely slim. In England for example, there are 1.5 million aspiring footballers in the country’s organised youth system, but there are only around 200 local players in this year’s Premier League squads.
Although luck definitely plays a part, most of the selection process can be attributed to differences in quality. Even within those 200 most in-demand players, the difference in quality between the top few, and the bottom pool, is clearly visible, even to the untrained eye. This situation is similar to varying degrees across all levels of the football pyramid.
This gap is also reflected in the salary figures. For example, PSG will be forking out an estimated €5.3 million per month for the services of Messi, but that is by no means an accurate indication of what the typical player earns. In fact, it is 56 times more than the average player salary in that same league, at €94,000 a month.
How can this be explained? Like many things in life, it boils down to the law of supply and demand. While there are 20 teams demanding adequate forwards in France, there is a substantial supply of players who fit the bill. However, there is only one Lionel Messi. In his case, it is almost impossible to find a replacement of similar quality, who is likely to make such a difference on the pitch.
Applying the same reasoning to a broader perspective, while a factory worker puts in longer hours than an elite footballer, the harsh truth is that the former is much easier to replace than the latter.
At the end of the day, top footballers get paid so much because we decided that football is something worth spending money on, whether it’s match tickets, TV subscriptions or club merchandise. That is all money that is ending up in the football economy, with funds disproportionately directed towards the top clubs.
Unless we, as fans, decide that we are taking this game way too seriously and spending too much money on it, we can’t expect to stop hearing such news and inflated figures. The simple fact is that those sums of money are present in the football industry, and they will end up in one of only two realistic destinations, either in the club owners’ pockets or in the footballers' pockets. Most fans would prefer the latter as, at least, these are the people who we enjoy watching perform week in, week out.
It is positive that through social media, fans put pressure on these high-income earners to do some form of charity work, considering their financial luck. However, we do have the option to spend less on this little hobby of ours, helping to stop inflating these figures even further. Who knows, maybe we’ll even be able to do some of that charity we all like so much ourselves then.