Why are football players paid so much?

We’re used to seeing the best sports players in the world being rewarded with enormous contracts, but in some sports, the escalation in wages and player value has been dramatic, and none more so than the most popular global game of all: football.

This wasn’t always the case though. Football began as a game played and watched by blue-collar workers in Europe and South America, and for much of its early history, these players were amateurs. When the game became professional, the wages paid, even to its top stars, were barely more than the wages of the average worker of the time. Given the short nature of the footballer’s career, top players in Europe were often disadvantaged financially by the time spent playing.



That began to change in the 1960s and 1970s, as players began to assert their power and demand better rewards for their efforts. When the principle of the “maximum wage” was abolished in the early 1960s, it became possible for clubs to offer ever greater sums of money to attract better players. A landmark was reached in 1979 when Nottingham Forest of the English First Division bought striker Trevor Francis in the world’s first ever million-pound transfer deal.


In 1995, the door was opened to even greater wage escalation when the EU ruled in favor of player power in the Bosman case. Post-Bosman, it was no longer possible for clubs to demand a transfer fee for players who had reached the end of their contract. The money that had previously been spent on transfer fees could be used for wage offers, and the top European clubs began to compete with one another to provide the most tempting salary.


The result has been an ever-spiraling increase in player salaries, to the point where football players are among the best-paid sports players in the world. For example, the world’s best-paid player Lionel Messi, of Barcelona and Argentina, earns an impressive $111m per year made up of $84m in salary and $27m for various endorsements. This wage escalation doesn’t apply to just the top players. An average Premier League player today earns in a week what a world-class player in the 1960s would usually earn in a year.


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Why are the best players so well-paid? There are many factors that have led to the dramatic escalation in wages, but the underlying principle is good old-fashioned supply and demand. Football is a globally popular sport, with millions of young hopefuls aiming to reach the top, but very few will be good enough to play in the best leagues and an even tinier percentage will be considered among the world’s best, able to command the biggest wages.

An example of the competitive nature of football can be found in England, where it is estimated that of the 1.5 million young players taking part in organised youth football in any given year, only 180 will ultimately make it to the Premier League as professionals. The pool of potential superstars is therefore small, yet the demand for the kind of football talent that can help a team to win trophies is insatiable. Good players not only increase a club’s chances of winning, but they can also boost the club’s profile, which in turn means that the club will be able to attract more fans and more sponsors.

In addition, football is not run on the same basis as US sport. There is no salary cap and no draft system, so there is little to stop the teams with the biggest resources simply outbidding smaller teams to secure the best talent around. However, supply and demand is only part of the picture.

The reason why companies from all sectors want to be associated with football is that it attracts a global audience of billions, offering worldwide exposure for any brand. This, in turn, enables television and other media outlets to earn big revenue from advertising, making it financially viable for broadcasters to bid huge figures for the rights to cover football. For example, the current television deal for the rights to broadcast the Premier League are worth more than $6.5bn. That money goes straight to Premier League clubs, enabling them to spend more on players.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the wage escalation will continue indefinitely. Should football experience a decline in popularity, then advertising, broadcast and sponsorship revenue would decline and player wages would have to be cut. But there’s no sign of that happening right now, and for the foreseeable future, it is likely that football player wages will continue to grow.

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