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Why are footballers paid so much?

From TV rights to shirt sponsors, take a look at the factors that have influenced players' salaries.

Shanghai Shenhua v Tianjin Quanjian - China Super League : News Photo
Carlos Tevez is currently the world’s highest paid player

With the explosive wage packages and transfer fees we’ve been seeing in the Far East, it’s easy to forget that there was a time when football wasn’t merely about finance. The last 60 years of the sport alone serve as an indication that inflation in football is unparalleled.

In 1957, a high-level English player would be on an annual salary close to £1,600 according to the PFA, which equates to roughly £75,000 today – Premier League players now hoover that up in a week. 

This rapid rise can be attributed to a host of events which have unfolded over the years and, as ever, history holds the answers. The evolution of money in football really began as far back as the late 19th century. Professionalism was legalised in 1885, allowing individuals, for the first time, to receive payment for playing football.

Introduction of the wage limit

Six years later, a £4-a-week wage limit was introduced. Since then, though, it hasn’t been a steady, exponential rise in terms of player wages, but rather a fluctuating rollercoaster. 

In 1938, for example, Bryn Jones joined Arsenal from Wolverhampton Wanderers for a then record transfer fee of £14,000 and the move spun parliamentary heads, with politicians enraged by such excessive finance.

It resulted in a fierce debate in the House of Commons and interference from the government could consequently be read as having stalled further inflation. In 1960, one year prior to one of the most significant shake-ups in the sport’s history, the gap between the average wage and an average footballer’s wage was smaller than in the years prior to the Second World War, though.

Football, 13th August 1938, Highbury, London, Bryn Jones, Arsenal+s new 14,000 transfer, is in action during a pre-season friendly : News Photo
Bryn Jones joined Arsenal from Wolverhampton Wanderers for a then record transfer fee of £14,000

Then came what we can regard as the biggest contributor to why footballers are paid so much today and how that aforementioned £14,000 record fee ballooned to the £89.3 million world record transfer fee we saw set in 2016 – the abolition of the maximum wage.

In an attempt to stop playing protests and thus appease the concerns of football clubs up-and-down the country, PFA Chairman Jimmy Hill removed the £20-a-week wage limit in 1961 and football really hasn’t been further from the modest days of black boots and semi-professionals since.

General inflation in the economy coupled with other factors such as the collective bargaining agreement of 1979 and the introduction of a private contributory pension scheme for full-time players in 1985 have also contributed over the years but the most notable spike we’ve seen in finance in football lies in its modern history.

Also read: The history of player contracts

Formation of the Premier League, influx of television money

Along with Jimmy Hill’s revolutionary abolition, February 20th, 1992 remains arguably the most intriguing moment in football – this was when English First Division outfits made the decision to resign from the existing top flight and break away to set up a new league – the Premier League.

Sky TV were to pay £191 million for five years of Premier League broadcasting rights and it was this first interference by the media which inaugurated the speediest ascendance we have perhaps ever seen and, for connoisseurs of the game, hopefully ever will see in money’s role in football.

From this point onwards, companies, not only nationwide but on a global scale, were desperate to get in on the action and finance quickly became the only fuel by which the sport could function. 

At the turn of the century, in 2001, Barclaycard would splash out £48 million for the naming rights of the reconstructed English top flight, while, just six years later, Sky TV and Setanta would fork out an eye-watering £1.7 billion between them for the rights to broadcast half a decade of Premier League football.

Also read: History of how the football transfer record was broken over the last century

The competition to attain these rights itself bumped up the cost of them and football clubs were recouping more money from TV viewership than they could handle. As a result, clubs could afford to pay more to lure big players to their clubs and a vicious circle developed.

Arsenal FC v FC Bayern Muenchen - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: Second Leg : News Photo
Emirates Airways paid Arsenal £100 million for 15 years of stadium naming rights

Along with television broadcasting came the influence of stadia naming and jersey sponsorships in boosting the amount of money circulating in the sport. Whilst grounds used to only be named on a geographical basis, stadiums are now more often than not titled based on the company behind them – Emirates Airways paid Arsenal £100 million for 15 years of stadium naming rights in 2004.

The names on the front of the shirts cannot be overlooked either – the likes of AIG, Samsung and Carlsberg have used football's fertile financial ground to plaster their name across the continent and it’s worked.

It was estimated that 180 million people across 200 different countries witnessed Barcelona’s Champions League victory over Juventus in 2015 and both ‘Jeep’ and ‘Qatar Airways’, the shirt sponsors of the two respective sides would have been imprinted on the subconscious of fans watching. 

Primera Division - 'Barcelona v Las Palmas' : News Photo
Qatar Airways were Barcelona’s sponsors in 2015

Companies have paid ridiculous amounts for such rights over the years, with football deemed one of the best stages to advertise on.

So from just a brief historical analysis of finance in the sport, it is evident that more and more money has slowly but surely weaved its way into the football web to the point where player wages and transfer fees are being deemed laughable.

Former UEFA president Michel Platini, when considering the then world record transfer fee Real Madrid paid for Cristiano Ronaldo, suggested that this inflation is tainting football today. “Players are not free and they don’t even belong to clubs…they belong to financial holdings, companies, or people”.

There’s certainly weight to Platini’s cynical claims and given the inconsistency regarding the amount of money being injected into the game over the years, there really is no telling what the future will hold.

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