Ronaldo and Messi Put Players in England to Shame

Alex Webb

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As excuses go, rejecting a pay cut because you want to pay more taxes has to be up there with the best of them. And yet, that’s exactly what English soccer’s labor union, the Professional Footballers Association, resorted to over the weekend in rebuffing a proposal from the Premier League to cut player pay by 30% to alleviate the bite from the Covid-19 lockdown.

It’s a shameless gambit on behalf of the players which reflects poorly on Britain’s most prominent modern cultural export — its top soccer competition — which is watched by 3.2 billion people around the world, fans for whom last weekend’s canceled fixture between league leaders Liverpool F.C. and Manchester City F.C. would have been a priority.

Slashing players’ wages, the union argued, would deprive the U.K. Treasury of more than 200 million pounds ($246 million) of income. That’s not untrue based on the country’s 45% top tax rate and the 1.5 billion pounds spent on Premier League talents’ salaries each year. Yet it fails to take into account the potential cost to taxpayers of the Premier League club’s furloughed workers who don’t earn their income kicking around an inflated pig’s bladder (or at least, a latex bladder wrapped in polyurethane panels). A back-of-the-envelope calculation shows it would cost the government around 200 million pounds if all of the Premier League’s 20 teams were to furlough their non-playing staff workers.(1) 

Of course the 30% wage cut and deferrals being mooted by the Premier League would reduce the clubs’ costs by considerably more — in excess of 400 million pounds this year. But as the league says, the clubs are facing “substantial and continued losses” because no games are being played. It’s only fair that their single biggest cost, the players, should make sacrifices.

This isn’t sitting well with some of the players. In a Sunday Times column, the former England star Wayne Rooney asked, “Why are footballers suddenly the scapegoats?” Rooney, who currently plies his trade for second-tier Derby County F.C., carped that the move aims to force players “into a corner where they have to pick up the bill for lost revenue.” 

He’s quite right, that’s exactly what’s happening. And rightly so. The players are paid to entertain millions of people live in stadiums and on TV. They’re not doing that at the moment, and many of the people who ultimately pay them to do so — the fans — are lining up in the jobless queue after being laid off.

During such an extraordinary time of fear and uncertainty, people want their sports idols to be role models for us all. That was apparently lost on the England defender Kyle Walker who broke with government guidance to self-isolate to hold a “lockdown party” complete with sex workers. The Man City player issued an apology on Sunday after it was reported by the tabloids.

Some players are contributing to the Covid-19 battle, and there’s a move led by Liverpool F.C. captain Jordan Henderson to set up a charitable foundation. But a collective wage gesture by Premier League stars seems an easy way for players to show they understand the gravity of the situation. A player giving up 30% of the league’s median 2.3 million pounds-per-year salary would cover the household income of 24 other normal jobs.

Elsewhere in Europe, though, players are stepping up to the mark. In Spain, F.C. Barcelona’s playing squad, the best paid team in global sport, is voluntarily taking a 70% wage cut in order to cover other employees’ paychecks.

There are differences, I get it. Barcelona is owned by its fans, while Premier League clubs are all privately owned. That means a player agreeing to forgo some pay in England risks simply lining the pockets of the club owner. But that hasn’t stopped Juventus Football Club SpA, the publicly traded Italian team controlled by the Agnelli family, from reaching a deal with its players and coach to sacrifice three months’ salary. Barca’s Lionel Messi and Juve’s Cristiano Ronaldo — the greatest players of their generation — are acting like the role models they’re supposed to be.

There’s an argument to be made that the clubs should absorb some costs themselves. Both Tottenham Hotspur F.C. and Newcastle F.C., teams already using the furlough program, have fabulously wealthy owners, for instance. For Spurs, it’s the Bahamas-based currency trader Joe Lewis, whose net worth is $5.3 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. For the Magpies, it’s retail magnate Mike Ashley, worth $2.4 billion. Both have cash assets of more than $1 billion, per the ranking. Tapping that to pay non-playing staff wouldn’t impact the financial fair play rules that limit spending on the first-team squad.

Crucially, though, those financial regulations mean that players are essentially paid by what clubs make from fans. Players might argue that they have, at most, 15 years’ earning power as a professional athlete, so they need to earn every penny possible while they can. But a few months’ reduced salary when you’re stuck at home kicking a ball against a wall rather than performing for a crowd, while others are risking their lives to treat the sick or keep the local grocery store open and stocked, is no real sacrifice. The two are not mutually exclusive: it’s not unreasonable to expect both the players and the owners to stomach the pain. And it’s far better for the players to assume the moral high ground, and kick the focus to the owners.

(Corrects currency conversion in third paragraph.)

(1) That’s based on the assumption that each team has 500 non-playing staff earning the U.K. median annual income, 80% of which would be covered under the current coronavirus layoffprogram.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Alex Webb is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Europe's technology, media and communications industries. He previously covered Apple and other technology companies for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.

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