A wage cap in football


In a recent BBC documentary in which Lord Alan Sugar (kind of) tackled the financial problems in football, it was decided that the amount of money that a footballer earns is the main financial issue for football clubs. Sides such as Portsmouth (FA Cup winners in 2008) and West Ham (FA Cup runners-up in 2006) have both paid out high wages in pursuit of glory and, while they may have got it in the short-term, with turnover falling, the wages became too much to bear, with both sides being forced into a change of ownership and both now plying their trade in the Championship. Both sides have had to, and continue to, re-build.

To help pay the wages, clubs increase ticket prices, obtain lucrative sponsorship deals and, as is common in the modern game, receive vast sums of money (loans) from rich owners. A top-flight football club’s finances are tentatively balanced – one kind of income diminishing, or even vanishing, could make one expense unbearable.
The increase in wages isn’t exactly a new trend – since 1961 (when the maximum wage was abolished) the average weekly wage of a footballer has risen from £20 to £33,868. There are now players earning above £200,000-a-week in the English Premier League, and it is common for clubs in the top half of the league to pay even the most average of players at around £60,000-per-week. If wages continue to rise like this, it surely won’t be too long before we see the first £1 million-a-week player.
Of course, like transfer fees, wages don’t indicate a player’s worth; clubs will pay the amount they are happy to or can afford to pay and players (or rather, agents) will try and get as much money as they can. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Clearly, there’s a certain morality issue here but no one can really blame a footballer for taking more money – or trying to get more money – when it is obviously available to them.
You can blame the clubs to a certain extent as, once one club gives a player an obscene amount of money, other players are going to think they can get that amount too and, eventually, it all spirals out of control. You could also blame the people that run the game, be it on a worldwide level or national level, as they should, for the good of the game, be looking over the club’s shoulder to check that their finances are up to scratch and can therefore afford these wages. That’s not their priority – clubs should be able to run themselves without intervention from FIFA, UEFA or The FA – but it’s not something that football organisations can just brush away and say ‘it’s not our problem’.

‘Not my problem’
The trouble is, you can’t just impose a wage cap and be done with it. Players have mortgages, bills and wives to pay; their lives are structured around their earnings, just like the rest of the working population. I’m going to assume that footballers budget, or get someone else to budget for them; I can’t see Wayne Rooney sitting in front Microsoft Excel on a quiet evening, if I’m honest, but to take away a large chunk of his income straight away would surely cause him and his family problems as they struggle to pay for their £2.8 million house and god-knows-how-many cars.
A wage cap would have to be slowly integrated into the sport. One idea, then, would be for youngsters entering the sport to only ever earn a certain amount a week. This would mean that certain players would fall under a wage cap and others wouldn’t but, as time passes, those that earn obscene amounts will eventually retire, while clubs could be advised to lower their wages as much as possible right away.
There will of course be problems, mainly the fact that there will be quite a large wage gap, even between players at the same club. But again, by the end of process, wages would become standardised across the league, or maybe even across the world – although a system would have to be devised relating to a league’s income.
Players could earn more with more years in the game, i.e. experience-related pay, but even then their wage should be no more than a certain amount. For clarity’s sake, I’m going to suggest £50,000-a-week as being a ‘reasonable’ wage. It’s still obscene that a person can earn that much in a week, but I don’t think many fans would have to much of a problem with that sum when you consider a top-flight club’s income. And this, of course, could just be a starting block – the maximum wage could be lowered later on if need be.
People inside the game, and some outside of it, argue that the clubs have huge incomes and, because the players are ultimately the people who make them that money (without the players, there isn’t a football team), they are the ones who deserve a fair portion of the cash. To a certain extent, that’s true, and I don’t expect footballers to earn a ‘normal’ wage (although that wouldn’t be insupportable, would it?), they should just earn a ‘reasonable’ wage.

I think it’s fair to say that Stephen Ireland has too much money

And in any case, the initial income of a football club is sometimes a kind of effect of wages, as prices of tickets and merchandise rise to help fund the players – lower wages would mean lower prices, which would equal less money coming in but less money going out. It’s a vicious circle.
There’s also an argument to say that there would be a negative impact on the league on the whole, worsening the appeal of the Premier League both for the players and, therefore, sponsors. Without wanting to sound too old-fashioned, I think most fans would rather have players at their club who want to be there instead of those there purely for the money. Obviously the fact that they’re there purely for the money isn’t a problem in itself as the player could still work hard and give his all for the team – it’s when that effort diminishes that there’s an issue. The point is, a player should want to come to the club because of the club, not the money on offer. Plus, the appeal of the Premier League seems pretty insignificant when a club begins to struggle financially or, if the worse comes to worse, go into administration. 
There are legal issues with a maximum wage – which was the main factor for the abolishment of the original rule in 1961 – but something, without a doubt, needs to be done. The plan outlined above isn’t perfect and I’m sure financial experts (in case you haven’t guessed, I’m not one) will pick the bones out of it.
But the current scheme of allowing clubs to pay whatever they want for a player is extremely flawed, both in a football and morality sense. When a club throws caution to the wind and pays over-the-odds for players, that is of course their own fault and most clubs do have their own wage structures to prevent financial problems.
Yet still, no one appears to be taking the blame. No one appears to care that footballers earn more than they deserve and no one is there to help when a football club ruins itself under the burden of player wages. There maybe isn’t a perfect solution, but the situation is just going to get worse unless something is done.
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