This summer’s football transfer window has so far revolved around talk of Kylian Mbappe’s potential move to Real Madrid from Paris Saint-Germain. The French forward is one of football’s hottest and most exciting prospects, and with his old contract due to expire in the summer of 2022, this year, and his consistently imposing performances on the pitch in recent years, it was only natural that the speculation surrounding a potential transfer for the 23-year-old would be monumental.
After PSG had been crowned winners of Ligue 1 for the eighth time in ten seasons, with Mbappe playing a critical role in all of their league campaigns following his signing from AS Monaco in the summer of 2017, the Frenchman announced that he would be staying with the French champions, signing a monumental 3 year deal that would once again transform the landscape of money in professional football.
Mbappe is set to earn around £1 million per week as part of his salary, with an additional, gigantic signing on fee in the region of £100 million. The deal also involves PSG’s full concession of Mbappe’s image rights, meaning that the young footballer will receive 100% of any profit made from promotional material that he is involved in outside of the club, as well as a new role for the player on the club’s board of directors. The forward will, for the remainder of his contract, have a say in the club’s transfer policy, as well as their appointment and dismissal of future managers.
A contract of this magnitude and significance both within and outside of the men’s professional game is unprecedented in the history of sports and finance, marking a critical juncture for the role of money in the game.
This article will unravel the nature and role of money in modern professional football, charting the growing prominence of money and wealth in the game, and locating some of the critical moments at which sporting contracts and negotiations became increasingly centred around financial gain for the player.
Our findings will be used to determine whether the pursuit for equal pay between male and female athletes in football, and the wider sporting world in general, will be one that is increasingly difficult to achieve with the now ubiquitous role of wealthy financial benefactors funding the men’s game.
Commercialisation in the Modern Game
Professional football in recent years can be largely defined by an influx of overseas financial and commercial investment, elevating the standard, and indeed the stakes, of the game to an otherwise unprecedented degree.
A number of ruling factors, most notably the growth of sponsorships and selling of broadcasting rights for professional football matches, the formation and subsequent dominance of the Premier League as a commercial brand, the growing authority of players and agents at the negotiation table, and the formation and expansion of the Champions League, have invited greater financial investment from interested parties, and contributed to a state of inequality between football clubs in favour of the more commercial and prominent footballing outfits.
Though the commercialisation of the English professional game cannot be said to have suddenly began around the time of the formation of the Premier League in 1992, it was certainly catalysed, both by this, and by the purchase of Blackburn Rovers by native businessman Jack Walker, in 1991.
The huge financial investment that the club enjoyed in the four years between their takeover and their first, and only, Premier League title in 1995, convinced competitive rivals and outside investors that spending big was the way to go, to advance the successes of clubs both on and off the pitch.
Blackburn’s Premier League triumph initiated an almost chain-reaction process of outside interest in the English game, and the commercial assets, the football clubs, that came with it.
Around the time that football clubs were experiencing big-money takeovers, players began to realise what exactly the principal factor responsible for revenue generation was inside of the club – the players themselves.
As the brand of the Premier League began to grow, fans from across the world became far more engrossed in the talent and ability of the individuals they were watching every weekend, sometimes more so than that of the football clubs they were representing. This is made explicitly visible on social media, where individual players regularly outperform football clubs, in terms of followers and engagement, on platforms such as Instagram and Twitter.
Footballers were beginning to realise their own inherent value, not only to their own clubs, but potentially to other clubs as well. The world’s greatest and most sought after players were able to steadily ramp up their wage demands, commanding bigger salaries from their own, or interested, clubs, that would encourage them to stay, or lure them away.
The power of the player and the agent at the negotiation table has increased to such an extent, that players like Neymar Jr., a Brazilian forward who transferred from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain in 2017 for a reported fee of around €222 million, are able to insert clauses into contracts that reward them, for example, with €2.5 million per year simply for not criticising the manager’s decisions on the pitch, and a further €375,000 per year for greeting fans before and after games.
It is important to note, however, that with all this investment into professional football clubs and the Premier League in recent years, it is only really the men’s game that has been able to truly reap the rewards of this period of huge financial speculation. Relatively speaking, the women’s game has seen very minimal investment overall, meaning that the pursuit for equal pay between men and women in professional football is becoming a more difficult goal to achieve.
The Women’s Game and Equal Pay
The topic of equal pay between male and female athletes is a naturally difficult one to navigate. Of course, differences of gender alone should never restrict individuals from achieving a certain pay grade or, at least, the same pay grade as their male peers. It is, however, the result of years of financial negligence towards the women’s game that has contributed to the rising prominence of disputes surrounding equal pay.
Without the same level of grassroots investment that the men’s game receives, the overall quality of the women’s game is likely to suffer as a result; the eventual outcome of this being that the professional, very often televised men’s game is a more popular product for audience members, meaning that it is able to generate greater overall revenue, and therefore fund the inflating demands of male footballers and their agents.
This is compounded by the fact that the Premier League as a brand is a largely dominant factor in persuading domestic or foreign investors to buy into English football in the first place. The Premier League is the crown jewel of English football, as it has the possibility of making backers the greatest return on their initial investment, therefore it is likely to receive the most financial and corporate attention. The same can be said for the Champions League, when it comes to football clubs operating both domestically and overseas.
But what can be done about this clear and widening schism between male and female professional footballers?
We have started to see, with the introduction of foreign investment into the English game, that football clubs are beginning to disperse this wealth more evenly across their various teams and youth teams. Manchester City, Arsenal, and Chelsea, for example, are all clubs that have experienced huge foreign investment in recent years, and have started to actively put money into their women’s teams, a process that has produced great levels of success both domestically and internationally.
However, there is still much more to do; footballing bodies such as the FA, UEFA, and FIFA, need to formulate an investment programme that will establish the men’s and women’s game as an equally desirable product, for both investors and audiences.
This will draw more eyes to the women’s game, which will naturally encourage further investment from interested companies hoping to advertise or promote; in the same way that male professional players very regularly agree lucrative contract deals with sporting brands like Nike and Adidas, female players will be able to demand equally rewarding contracts.
Furthermore, a bolstered popularity for the women’s game will increase the value of the individual player to football clubs, enabling players to demand equally lucrative contracts from the clubs themselves.
A clearer and more effective policy for grassroots investment, though, is the critical first step that English football must be prepared to take, if we are to get any closer to our goal of equal pay between men and women, not only in professional football, but in the global sporting world more generally.
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- Bi, Yuan, ‘Integration or Resistance: The Influx of Foreign Capital in British Football in the Transnational Age’, in Soccer & Society, Vol. 16, No. 1 (2015), 17-41, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/14660970.2013.828603?needAccess=true.
- Lonsdale, Chris, ‘Player Power: Capturing Value in the English Football Supply Network’, in Supply Chain Management, Vol. 9, Issue 5 (2004), 383-391, https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/13598540410560766/full/pdf?title=player-power-capturing-value-in-the-english-football-supply-network.
- Platts, Chris, and Smith, Andy, “Money, Money, Money?’: The Development of Financial Inequalities in English Professional Football’, in Soccer & Society, Vol. 11, No. 5 (2010), 643-658, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/14660970.2010.497365?needAccess=true.