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17 June 2020updated 29 Jul 2021 8:37am

What happens when sport no longer pays the bills? Covid-19 may force players to find out

While the rewards at the top are as high as ever, sport’s working poor are being cut adrift.

By Jonathan Liew

It was around the end of March, with Wimbledon cancelled and the rest of the tennis season torched to dust, that ­Naomi Broady realised she might need a plan B. Despite being one of the country’s finest tennis players – ranked in 2017 as ­Britain’s number two and with more than £1m in ­career prize money – Broady had been ­injured since ­October, and was now facing the­ ­prospect of a full year without an income. With nothing coming in and nothing on the horizon, she began idly browsing job vacancies at local supermarkets, which she had heard were hiring.

Ultimately, Broady decided against jacking in her promising tennis career for a life of shelf-stacking. But her plight is just one example of the quandary in which thousands of professional athletes find themselves, as Covid-19 shrinks their income to zero and promises only an austere future. 

Tennis, with its army of freelance gig workers traipsing the world in search of the next pay cheque, has been particularly vulnerable. But virtually no sport has been immune to the crunch. One of the many Olympians blindsided by the postponement of the Tokyo Games to 2021 is the Japanese fencer Ryo Miyake, a silver medallist at London 2012, who is currently pedalling around Tokyo delivering food for Uber Eats.

Meanwhile, English football is sitting on a ticking bomb scheduled to go off on 30 June, when, according to some estimates, more than 1,000 professional players in the lower leagues will reach the end of their contracts. Unlike their returning Premier League counterparts – who, in addition to lavish wages, will benefit from signing-on fees, add-ons, bonuses and endorsement income – the majority of lower-league players will be on five-figure, rather than seven-figure, salaries. A good number have been furloughed, and with Leagues One and Two cancelling the rest of their regular seasons, now have no shop window for their talents. As players scrabble for new employment in a shrunken market, most are about to be thrust on to a precarious treadmill of dwindling opportunities, falling wages, incentive-based, short-term contracts and, in many cases, indefinite unemployment.

At the heart of all this lies two questions: one for athletes, and one for the rest of us. When sport is your life, your passion, your reason for being, what do you do when it no longer pays the bills? And if all but the very elite are struggling to make ends meet, to what extent is it possible or useful to think of professional sport as a viable career?

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In one sense, this is a new form of an old problem. For much of the history of organised sport, sportspeople have played for a relative pittance – or, more often, for nothing at all. Olympians fitted in training around their day jobs. Footballers knew that once they hung up their boots they would need to find a pub somewhere to go and run. Cricketers would seek other employment during the winter months. Rugby union was played entirely by amateurs until the 1990s.

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Underpinning this seasonal micro- economy was an unspoken pact: that ultimately sport was its own reward; players were remunerated in medals and memories and trophies as much as actual money. As for the wider audience, we were not unduly interested in the pecuniary concerns of the stars we were watching. It would not have occurred to us to watch the first round of Wimbledon, say, or a county cricket game, and wonder whether the participants were able to put food on the table.

Today’s sporting economy looks ­vastly different. Recently, Forbes announced that Cristiano Ronaldo had become the first footballer to amass $1bn (£792m) in ­earnings. Chelsea are about to warp the laws of pandemic finance by blowing £53m on the German forward Timo Werner. The Premier League has returned with a flourish, eager to claw back as much broadcast revenue as it can before the summer ends. Roger Federer, with an estimated $100m ­endorsement portfolio, will have earned more during the pandemic than most journeyman players do in their entire careers.

Even in a depressed market, the money is clearly still there. The real question is where it’s all going. Sport’s working poor are being cut adrift – a process that may already have been under way before the pandemic, but will almost certainly be accelerated as a result of it. The rewards at the top will be as high as ever, but the number of people able to derive a basic living from sport is almost certain to fall sharply.

Perhaps the most relevant parallel is with the music industry, in which there has been a dramatic concentration of wealth among its elite performers over the past couple of decades. According to the Princeton economist Alan Krueger, the top 1 per cent of performing musicians generated 60 per cent of all concert revenues in 2017. The rest are condemned to an existence of precarity and penury, competing for a diminishing share of the spoils, trapped in a system that ­rewards those with existing connections and the independent means to keep ­plugging away for free.

Of course, sport has a built-in meritocracy. You win or you don’t, and, for the most part, the available rewards reflect that. But every star who ever made their fortune from sport started out earning nothing at all. Every industry needs a pyramid, a flow of talent, something to drive aspiration. In order for the world’s number one tennis player to earn millions, you need the world’s number 200 to be able to feed their family. In order to generate the next Ronaldo, you need to have something to offer the dozens of players who come close, but don’t quite make it. Otherwise, before long, embarking on a ­career in sport is going to feel less like a function of hard work and talent, and more like buying a ticket in a rigged lottery.

This article appears in the 17 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The History Wars