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9 April 2020updated 14 Apr 2020 8:08am

The Premier League must do more to tackle coronavirus, but players shouldn’t be scapegoats

The burden of responsibility should be shifted to the boardrooms.

By Rohan Banerjee

As the coronavirus pandemic has spread, the financial ethics of the football industry have been called into question. With NHS staff and other key workers such as supermarket employees and delivery drivers toiling around the clock to keep people safe, the exorbitant sums received by Premier League players have attracted renewed scrutiny. 

The average top-flight footballer is paid, according to the latest Global Sports Salary Survey, over £3m a year. The average wage for a first-team squad member in England’s top division is around £61,000 a week – a figure that has increased by more than £10,000 since the 2017/18 season. At the upper end of the Premier League wage range, Manchester City’s squad earn, on average, £134,000 a week (£6.98m a year) before performance-related bonuses.

With the football calendar in England currently suspended due to social distancing measures, many people have been antagonised by the thought of multi-millionaire athletes being paid to do light exercises in and around their homes. Such feelings have been exacerbated by some Premier League clubs, including Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur, taking advantage of the government’s Job Retention Scheme to pay 80 per cent of the salaries of some non-playing personnel, such as groundsmen, match-day stewards, and box office staff – many of whom are paid the national minimum wage.

In truth, the Premier League, thanks to lucrative sponsorship and the broadcasting deals that have swelled since its formation in 1992, not to mention ticket receipts, has ample money to spare. According to the league’s latest financial results, it had £1.5bn in cash reserves among its 20 member clubs. That doesn’t include any of the personal fortunes of club owners – of whom 15 are billionaires.

While some are richer than others, none of the clubs could really attest to being a struggling firm, and when the coronavirus crisis does eventually ease, none will find it hard to reclaim their customers, such is the sport’s popularity.

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Premier League players, more so than other high-earning celebrities, have been made convenient scapegoats for the shortcomings of successive governments. On 2 April, the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, suggested at a press conference that top-flight footballers should “take a pay cut and play their part” during the coronavirus pandemic. 

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According to figures released by HMRC, a total of 21,000 people in the UK earned £1m or more in the 2019/20 tax year. Those people contributed approximately £20bn in tax over that period. As of the current football season, this includes 489 registered players in the Premier League, representing around 2 per cent of those high earners. 

It’s difficult to argue that Premier League footballers aren’t overpaid, but the same criticism can be directed at numerous sectors and industries. Salaries are not, it should be acknowledged, a measurement of moral virtue or technical skill – but rather, in theory, an indication of an employee’s relative value to their company. In any case, that healthcare professionals have been chronically underpaid for many years is not the fault of the football industry. 

It would appear that at least some of the scapegoating of Premier League stars is rooted in class prejudice. Many footballers come from poorer backgrounds and are self-made, and only have a limited time to exercise their peak earning power (most players retire in their 30s). Bankers are not so constrained.

Yet while football has perhaps been unfairly maligned, the sport should be doing more. The bulk of responsibility, however, should be shifted away from the players and on to the sport’s governing bodies and institutions. 

Football’s real money men are not the Premier League players who, optimistically, have ten years at the top, but rather the club owners, chairmen, directors and shareholders who make the important decisions that affect supporters and the rest of society. For example, it is Mike Ashley, the owner of Newcastle United who is worth close to £2bn, who has chosen to continue to take season ticket payments from fans despite the pandemic and to make use of the government’s furlough scheme, not his players.

The Premier League’s member clubs are, in response to public pressure, asking their players to accept a 30 per cent pay cut. This is currently being resisted by the players’ union, the Professional Footballers’ Association, on the grounds that cutting player wages would reduce their tax contribution and, therefore, be less beneficial to the NHS. 

Some suspect that Premier League owners and boards are hoping to force players to bear the brunt of any loss in broadcasting or sponsorship revenue that might result if this season is voided. The Premier League’s member clubs have committed to a £20m donation to the NHS and social care organisations between them. But this is, as the former England captain Wayne Rooney wrote in his Sunday Times column, a “drop in the ocean” compared with the £500m that the PFA estimates the division would save if players agreed to the proposed wage cut.

Ultimately, the Premier League has enough money to cope with coronavirus – and then some. The league can, and needs to, support the rest of the English football pyramid. Rooney made the important point that people’s tendency to view English football purely through the lens of the Premier League belies the reality that the rest of it, from the Championship downwards, isn’t worth nearly as much.

The Premier League needs to recognise its responsibilities to the other divisions. While some clubs in the third or fourth tier, for instance, might be worried about keeping the lights on after coronavirus, the 20 top-flight clubs do not have any such concerns. If, for argument’s sake, all Premier League clubs voted to give £300,000 to each League One and Two club, the total cost would be less than £15m. Last summer, Newcastle spent nearly three times that amount on buying a striker who has scored one league goal all season.

If the season is completed and Premier League clubs receive their usual cascade of TV money, they can afford to forego at least one signing in the transfer window in order to help keep clubs outside the top flight afloat, without cutting players’ wages, and without furloughing non-playing staff. If the season is voided, there’s still enough money in reserve to pay wages and donate to other divisions, the NHS, and the many ancillary businesses that rely on match-day footfall for much of their custom.

Indeed, consider the wisdom of Forrest Gump. “There’s only so much money a man really needs,” muses the film’s titular character. “The rest is just for showing off.” And one would hope that the difficulties faced by the people who turn up to watch the Premier League in their droves every week would awaken the game’s charitable instincts.

The #PlayersTogether fund for the NHS announced on 8 April is a welcome start, but the scale of the crisis means that much more is needed. Yet as the football industry faces difficult questions, it is worth noting that the players are offering suggestions more readily than those in the boardrooms above them.