When the Premier League was launched in 1992, Manchester United and Liverpool had payrolls of £8million each.
As the intervening 30 years have passed, the large sums of money spent by broadcasters to secure TV deals to broadcast the competition has transformed England’s top flight and played a key role in player wages skyrocketing.
Then came greater overseas investment into English clubs, as Premier League owners shifted away from the local-boy-done-good businessman of old to Russian oligarchs, United States-based consortiums and companies linked to nation states, and took footballers’ salaries to a new stratosphere.
According to recent figures, Manchester City are the Premier League’s highest-paying club, spending around £355m ($430m) a year on player wages, with Chelsea’s the second-biggest total at £343m.
Manchester United’s annual wage bill is now £323m, and Liverpool’s sits at £314m. The two north London arch-rivals Arsenal (£244m) and Tottenham Hotspur (£205m) are fifth and sixth on the league’s list of the biggest payers.
Looking at individuals, United are paying forward Cristiano Ronaldo in the region of £450,000 ($544,000) a week — which makes him their, and the Premier League’s, top earner ever… so far.
In 1992, Liverpool winger John Barnes was in the headlines having become the first British-based player to get a five-figure weekly salary.
This comparison highlights how the influx of money via broadcasters, commercial deals and wealthy club owners has transformed the business of football.
“The Premier League is widely regarded as the best league in world football and the money’s followed,” says Dr Dan Plumley, a sports finance expert and senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. “So, what we’ve seen with that is the majority of that money has gone into player wages.
“We talk about football as the people’s game, and yet there are a lot of people that watch football and have done so throughout their lives that are never even going to get close to those salaries. So you’ve got this kind of weird disconnect, it’s classed as the people’s game — and that’s where it kind of came from — but the wages have exploded.
“We don’t class them as normal wages compared to what we see in society, and that is where this fixation comes from.”
Cristiano Ronaldo is on the Premier League’s highest-ever wages at Manchester United (Photo: Getty Images)
And as salaries continue to go up, the fascination with knowing what clubs are paying their players has not waned.
Yes, we complain about how out of touch it has become from the rest of society, but there is still that desire to find out what the footballers we watch every week are banking each month — even if, for some, it is just to reiterate a common complaint that they are overpaid.
There is, however, an alternative view.
Ellis Cashmore, an honorary professor of sociology at Aston University in Birmingham and the co-author of 2016 book Studying Football, believes society has come to accept the vast sums footballers make.
“Who isn’t a celeb nowadays? Politicians. Military leaders. Lottery winners. During the lockdown, a coterie of celebrity medics emerged. So athletes and their partners (male or female) can hardly escape being elevated to celebritydom,” Cashmore says.
“But I wouldn’t say consumers or fans are obsessed with footballers’ wages any more than they are with the $100m Tom Cruise purportedly made from Top Gun: Maverick.
“I think they were in the 1990s and early 21st century when salaries started to soar and the word ‘obscene’ was regularly used.
“Fans have learned to accommodate the fact that footballers are like other entertainers from showbiz and earn comparably high wages.”
We also persist with describing wages in terms of what male football players earn per week, whereas in the NFL, NBA and MLB in the US, for example, it’s annual salaries that are reported.
Football and the notion of weekly salaries stretches back to over a century ago when, according to the EFL’s official website, players were paid an average salary of £7 a week. In 1900-01, a maximum weekly wage of £4 for any player was introduced.
That limit fluctuated throughout the following decades until it was abolished, having climbed to £20 a week, in 1961. This paved the way for Fulham’s Johnny Haynes to become the first player to receive £100 a week that same year.
In the UK, it is normal for employees’ wages to be paid either weekly, fortnightly or monthly. That is not new, nor is it unique to football. But the game stands alone when compared to other sports when it comes to how salaries are reported, even though the huge wages we see in the Premier League still do not come close to what other top athletes in other sports take home.
Patrick Mahomes, Super Bowl-winning quarterback for the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, is paid around $45m (£37m) per year, for example. When his current 10-year contract was agreed in July 2020, the focus was on the annual figure and the total worth of the deal ($503m, £416.1m) as opposed to his weekly wage.
NBA superstar Steph Curry, who plays point guard for the basketball league’s current champions Golden State Warriors, earns on average $53.8m (£44.5m) a year.
If Curry was a Premier League footballer making that same amount annually, he would receive just over £850,000 a week before tax — approaching double what Ronaldo is on at Old Trafford.
It is the same in Formula One motor racing — any time a new contract is signed, the driver’s salary is reported as an annual figure, not weekly, monthly or per race.
Nevertheless, the focus for those working on deals in the UK, be it on the club side or as an intermediary, is a weekly package.
It has always been this way and the argument is it gives everyone involved a clear idea as to what numbers are achievable. If the player or club have an annual figure in mind, agents will tend to work backwards and turn it into a weekly salary.
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) July 1, 2022
Unless stated otherwise, players’ wages are almost always detailed as gross figures as opposed to net.
So when you read that Mohamed Salah signed a £350,000 a week deal to extend his stay at Liverpool earlier this summer, that is the pre-tax amount.
In the 2022-23 tax year, which runs from April 6 to April 5, and ignoring pension contributions, Salah would take home just over £192,000 a week of that headline sum, with £142,000 going to Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs and another £15,000 taken out as a National Insurance contribution.
Footballers earning over £150,000 per annum in the UK will be paying the highest tax rate — 45 per cent.
Across Europe’s other top domestic leagues, according to totalsportal.com, the tax brackets are generally similar: France’s top rate is 50 per cent, Italy’s is 43 per cent, with Spain and Germany both at 47 per cent.
When negotiating with clubs, one agent said they always talk gross (pre-tax) figures with clubs in the UK and net (post-tax) when doing deals abroad.
The reason for this, they say, is because clubs in England prefer to protect themselves against any tax changes, while European sides want to stick to a net figure. They added that if a player was joining a Premier League side from one on the continent, he would say what he wants as a net salary, so it would be down to the intermediary to work this out as a gross figure before negotiations.
Depending on who you speak to, some say money is normally the first conversation. Others point to wanting to know more about the project and how often their player will play.
One well-placed source suggested they tend to find younger players and their representatives are more interested in game time and how they will be developed as opposed to financial gain.
For more experienced and already established targets, the same person said it does not take long before money is brought into the conversation.
This, however, is what you would expect when compared to someone hoping to break into the starting XI.
The past decade has seen an explosion in what players are asking to be paid, and clubs are having to stump up the cash or risk losing a potentially key transfer target, perhaps to direct rivals for trophies, or those playing European football, who are prepared to pay.
It is also worth noting players have a much better understanding of their financial worth now compared to even 20 years ago. It is common for them to have a legion of financial advisors, agents and accountants working on their behalf.
Arsenal, for example, broke their wage structure to ensure playmaker Mesut Ozil signed a new contract in early 2018 when he had six months remaining on his old deal. They agreed to pay him £350,000 ($423,000) a week for three years, which turned out to be a misguided mistake as his form nosedived and resulted in the club terminating his contract in January of last year, six months before it was due to expire.
To put that £350k a week contract Ozil was given in context…
- Salah signed a new deal worth the same amount per week just last month to become the top earner at a club he had helped win the Premier League, Champions League, Club World Cup, FA Cup and Carabao Cup in the intervening four years.
- City, winners of four of the last five Premier Leagues and the competition’s top payers, have only recently broken the £350,000 a week barrier, with new signing Erling Haaland and long-time key man Kevin De Bruyne putting pen to paper in the past three months.
- Raheem Sterling’s switch from City to Chelsea during this transfer window saw the England forward become the best-paid player at the 2021 European champions and current Club World Cup holders on around £300,000 a week.
Raheem Sterling is now Chelsea’s top earner after his summer move (Photo: Getty Images)
Chelsea will be hoping it is an investment that pays off after Romelu Lukaku’s return for a second spell at Stamford Bridge this time last year to lead their attack did not go as planned.
The west Londoners played a significant role in driving up transfer fees and player wages after they were bought by Roman Abramovich in June 2003. The Russian oligarch broke their transfer record nine times over the next 18 years, starting with a £17m deal for Damien Duff shortly after completing his takeover and ending with the £98m move for Lukaku.
Tottenham are paying their top earner, England captain Harry Kane, £200,000 a week, while Kurt Zouma is thought to be on around £125,000 a week at West Ham United following his move from Chelsea last August.
The knock-on effect of the Premier League’s top clubs paying higher wages is felt by those lower down the division’s pecking order, too.
A six-figure weekly salary is starting to become the norm for such clubs’ best players.
Southampton made James Ward-Prowse their biggest earner when he signed a new contract this time a year ago.
Aston Villa are forking out £125,000 each week to Philippe Coutinho, Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha is on £130,000 a week and Newcastle United are paying Kieran Trippier a weekly wage of £110,000, while at Wolves, Joao Moutinho is understood to be on £100,000 a week.
Even newly-promoted Nottingham Forest have broken the £100,000 barrier, with England midfielder Jesse Lingard thought to have a basic weekly salary of £110,000 after signing a one-year deal last month following the expiry of his Manchester United contract.
“Nobody is begrudging anybody pushing their wage up if they can,” sports finance expert Dr Plumley says. “We’d all like to do that, if possible. But what agents and advisors have played on is the money coming into the club.
“It’s all out there and you can see the numbers in the accounts. They can say, ‘We know the broadcasting deals, we know what the ticket sales are; the broadcasters want to see these players, the fans want to come and see these players, so if you’re earning loads of money at club level, it’s because of our players’. There is a smart angle to that and it is one of the main factors that is driving a lot of this.”
A common metric to determine whether a team are punching above their weight or underachieving — which is often cited by club executives — is where they finish in the points table compared to the one for wages.
The argument goes that City should win the league because they pay out more on player salaries than any other side in it.
And it is why Everton, who were almost relegated last season for the first time since the 1950s, are often lambasted for getting next to no return on the big transfer fees and wages they have paid out in recent seasons. The good news for them is they have now managed to shift most of their top earners such as James Rodriguez, Fabian Delph and Cenk Tosun.
But the interest in what footballers earn is not going to subside, no matter how exorbitant those wages become.
Wage structures will continue to be “smashed” throughout the Premier League as clubs look to either avoid relegation, qualify for Europe or win trophies.
Backed by a record TV deal in the US, the Premier League will continue to be awash with cash and that money will eventually trickle down into players’ pockets.
Speaking in 2015, Lord Alan Sugar — who owned Tottenham Hotspur when the Premier League was formed — offered his prediction about where player wages were headed after a previous multi-billion pound broadcast package was announced.
“The more money that is given to the clubs, the more money is spent on players,” Sugar said.
“Anyone who knows the effect of prune juice, it is pretty simple — it goes in one end and comes out the other, and that is exactly what is going to happen with his money.”
Every pound counts, and that is not going to change.
(Top photos: Getty Images)
- Chelsea – £215,644,000.
- Manchester United – £211,094,000. ...
- Manchester City – £186,160,000. ...
- Liverpool – £164,580,000. ...
- Arsenal – £110,396,000. ...
- Tottenham – £110,240,000. ...
- Aston Villa – £91,670,000. ...
- West Ham – £84,500,000. ...
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- Top ten highest-paid athletes in world sports 2023.
- Cristiano Ronaldo - $136million ($46m in on-field earnings)
- Lionel Messi - $130million ($65m in on-field earnings)
- Kylian Mbappe - $120million ($100m in on-field earnings)
- LeBron James - $119.5million ($44.5m in on-field earnings)
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- Cristiano Ronaldo. The former Manchester United star recently joined Al-Nassr FC and became the highest paid footballer of all time. ...
- Kylian Mbappe. ...
- Lionel Messi. ...
- Neymar Jr. ...
- Mohamed Salah. ...
- Erling Haaland. ...
- Robert Lewandowski.
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- Barcelona – £285.6million.
- Real Madrid – £250.3million.
- Bayern Munich – £237.6million.
- Manchester United – £223million.
- Chelsea – £169.7million.
- Manchester City – £163.1million.
- Juventus – £143million.
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1924: Soldier Field – Home of the Chicago Bears
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