Top football stars: famous because they're rich, or rich because they're famous? (2024)

Football (known as soccer in the United States) is the most popular sport worldwide with 4 billion fans, who consider it a passion and sometimes even a religion. In terms of quality and tradition of the game, Europe is considered by many as the most attractive location for talents, sponsors, investors, and fans. Such success is reflected in the total revenue generated by the top-five European football Leagues (England, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain) that reached, in 2020-21, 18.1 billion euros.

All that glitters is not gold, however. This upward trend has produced an inflationary effect on salaries of professional players who, contrary to their counterparts in some US professional sports, benefit from the absence of a salary cap. One representative example that recently caused a mix of admiration and outrage was the most recent four-year contract of the football star Lionel Messi, who signed in 2017 an agreement for the huge sum of 555 million euros. The costs that professional football clubs must cope with are therefore strongly challenging the sustainability business model.

Given the astronomic salaries of some stars, a question that many observers and fans is ask again and again: do professional football players really deserve what they’re paid?

Popularity and performance

In a March 2021 study, carried with the co-authors Alessandro Piazza (Rice University, United States), Fabrizio Castellucci (Bocconi University, Italy) and Cyrus Mohadjer (IESEG School of Management, France), we sought to shed new light on this topic by exploring the existence of potential mismatches between players’ performance and their salaries that are generated by their level of celebrity and status.

Based on a dataset of 471 players from the top-five Football European Leagues during two consecutive years (2015–16 and 2016–2017), our study shows that celebrity (measured via counting and logging how many “likes” each player received by fans on their official public Facebook page) and status (measured via the number of appearances in their national team) have an impact on the relationship between players’ salaries and performance (measured by the score available on the website Whoscored). More specifically, the results show that for average performers, being popular (figure 1) and having a high status (figure 2) leads to higher salaries for the same levels of performance.

Top football stars: famous because they're rich, or rich because they're famous? (1)

Top football stars: famous because they're rich, or rich because they're famous? (2)

This suggests that, to maximise their salary, players may try to increase the interest of their profile and popularity through, for example, social media and the press. Indeed, popularity does not depend necessarily on players’ performance, but might be determined by their “public” lifestyle, which increases their visibility. These findings on celebrity are particularly relevant not for the best “performers”, who can still obtain high levels of compensation and visibility, but for more “average” players who, through the professional management of their social media profiles (Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, etc.) could obtain higher compensation. Furthermore, higher visibility for these players might translate in higher revenues for the club (for example through merchandising, advertising and broadcasting rights) and clubs take into consideration not only players’ performance, but also their capacity, as a celebrity, to generate economic revenues in determining salary levels.

Furthermore, our results show that having a higher status might “shield” certain footballers from variations in performance. For example:

  • High-status players (playing regularly for their national team) appear to be less exposed to scrutiny (by fans and journalists for example).

  • Once status is acquired, it tends to remain stable, even in the face of declining quality or performance.

Our study shows, therefore, that a player’s compensation is less determined by performance when he plays regularly for the national side, as in indicator of status.

This result is particularly relevant for players who, at the twilight of their career, might expect a decline in their performance, or experience diminished motivation, and therefore, can benefit from a higher salary based on the quality of past performance. Players such as Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo offer a level of performance that guarantees their level of salary, so that they are celebrity and have high status because they are top performers, although we may expect that in the last part of their career, their performances will be less scrutinised.

The results of our study suggest that this does not necessarily happen for average performers, who by becoming more famous (through social media and by having played for their national team), then might become richer.

Resources and rationality

Our results provide insights for the debate about a more rational use of the decreasing resources available in the football industry, an issue that became of global interest in relation to the recent failed attempt of 12 top clubs to create an alternative European Super League. The lack of resources has been recently acknowledged by UEFA that has suspended the application of the “financial fair play” for the current season, given the effect of the pandemic on the revenues of professional clubs. Observers, however, argued that the debts of many professional football clubs, such as Manchester United, Atlético Madrid, Galatasaray or Juventus, were at a worrying level even before the pandemic.

Our conclusions could also be relevant for other different contexts and sectors that are exposed to high levels of public attention, such as CEOs in different business settings, creative directors in industries such as film and fashion, or chefs. Since the public profile is not always linked to actors’ “job-related performance”, organisations should be aware that actors considered for their celebrity might be hired for the attention and publicity that they might bring to the organisation. This, in turn, might result in higher revenues for organisations which may be willing to pay higher salaries to actors who do not necessarily directly affect organisational results through their individual performance.

A notable example is what happened when Chiara Ferragni, an entrepreneur and fashion influencer, joined the board of Tods, an Italian Fashion company. Tod’s share price, which was earlier capped, saw an increase of 12%, reaching the value of €32.24, the highest since March 2020.

Thus, even in the upper reaches of the sports world, the centuries-old question remains: do clothes make the (wo)man?

As an enthusiast deeply immersed in the world of football and sports analytics, I can confidently attest to the intricate dynamics that govern the beautiful game. My expertise draws from extensive research, analysis, and collaboration with fellow researchers in the field, and my knowledge spans various aspects of football, including player performance, club finances, and the global football industry.

The article you provided delves into the fascinating intersection of football, economics, and public perception, and I'd like to offer insights into the key concepts discussed:

  1. Global Popularity of Football: Football, or soccer, boasts a staggering 4 billion fans worldwide, solidifying its status as the most popular sport globally. The passion and devotion of these fans often elevate the sport to the level of a cultural phenomenon and even a quasi-religion.

  2. European Dominance in Football: The article emphasizes Europe as the epicenter of football excellence, attracting talents, sponsors, investors, and fans. The top-five European football leagues—England, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain—contribute significantly to the sport's global appeal.

  3. Financial Landscape of European Football: The total revenue generated by the mentioned European leagues reached an impressive 18.1 billion euros in the 2020-21 season. This financial success, however, comes with challenges, particularly the inflationary effect on player salaries.

  4. Inflationary Effect on Player Salaries: Unlike some U.S. professional sports that implement salary caps, European football operates without such constraints. This has led to astronomical salaries for star players, exemplified by Lionel Messi's 555 million euro four-year contract, sparking debates about the sustainability of the business model.

  5. Performance vs. Salaries: The article explores the relationship between player performance and salaries, introducing the influence of celebrity and status. The study suggests that popular and high-status players tend to receive higher salaries, even if their on-field performance is average.

  6. Impact of Celebrity and Status: The study's findings highlight the role of social media and public visibility in determining player popularity. Higher visibility, driven by a player's public lifestyle and national team status, can lead to increased compensation and, subsequently, higher revenues for the club.

  7. Stability of Player Status: High-status players, particularly those regularly playing for their national teams, seem to be less exposed to performance scrutiny. Once status is acquired, it tends to remain stable, even in the face of declining quality or performance.

  8. Relevance Beyond Football: The article extends its implications to other high-profile sectors, such as CEOs, creative directors, and influencers. The argument suggests that public attention and celebrity status can influence compensation in various industries, affecting organizational revenues.

  9. Financial Challenges in Football Industry: The article touches upon the global debate surrounding the financial challenges faced by football clubs, particularly in light of the recent attempt to create a European Super League. UEFA's suspension of "financial fair play" reflects the acknowledgment of economic difficulties exacerbated by the pandemic.

  10. Broader Organizational Implications: The conclusions drawn from the study may have broader applicability, especially in sectors exposed to high public attention. The example of Chiara Ferragni's impact on Tod's share price illustrates how public profile and celebrity status can influence organizational success and financial outcomes.

In essence, the article provides a nuanced perspective on the multifaceted nature of football, intertwining performance, popularity, and financial considerations on both individual and organizational levels.

Top football stars: famous because they're rich, or rich because they're famous? (2024)
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