Are sportspeople really worth the money?

Apr 29, 2024
Source: Getty Images.

Why do we feel the need to pay sportspeople so much money?

The pay levels for people who have an innate ability to hit a golf ball, or kick a football, seem entirely out of kilter to what they are truly worth. Think about it for a second. Footballers, who rarely have more than a high school education, earn more than surgeons who save lives. It’s absurd.

For example, the winner of the LIV golf event in Adelaide on the weekend, Brandon Steele, banked $US 4 million for being the best player (in a field of 54) over 54 holes. The person who came last earned $50,000. Rugby League player Kalyn Ponga, reportedly the game’s highest paid star, makes more than $60,000 a game – that’s if he plays every 80-minute match of the regular season. It’s more if he misses matches through injury, and Kalyn misses a lot of matches through injury.

Jordan Mailata, a boy who grew up in Bankstown where the median weekly income is $1556, just signed a $US 66 million extension of his contract to stay with the Philadelphia Eagles NFL for another three years. He now reportedly earns just over $423,000 a week.  Some of us might not earn that in five years. And these people aren’t even in the top 10 highest paid sportspeople in the world.

That list looks like this, according to Sporico (all figures in US dollars):

1. Cristiano Ronaldo ($260M)
2. Jon Rahm ($203M)
3. Lionel Messi ($130M)
4. LeBron James ($125.7M)
5. Kylian Mbappé ($125M)
6. Neymar ($121M)
7. Stephen Curry ($98.9M)
8. Giannis Antetokounmpo ($88.4M)
9. Kevin Durant ($86.9M)
10. Patrick Mahomes ($84.3M)

Sadly, no women made the list.

Don’t get me wrong, I love sport. According to my wife, it’s sometimes the only thing on our television set. But in a world where more and more people are going to bed hungry each night. And more and more people are having to live in tents outside the Queensland Premier’s backyard. And more and more people can’t afford the healthcare that they need, it does seem a tad incongruous that our sportspeople are getting paid more and more. When I was a lad first grade rugby league players had jobs. Real jobs. They worked on garbage trucks, they went down coal mines, they carted bricks from one end of a workplace to another.

After doing that all day, they’d then front up to train two or three times a week, play footy on a Sunday and – after a few beers and a shower – get ready to do it all again the following week. In the 1970s a top line rugby league player probably made a few grand a season. They played on suburban grounds like Henson Park in Newtown and Lidcombe Oval, home on the Western Suburbs Magpies.

On game days – especially when the Magpies played the Sea Eagles – Lidcombe Oval would be packed to the rafters. After a match the players and fans would head to the Dancers Club and if you were lucky you could buy big John “Dallas” Donnelly a jug of beer to say thank you for belting one of those silver tails. Fans were passionate, loyal, loud and tribal.

Today’s rugby league players on average earn $371,000 a season. Stadiums double as concert venues and players act like rock stars often being photographed wearing $1500 bum bags, diamond earrings and designer clothes. Is the game better as a result of this?

Well, on the field it is because the players are full time athletes so, for the most part, they are bigger, stronger, faster and more skilled than their predecessors from the 1970s. But off the field, there is no evidence that the fans are any more loyal, louder or more passionate.

In fact, when you look at the empty seats in stadiums (think Accor Stadium) on game days, you could argue that the game is struggling. It costs a small fortune to go to the football, especially if you have a family. Merchandise is extortionate. A football jersey in your team’s colours can set you back upwards of $150. Clubs say the costs the fans pay need to continually rise to meet ever increasing player salaries. I say, lower the salaries – and the ticket and merchandise prices – and the fans might just benefit.

The Brisbane Broncos, the biggest club in the NRL, are reported to be about to pay star fullback Reece Walsh $2 million a season. He’s a good footballer. No, to be fair, he’s an extraordinary footballer. I don’t know him, so I have no idea what he’d be doing if he wasn’t a footballer, but I suspect he’d be earning considerably less than $2 million a year.

To put his proposed salary into some kind of context, the Prime Minister, who supports South Sydney, earns almost $587,000. Would Reece Walsh still play rugby league if the most any club offered him was $1.5 million? I’d hazard a guess and say yes. What about $1 million?  Again, yes. What about $587, 000. I’m going to say yes again. The truth is, for most of season 2024’s players, this is the best money they will ever earn. Sure, some will do better elsewhere, but they will be the exceptions to the rule.

Everyone cries foul saying there is not enough money for the game’s grassroots. Sure, there is. Just don’t reward today’s crop of spoilt players with money that could be used to ensure the sport’s future. Clubs may then have some money to invest in the game’s country grassroots areas, ensuring the future of the code.  And perhaps even employ a few former footballers to administer league in country areas, meaning that they might have a career in football rather than just three seasons (that’s the average for most NRL players) of the good life.

Apart from Tiger Woods, no one starts playing a sport thinking about how much money they might make out of it.  So it is fair to say that success helps players define their worth to a team, or the sport itself.

But everything has a cap. And players can only make what clubs are prepared to pay. It is rare that skills from one sport are transferable to another. So I say, cut the wages and see where the cards fall.

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