Football league clubs are being urged by the Government to put a cap on the crippling level of players' wages and bring in performance-related pay packages.
Richard Caborn, the Sports minister, said he believed the turmoil in English football after ITV Digital's refusal to honour its contract with the Nationwide League would lead to a new realism among lower-league clubs.
He said players' pay could be linked to results, attendances at grounds or league success. "If you don't perform – if you don't get the crowds or get into the play-offs – you don't get the cash," he said.
First Division clubs have been paying up to £20,000 a week for star players in a desperate attempt to win a place in the Premiership. Many clubs have put their existence in jeopardy by spending as much as 80 per cent of their income on pay.
Mr Caborn said he did not think setting a crude ceiling on footballers' pay was practical, but praised the system of incentives offered to players at Preston North End and Millwall in the First Division.
"What some clubs who are more creative are doing is bringing back capping by another means," Mr Caborn said. "Clubs are going to have to look at how they can structure their wages to deliver more for the clubs."
Although he stressed the importance of football to national life, Mr Caborn said it was not for the Government to dictate how the sport sets its salaries, any more than ministers passed judgement on pay in other industries.
But he said the crisis represented a chance for football, after years of being shored up by television money, to "get its house in order".
A spokesman for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) said: "The fact that David Beckham is getting £100,000 a week should not affect a mediocre player in division one."
Pressure is already growing among top clubs in Italy, Germany and Spain, where television has fuelled players' pay inflation, for salary capping to be imposed. Rugby union bosses say pay controls – limiting each club to a wage bill of £1.8m per season – introduced four years ago saved the sport from financial ruin.
Pay curbs would not apply to Premiership clubs, most of which are profitable.
Any move to cap a professionals' pay, 41 years after the footballers' maximum wage was abolished, or to rewrite existing players' contracts, would be fiercely resisted by the Professional Footballers' Association. But club chairmen and league officials are understood to have discussed the feasibility of such a move.
Football officials believe between 500 and 1,000 lower-league footballers could be made redundant this summer if the dispute between the Football League and ITV Digital is not resolved.Reuse content