Football: Scoring all the way to the bank

The money game: Footballers are at last moving up into the super league of the sporting world's leading earners
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The Independent Online
ENGLISH FOOTBALL is, according to Gianluca Vialli, still only a game, which is why he likes it here. In Italy, he says, it is a matter of life and death. The late Bill Shankly might have taken issue with the Chelsea player-manager, although Vialli is well qualified to draw the comparison and most of us would take it as a compliment.

However, thanks primarily to television, the nature of our national sport is undeniably changing: the personal wealth of players is inflated almost monthly, while the notion of loyalty on either part already belongs to a bygone age. How long will it be before football in this country becomes, if not a matter of life and death, then a case of win or bust?

Last week Dion Dublin turned down a pounds 6.75m move to Blackburn Rovers, who made it clear that they would not meet his salary demands of a reported pounds 35,000 a week. At 29, Dublin, who is also attracting interest from Newcastle and Aston Villa, is neither young nor an established international. In the same week Chelsea's Brian Laudrup revealed that a reported pounds 50,000 a week is not enough to stop him becoming homesick. But all this was dwarfed by news from the other side of the Atlantic that Mike Piazza, the catcher for the New York Mets baseball team, had just signed a seven-year contract worth a total of pounds 56m.

As television companies, encouraged by their advertising managers, fight for the rights to cover everything from tiddlywinks to Grand Slam tennis tournaments, offering bigger and better deals to the clubs involved in team sports, the question now is who should be getting most of this money, the players or the owners?

American owners have long since rewarded players with astonishing salaries, arguing that the $34m (pounds 21m) paid by the Chicago Bulls basketball team to Michael Jordan this year, for example, is nothing compared with the revenue he generates. Although far from scientific, recent research by the American magazine Fortune demonstrated Jordan's overall worth to the national economy to be at least $10bn, so you can imagine the smile on the face of the Bulls' chief, Jerry Reinsdorf.

Where some American commentators believe clubs may have lost their way is in paying seven- figure salaries even to the journeymen who will neither win games nor put bums on seats, either in the stadium or in the living room.

At the moment the NBA season, like the baseball season three years ago, is on hold because basketball club owners and players are arguing over how the cake should be divided. It may be harsh to describe any England international footballer as a journeyman, but if those commentators are right then Dublin's wage demands should be ringing a few alarm bells over here.

While Dublin seems likely to get what he wants, the size of the American television market means the income of even football's genuine superstars such as Ronaldo and Alan Shearer will never match their counterparts in American football, basketball or baseball - but they have made considerable progress in the past two or three years.

If the figures bandied about by the tabloids are to be believed, Laudrup is quite possibly the highest-paid footballer on the planet. Ronaldo's salary of around pounds 2.2m a year at Internazionale is not far behind and the wages Alessandro Del Piero is currently demanding at Juventus would put him on a par with the Brazilian. Furthermore, the amount of money footballers can earn outside the game has been rising.

To English readers, footballers are usually conspicuous by their absence from the list of the world's highest-earning athletes, compiled each year by another American magazine, Forbes, and based on combined income from salary and endorsements. In fact, European sporstmen of any kind are hard to find. In last year's top 40 there were just three: Michael Schumacher, Naseem Hamed and Lennox Lewis, and the only footballer of recent times to make the list was Roberto Baggio, who crept in after the 1994 World Cup in the United States. However, in the list for 1998, to be published in March, Ronaldo is expected to be in the running and that, according to a spokesman for Forbes, is a sign of the times.

"There are two reasons why footballers might be starting to break through," Spiegel said. "The first is that the Bosman ruling has put into effect in Europe a lot of what has happened in the United States for about 20 years.

"Ronaldo's deal when he left Barcelona and joined Inter was the start of free agency having an effect in football, not just between countries but also within countries.

"Someone like Shearer had a big transfer fee, but he himself did not see that money and that is changing. Even a couple of years ago players were not earning the kind of money Ronaldo is earning now.

"The other reason is that Nike and the other shoe companies are making a big push for footballers on the endorsement front, while the reverse is happening in the States. It used to be that every single NBA player had a shoe deal, but I would say that by the time the new season finally starts half the players will not have shoe deals.

"The market there for athletic shoes has dried up and the companies are starting to cut costs. The top guys who can really move product, like Jordan, Andre Agassi and Tiger Woods, will still get the big deals but the overall income for guys lower down will not be 50-50 any more but more like 80-20 in favour of their salary."

As has happened in baseball, Spiegel believes transfer fees in football will soon be a thing of the past as player-power takes even greater control of the game's profits, but it is not just the players who are benefiting. There is good news in the pipeline for the long-suffering coaches, too. Two years ago Micky Arison, the billionaire owner of the Miami Heat basketball team, offered Pat Riley a 10-year, $30m (pounds 19m) deal and a 10 per cent stake in the team.

Other teams have since followed suit, and for those who are anxious about the ability of England's football coaches to motivate their millionaire players, the Philadelphia 76ers president, Pat Croce, seems to think he has found the answer:

"When they know their coach is making $5m a year," he says, "they know they'd better listen to him."