Stories | May 31, 2012

Did you know … of the €400,000 question for Italian footballers?

The average player’s wage in Italy’s Serie A is about €900,000 a year. But the median wage is much lower: only about €500,000.

In football as in many other professions, a huge slice of the rewards goes to just a few top performers. The Wayne Rooneys and Cristiano Ronaldos earn many millions a year. But the typical player earns much less than you might think.

This is mostly because the jobs market for footballers is very international. That’s good for stars: big clubs from different countries compete with each other to sign them. But the international market doesn’t help lesser players. Every club needs a reserve right-back, but there are hundreds of competent players from around the world who can fulfill the role adequately. These lesser players compete against each other for jobs, so their salaries are squeezed, and at any one time perhaps a quarter of professional footballers are unemployed.
And so the Rooneys end up hogging most of the rewards. According to, the average take-home pay in England’s Premier League in 2009-2010 was £1.76 million; but most players would have earned much less.
The economists Robert Frank and Philip Cook have shown that the same dynamic now operates in professions from law to music: a few star performers earn way more than everyone else. Partly it’s because these stars now play in a global market: people around the world will pay to watch Rooney, just as they pay to watch Beyoncé. Partly, says Frank and Cook, it’s because star performers have a disproportionate effect on results: Rooney can win a game by himself, whereas the reserve right-back generally cannot. And partly it’s that big corporations don’t want to have any regrets. If they buy Rooney, or hire an expensive big-name lawyer, they won’t have to think afterwards, “If only I had paid more and got the best person….”
What can we learn from this? As ING’s eZonomics team say “don’t be fooled by the exceptions”. You might hear about the high-earning footballers but not every player earns top dollar. The same can be said for other careers – think high profile lawyers or singers. Appearances can be deceiving.

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Simon Kuper

Sports and economics author