Stories | June 4, 2012

Did you know…football manager can be considered a high-risk job?

Being a football manager is a hard life, and it keeps getting harder.

Sue Bridgewater of Warwick Business School has calculated that the average manager in England can last less than a year-and-a-half in the job. Twenty years ago, managers stuck around twice as long. And many sacked managers never return: Bridgewater says that 49% of first-time managers in England only ever get that one chance in the professional game. There are a lot of ex-managers sitting around at home waiting for the mobile phone to ring. Worse yet, there are always freshly retired footballers flocking to compete for the few managerial jobs going.

Sacking the manager has become a ritual, football’s version of the Aztec human sacrifice. Yet the truth is that most football managers don’t matter much. Stefan Szymanski, professor at the University of Michigan, has shown that the main factor that determines clubs’ results is players’ salaries. The more a club pays its players, the higher it generally finishes in the league. Only a few managers have much effect on results. Most could probably be replaced by their secretaries or by stuffed teddy bears without the results changing.

Yet the manager is the club’s face and voice. The manager is often the person who speaks to the media after the game, who explains why his team has won or lost. That’s why clubs still seem to believe that the manager determines results. The manager’s prominence earns him high wages; but it also makes him the first person to go in bad times. People in less prominent jobs – the guy who looks after the players’ kit, for instance – earn less, but they also tend to keep their jobs longer.

How can we apply this to our lives? We are wise to risks and rewards in investing: investments with higher potential returns typically carry higher risk of losses. The football manager shows that a similar dynamic exists in careers. But not all big risks lead to big wins. If you want job security be wary of life as a football manager.

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Simon Kuper

Sports and economics author