Stories | June 16, 2016

Football might pay well – but players peak early

Good money management is key for everyone regardless of age, ability or star quality.

Hungary goalkeeper Gábor Király and Ireland goalkeeper Shay Given both turned 40 in April 2016, making them the oldest players in a squad at Euro 2016. Yet most top-level footballers still peak at age 27-29 for just three or four years – limiting how much they ultimately earn.

Age not just a number
It might be easy to think that player careers are extending, along with the average human lifespan , allowing them to maximise their earnings over time. However, the oldest players at the Euros before 2016 were Germany's Lothar Matthaus, aged 39 at Euro 2000; Greece’s Kostas Chalkias, aged 38 in Euro  2012; Denmark's Morten Olsen, aged 38 at Euro 1988; and England's Peter Shilton, also aged 38 in the 1988 championships.

Careers still short
The average age of the oldest squad ever to win the Euros – Greece in 2004 – was 28.4. Even in the World Cup, the oldest team ever to win had an average age of 30.7 – and that was Brazil back in 1962. According to UEFA, the most likely average age for a winning Euro squad is just 26.5, when calculated on the first day of the finals.

"Despite all the recent advances in diet and training, footballers’ careers don’t seem to have got longer," writes sports and economics journalist Simon Kuper in an article for eZonomics.

Those in disciplines where mental skills, endurance and technique are more important can be older – but only up to a point.

Age always catches up
Top-level sports people typically work very hard to stay fit, but in every sport there is an age beyond which peak performances are rarely seen. Athletes for whom explosive power and speed are key tend to hit top level at younger ages, while those in disciplines where mental skills, endurance and technique are more important can be older – but only up to a point.

Beyond a certain age, performances will inevitably worsen – as research by economist Ray Fair into marathon runners shows. Fair’s work finds that only exceptional runners with a marathon time of three hours and 45 minutes at age 40 will manage to finish within four hours at age 50. And this decline accelerates as time goes on.

Ebb and flow of earnings
US statistician Nate Silver, in his bestselling book The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail, confirms that ageing curves in sport are generally predictable, even though there are highs and lows in ability that vary over time and from person to person. Silver finds that American baseball players typically peak at 27, noting that changes in ability are broadly reflected, eventually, in their pay packets. Betting odds too are adjusted for age.

“The typical player continues to improve until he is in his late 20s, at which point his skills usually begin to atrophy, especially once he reaches his mid-30s,” Silver points out.

Prepare for change
Like the rest of us, sportspeople have to contend with career changes every so often as well as earnings peaks and troughs. This can seem counter-intuitive when professional sportspeople are in the limelight and seem to "have it made" financially. Read an eZonomics reader question on Wales player Gareth Bale's plans here.

According to PayScale figures, women’s incomes generally peak around age 39, and men’s at about 48. Sportspeople reach their highest point much younger, so planning ahead for long-term savings, smart investments and a comfortable retirement is critical – just as it is for the average person.

eZonomics team
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