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Top football stars: famous because they’re rich, or rich because they’re famous?

Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, 2011.
On the occasion of a 2011 match between Portugal and Argentina, Cristiano Ronaldo (left) and Lionel Messi (right) show off a pair of high-end watches. The riches have only continued to flow in. Fanny Schertzer/Wikipedia, CC BY

Football (known as soccer in the United States) is the most popular sport worldwide with 4 billion fans, who consider it a passion and sometimes even a religion. In terms of quality and tradition of the game, Europe is considered by many as the most attractive location for talents, sponsors, investors, and fans. Such success is reflected in the total revenue generated by the top-five European football Leagues (England, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain) that reached, in 2020-21, 18.1 billion euros.

All that glitters is not gold, however. This upward trend has produced an inflationary effect on salaries of professional players who, contrary to their counterparts in some US professional sports, benefit from the absence of a salary cap. One representative example that recently caused a mix of admiration and outrage was the most recent four-year contract of the football star Lionel Messi, who signed in 2017 an agreement for the huge sum of 555 million euros. The costs that professional football clubs must cope with are therefore strongly challenging the sustainability business model.

Given the astronomic salaries of some stars, a question that many observers and fans is ask again and again: do professional football players really deserve what they’re paid?

Popularity and performance

In a March 2021 study, carried with the co-authors Alessandro Piazza (Rice University, United States), Fabrizio Castellucci (Bocconi University, Italy) and Cyrus Mohadjer (IESEG School of Management, France), we sought to shed new light on this topic by exploring the existence of potential mismatches between players’ performance and their salaries that are generated by their level of celebrity and status.

Based on a dataset of 471 players from the top-five Football European Leagues during two consecutive years (2015–16 and 2016–2017), our study shows that celebrity (measured via counting and logging how many “likes” each player received by fans on their official public Facebook page) and status (measured via the number of appearances in their national team) have an impact on the relationship between players’ salaries and performance (measured by the score available on the website Whoscored). More specifically, the results show that for average performers, being popular (figure 1) and having a high status (figure 2) leads to higher salaries for the same levels of performance.

Figure 1. Interaction effect between player celebrity and performance. Giangreco et al., 2021, Author provided
Figure 2. Interaction effect between player status and performance. Giangreco et al., 2021, Author provided

This suggests that, to maximise their salary, players may try to increase the interest of their profile and popularity through, for example, social media and the press. Indeed, popularity does not depend necessarily on players’ performance, but might be determined by their “public” lifestyle, which increases their visibility. These findings on celebrity are particularly relevant not for the best “performers”, who can still obtain high levels of compensation and visibility, but for more “average” players who, through the professional management of their social media profiles (Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, etc.) could obtain higher compensation. Furthermore, higher visibility for these players might translate in higher revenues for the club (for example through merchandising, advertising and broadcasting rights) and clubs take into consideration not only players’ performance, but also their capacity, as a celebrity, to generate economic revenues in determining salary levels.

Furthermore, our results show that having a higher status might “shield” certain footballers from variations in performance. For example:

  • High-status players (playing regularly for their national team) appear to be less exposed to scrutiny (by fans and journalists for example).

  • Once status is acquired, it tends to remain stable, even in the face of declining quality or performance.

Our study shows, therefore, that a player’s compensation is less determined by performance when he plays regularly for the national side, as in indicator of status.

This result is particularly relevant for players who, at the twilight of their career, might expect a decline in their performance, or experience diminished motivation, and therefore, can benefit from a higher salary based on the quality of past performance. Players such as Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo offer a level of performance that guarantees their level of salary, so that they are celebrity and have high status because they are top performers, although we may expect that in the last part of their career, their performances will be less scrutinised.

The results of our study suggest that this does not necessarily happen for average performers, who by becoming more famous (through social media and by having played for their national team), then might become richer.

Resources and rationality

Our results provide insights for the debate about a more rational use of the decreasing resources available in the football industry, an issue that became of global interest in relation to the recent failed attempt of 12 top clubs to create an alternative European Super League. The lack of resources has been recently acknowledged by UEFA that has suspended the application of the “financial fair play” for the current season, given the effect of the pandemic on the revenues of professional clubs. Observers, however, argued that the debts of many professional football clubs, such as Manchester United, Atlético Madrid, Galatasaray or Juventus, were at a worrying level even before the pandemic.

Our conclusions could also be relevant for other different contexts and sectors that are exposed to high levels of public attention, such as CEOs in different business settings, creative directors in industries such as film and fashion, or chefs. Since the public profile is not always linked to actors’ “job-related performance”, organisations should be aware that actors considered for their celebrity might be hired for the attention and publicity that they might bring to the organisation. This, in turn, might result in higher revenues for organisations which may be willing to pay higher salaries to actors who do not necessarily directly affect organisational results through their individual performance.

A notable example is what happened when Chiara Ferragni, an entrepreneur and fashion influencer, joined the board of Tods, an Italian Fashion company. Tod’s share price, which was earlier capped, saw an increase of 12%, reaching the value of €32.24, the highest since March 2020.

Thus, even in the upper reaches of the sports world, the centuries-old question remains: do clothes make the (wo)man?

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