It is no secret that the highest paid players are often considered the best and most valuable players on a team. In 2019, Lionel Messi was the highest paid soccer player, making about €85 million (~$92 million) in salary plus bonuses (Settimi 2019). The next highest paid players were Ronaldo, Neymar, and Pogba (Settimi 2019). These are all household names, players known for being the best in the game. The list of highest paid players continues with world class superstars. The 20th highest paid player in the world in 2019, Gerard Piqué, made over €20 million, including salary, bonuses, and endorsements (Settimi 2019). That is a lot of money to spend on one player. For world class players like these, however, the money is well spent. Barcelona contracted 3 of the top 20 highest paid players in 2019 (Messi, Suarez, and Piqué). PSG led the list with a mind-blowing 4 of the top 20 highest paid players on their roster (Neymar, Mbappé, Di María, and Thiago Silva).
The team in La Liga with the lowest salary spending limit for the 2018-2019 season was Valladolid, who were allocated just under €24 million (~$26 million) to spend on player contracts (Sochon 2019). The team with the highest salary spending limit was Barcelona, who were allocated nearly €633 million (~$685 million) (Sochon 2019). Unsurprisingly, Barcelona topped the league and Valladolid narrowly avoided relegation, finishing in 16th. Barcelona had 2 players on its roster that individually made more than the entire Valladolid roster combined and a third that made roughly the same as the entire Valladolid roster (Settimi 2019). The 3 teams that were relegated (Girona, Rayo Vallecano, and Huesca) had the 17th, 18th, and 19th highest spending limits respectively of the 20 La Liga teams (Sochon 2019). The top 4 finishers (Barcelona, Atlético Madrid, Real Madrid, and Valencia), had the four highest salary spending limits in the league (Sochon 2019). There is a clear correlation between how much a team pays its players and their performance in the league.
As seen in the graph above, most teams in La Liga paid their players an average salary between $1 million and $2 million. Within this cluster of teams, there is an upward trend indicating that a higher average salary leads to more points earned in a season. However, the correlation is not as pronounced as it is when looking at the entire plot. The main outlier in the trend is Getafe, who finished in 5th place with 59 points despite having an average player salary of only $915,000, placing them 16th on the list of highest average player salaries in La Liga (sportingintelligence.com 2018).
While small gaps in salary can be overcome with good coaching and quality players, it is not realistic to expect a club to compete with a team that is paying its players an average of 5 times more. In La Liga, the ratio between the highest paid and lowest paid teams is roughly 19 to 1, up from 13.4 to 1 in the 2017-2018 season (sportingintelligence.com 2018). This is the 4th highest ratio between highest and lowest paid teams of the 18 professional leagues surveyed (sportingintelligence.com 2018). The average salary of a player on Barcelona is over 5 times that of the average player salary on all but 4 other teams in La Liga (sportingintelligence.com 2018). Try to put yourself in a player’s position. If you were good enough to get an offer from Barcelona, you could choose to play for a better team with a good chance of winning a title and make more money, or you could play for an inferior team, make less money, and have no shot at winning a title. That choice seems clear to me. It’s no wonder clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid always seem to attract the top talent in the world.
A similar trend is seen in Ligue 1. The ratio between the average salary of players on the highest paid team, PSG, and lowest paid team, Nimes, for the 2018-2019 season was a staggering 26.6 to 1, the highest ratio of the 18 leagues surveyed (sportingintelligence.com 2018). While PSG spends exponentially more on its players, the rest of the league is relatively balanced. 7 of the 20 teams in the league have an average salary between $500,000 and $560,000 per year (sportingintelligence.com 2018). However, at the top of the league, the salary imbalance is clear with PSG paying its players roughly 3 times more than the team that pays second highest, Marseille (sportingintelligence.com 2018). In recent years, it has felt like PSG had already won the title before playing their first game. This has proven to be true in each of the past 7 years, barring one second place finish to Monaco in the 2016-2017 season. This was an especially shocking result considering PSG had won the title by an unprecedented 31 points the year before .
Both the Bundesliga and Serie A follow a similar breakdown with one team (Bayern Munich and Juventus respectively) paying its players exponentially more than any other team in the league (sportingintelligence.com 2018). This has led to Bayern Munich taking home the last 7 Bundesliga titles and Juventus winning the last 8 Serie A championships. Much as in Ligue 1, the title race rarely contains drama. There is a distinct correlation between paying players more money and winning more games. As discussed at the beginning of the article, having a higher average salary corresponds to having better players. And, of course, having better players corresponds to winning more games. When one team’s average salary is over double that of another team, they are given an advantage that is simply too steep to overcome.
English Premier League
The title race in the English Premier League is usually the most intriguing of the 5 big European Leagues. Before Manchester City won back to back championships in 2018 and 2019, there had not been a repeat champion since Manchester United won 3 times in a row from 2007 to 2009 (Premier League – Champions). However, 3 teams (Chelsea, Manchester City, and Manchester United) have combined to win the trophy every season, except one when Leicester City had a Cinderella season, since 2005 (Premier League – Champions).
In terms of player salaries, what sets the EPL apart form other leagues is that there is not a sharp decline in average salary from the top of the league to the bottom of the league. Instead of having one or two clubs with an average salary twice that of the rest of the league, in the EPL, the decline in average salary from the highest paid teams to the rest of the league is more gradual. The ratio between the highest paid team (Manchester United) and lowest paid team (Cardiff) in the league in the 2018-2019 season was 6.8 to 1 (sportingintelligence.com 2018). While this is still significantly imbalanced, it is much better than the other 4 major European leagues.
There is still a definitive correlation between a team’s average salary and its performance in the league; however, instead of having one or two teams battling for a title, there is a rotation of 6 clubs that have a legitimate title shot from year to year. The clubs that have higher average salaries still have a noticeable advantage over the rest of the clubs in the league, but the competition between the top clubs in the league is more intriguing. The clubs with the 6 highest average salaries (Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Tottenham), all finished in the top 6 at the end of the 2018-2019 season (sportingintelligence.com 2018). The 3 clubs that were relegated had the 15th, 19th, and 20th highest average salary in the 20-team league (sportingintelligence.com 2018). Imagine how much more competitive leagues would be if each team could only pay players a certain amount. The gap between the top and bottom of each league would shrink, leading to more competitive matchups and a more exciting race for the title.
“2018-19 English Premier League Regular Season Standings.” 2018-19 English Premier League Regular Season Standings | FOX Sports, Fox Sports, www.foxsports.com/soccer/standings?competition=1&season=2018.
“2018-19 La Liga Regular Season Standings.” 2018-19 La Liga Regular Season Standings | FOX Sports, Fox Sports, www.foxsports.com/soccer/standings?competition=2&season=2018&round=1.
“2018-19 Ligue 1 Regular Season Standings.” 2018-19 Ligue 1 Regular Season Standings | FOX Sports, Fox Sports, www.foxsports.com/soccer/standings?competition=43&season=2018.
“Premier League – Champions.” Worldfootball.net, World Football, www.worldfootball.net/winner/eng-premier-league/.
Settimi, Christina. “The World’s Highest-Paid Soccer Players 2019: Messi, Ronaldo And Neymar Dominate The Sporting World.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 19 June 2019, www.forbes.com/sites/christinasettimi/2019/06/18/the-worlds-highest-paid-soccer-players-2019-messi-ronaldo-and-neymar-dominate-the-sporting-world/#4dd1fec8b55e.
Sochon, Mark. “La Liga Wage Budgets by Team 2018-19 – Is the Salary Gap Closing?” La Liga Expert, 4 Mar. 2019, laligaexpert.com/2019/03/04/la-liga-salaries/.
sportingintelligence.com, “Global Sports Salaries 2018” Survey. 2018. https://globalsportssalaries.com/GSSS%202018.pdf