How Much More Do Professional Footballers Make Than The ‘Average Joe’?

Ever since most of us were little kids all we ever wanted to be was a professional soccer player (or some other pro athlete), along with the occasional firefighter, or police officer. But at some point or another in any kid’s life who grew up playing soccer, the dream of playing for a professional team in MLS or abroad was a very real thought that spurred them on. At least early on, the dream never consisted of a financial component, and was centered more around the chance to play at the top level, to be viewed as the very best, and to one day lift the FIFA World Cup trophy. Kids have big goals and high expectations, but they do not want to become professional footballers for the money – at least not at first. They dream those dreams because they love playing the game.

Of course, most that carried those dreams around with them as kids never get to live them when they are adults. If they are lucky, they got to go to college and earned a degree and end up working in their field of study, climbing the corporate ladder like a train of lemmings. For the fortunate few however, their playing days continued. They get to go to work every day and live their childhood dream. And now they get paid for it. But just how much do they make, and how does that compare to the average joe?

Below is a historical look at the average MLS guaranteed compensation since 2007…

Salary data from MLS Players Union. Analysis by Business of Soccer.

Salary data from MLS Players Union. Analysis by Business of Soccer.

MLS introduced the concept of the “designated player” (DP) when David Beckham joined the league in the 2007 season, which enabled clubs to pay for a portion of the players salaries out of their own pockets, rather than have their salary count against the salary cap. This idea and concept really impacted the average salary of the MLS player in the 2010 season, when big names like Rafa Marquez and Thierry Henry signed big deals with New York Red Bulls, along with other DP’s around the league, which created a step change in the salary trend. Since 2010 the average MLS player salary has hovered around the $160-180k mark, ebbing and flowing with the U.S. economy. How does this compare with what the average American worker makes? How does the pay of those that got to live their dream and made it to the big leagues compare with those that had to give up their dreams for “the real world”?

Below is a graph which depicts the average MLS compensation since 2007, this time compared to what the average U.S. worker made represented as a percentage of the MLS average wage for the corresponding year.

Salary data from MLS Players Union & U.S. Social Security Administration. Analysis by Business of Soccer.

Salary data from MLS Players Union & U.S. Social Security Administration. Analysis by Business of Soccer.

In 2007, ‘Average Joe’ was paid a salary of $40,405, or  35.5% of what the average MLS player earned in guaranteed compensation. When the MLS average guaranteed compensation jumped in 2010 due to the increased number of DP’s in the league, it created further separation between the average U.S. worker because they did not see the same increase in wages. In 2010, the average MLS player brought home $173,491, and ‘Average Joe’ only 24% of that, or $41,674.

Some might be wondering how this compares to other more established and wealthier leagues that don’t have a salary cap. Thanks to Sporting Intelligence we can trace the average basic salary of English professional footballers back to the 1984-85 season (below).

Wage data from Sporting Intelligence. Analysis by Business of Soccer.

Wage data from Sporting Intelligence. Analysis by Business of Soccer.

Although the average salary in the English top flight is clearly substantially higher than the average MLS wage just by looking at the scale of the chart, we still need to factor in currency conversion. In the 2009-10 season, the average basic salary in the Premier League was £1,162,350 or $1,582,306 via today’s exchange rates – MLS average guaranteed compensation was $173,491. Another note is that the BPL salary is “basic” wage data and does not include other sources of income, such as endorsements, etc. If we compare what the “base” salary of the average MLS player was in 2010, $148,817, the average player in the Premier League earned more than 10.5 times the average MLS player.

If footballers in the U.K. make that much more than their counterparts in the U.S., surely the gap to the average U.K. worker wage is much larger than MLS.

Wage data from Sporting intelligence. Analysis by Business of Soccer.

Wage data from Sporting intelligence. Analysis by Business of Soccer.

In the 2009-10 season, the average U.K. worker brought home a salary of £34,112, or $46,437 (+$5k more than the average U.S. worker in the same year), which was only 2.9% of what the average footballer in the Premier League earned in basic salary. The Premier League is the richest league in the world so it stands to reason that they would be able to pay their players larger salaries than MLS. On the Forbes list of the top 20 most valuable clubs in the world, the Premier League has 7 of its teams on the list, and 5 of those 7 are in the top 10. MLS does not have any clubs on that list.

The difference in pay between MLS and the Premier League and other elite leagues abroad is important to note when you begin to think about what the draw is to play in MLS rather than elsewhere from a monetary perspective. Sure there are exceptions made to make wages somewhat comparable to what an offer would look like from those other leagues – just look at Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, and Jermain Defoe’s new signings to MLS clubs in the last year. However, when those little kids are dreaming of where they want to play soccer when they get older, there will come a time when they will understand the financial impact that it could have on their life. Would you really expect U.S. top talent to pass up the chance, should they get it, to play in the Premier League for 10.5 times less money to stay in MLS? Of course, should their playing career end abruptly (heaven forbid) the financial hit from the salary decrease would be much less felt if they were to fall out of MLS rather than the Premier League.

To read Part II, click here.

What do you think about the wage difference between MLS and the Premier League and the ‘Average Joe’? Let us know in the comments section below or via Facebook or Twitter.

Reporting on the business side of the world's game.