What Is A Soccer Player Worth?

I surmise that the authors of the book cited in yesterday’s essay, Is Football Going to Explode? have been, like many of us, viscerally disgusted by the vast salaries paid to star footballers, and that this disgust was the most important motive force that impelled them to write their book. But, of course, their motive does not affect the validity of their arguments.

They start with the emblematic transfer of the services of a young Brazilian footballer, Neymar, to Paris Saint Germain for approximately $250,000,000. They not unnaturally ask what can possibly justify this enormous sum. The answer that this is the price that the market will bear does not satisfy them.

Instead, they turn to what might be called — if he were a tool rather than a human being — the use-value of Neymar, and here the matter becomes inextricably complicated.

The average salary of a footballer in the league in which Neymar is to play is about $600,000 a year: enviable from the point of view of 99 per cent of the population, but not pharaonic. (Incidentally, the French league is the lowest-paying of any of the five big European leagues, the others being the English, Spanish, German and Italian). Can Neymar really be 50 times better and more valuable or better, the authors ask, than the average league player? If he were, surely he alone could replace a whole team, indeed several whole teams.

Since this is clearly absurd, the price of his services cannot possibly bear any relation to their use-value — as the authors imply that in a rational world they would, could, or should. But how is the use-value of a footballer to be assessed, assuming that his use-value lies in procuring for his team as many victories as possible? Can there be any better or more accurate method of assessment than that of an experienced coach who says, “This is just the man I need for my team”? At best, the use-value of a footballer can be no more than an educated but hazardous and gestalt-type guess. The situation is complicated by the fact that it is not in the long-term interests of any club to win every match, because were it to do so the competition itself would lose interest, since the winner would always be known in advance and the supremely successful team’s victories would have no element of excitement.

What of Neymar’s purely commercial value to PSG? This is very difficult to assess. When he signed for the team, according to the authors, PSG sold 20,000 extra “official” PSG shirts with his name on them within three days although, even at a profit to the club of $20 apiece, this would bring in less than half of one per cent of what they had spent on him. Presumably the sales of such shirts would fall off as the novelty also wore off; but when Neymar signed for the club, PSG immediately had more followers on the social media than anyone or anything else in France.

The authors mistake the justification that economic liberals would provide for the high price paid for Neymar’s services. According to the authors:

Idolaters of the market and of liberalism justify inequalities by talent, by competition. “If he costs a lot, it’s because he’s good,” or “If he he’s well paid, it’s because he brings in a lot.”

On the contrary, I think economic liberals (whether they be right or wrong in wider sense) would say that the high price was paid for Neymar’s services was because someone thought they were worth the price, and this is so whether or not the person paying the price — the Qatari royal family, in effect — wanted or expected to make a profit from the deal. The monetary value of something is the price people, wisely or unwisely, are prepared to pay for it.

The authors hanker after our old friend, the just price, which we all instinctively think must be the correct price—the just price for my services being always a little more than anyone is willing to pay for them. The obvious problem with the just price is that someone all-wise and disinterested has to set it, and even so his scale of values may not meet with universal approval, in fact is almost certain not to do so. The just price requires the philosopher-king, and we all know where philosopher-kings lead.

The authors point out deformations in the scale of footballers’ remuneration (here they take correlation, as most of us do, for causation). Footballers are paid more if they are good-looking, though good looks have, or should have, nothing whatever to do with the ability to kick a ball about with great skill. Furthermore, players who play extremely well some days and not so well on others are better paid than those who are dependably good, but never as good as the undependable players at their best. This is because they get themselves talked about more, as do players with colourful personal lives. An uxorious man who leads the quiet life of a successful haute-bourgeois is no use to gossip columnists.

Here, I think, we come to the nub of the matter. Though they cannot admit it, what the authors are appalled by is the general culture of which football is now so large a part. (Such newspapers in Britain as the Times and the Guardian, which are at the higher end of the intellectual range, devote more space to football than to all foreign affairs.) If they would but admit it, they are horrified at the sheer idiocy and bad taste of 20,000 morons who are prepared to shell out good money for shirts with Neymar’s name printed on it, and who find Neymar himself so fascinating, though it is unlikely that he is exceptional in anything other than his ability to kick a football with consummate skill, that they are prepared to spend their spare time reading about him. Human fatuity can go no further.

Disdain is a dangerous sentiment and one has to control it, though not by erecting complex theories to disguise it even from oneself. However, the authors’ book, though I disagree with quite a lot of it, is a valuable one. The authors, rightly, take the cause of football as a microcosm and confirm what the late manager of the Liverpool Football Club in its salad days, said: Football is not a matter of life and death, it’s far more important than that.

Reader Discussion

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on July 13, 2018 at 14:45:29 pm

I concur with Dalrymple’s critique of the Just Price theory. That said….

…this is the price that the market will bear….

The price that WHAT market will bear?

Yes, some purchases are acts of pure consumption; thus, if the Qatari royal family wants to pleasure of enjoying being associated with Neymar and money is no object, then the price they pay may not reflect Neymar’s productive capacity.

But more typically, labor costs are limited by anticipated productive capacity—that is, how much an employee will influence a firm’s profits. But a firm’s overall profits can be heavily influenced by various factors, including government policies. If government foot the bill for sports infrastructure (stadiums and transportation infrastructure leading to and from), and provides insurance against certain kinds of liability and losses, and provides antitrust exemptions that permit leagues to limit the number of rival teams that can compete in their league, etc., then government policies create, and can alter, the market cited by Dalrymple. It’s a bit naïve to say that prices for professional athletes are simply the result of some amorphous “market” without also acknowledging that we create that market, and we can change it.

In saying this, I don’t mean to advocate any specific change (say, salary caps). I merely mean to say that, if governments weren’t so generous with professional sports leagues, the leagues wouldn’t be as profitable—and I suspect salaries would be lower. That also would be a price that the market would bear—but it would be a different (and arguably less manipulated) market.

At best, the use-value of a footballer can be no more than an educated but hazardous and gestalt-type guess.

Really? ‘Cuz in the US, analysts build complicated computer models to estimate the use value of athletes, and make hiring/firing choices accordingly. You never happened to read or see Moneyball?

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on July 13, 2018 at 15:03:33 pm

Nobody: Moneyball is overrated but...

Quite correct re: the impact of government subsidies providing a somewhat greater elasticity to athletes wage limits.

At some point, let us take soccer as an example, even the hooligans in europe, South America, etc who frequent these government funded stadia may begin to object as the escalating price of a ticket may limit their ability to purchase a pint - well actually many pints.

Then again, that may be a good thing. Perhaps there will be fewer riots at these events, occasioned no doubt out of boredom at the tedious pace / scoring of this silly game.

I say - "let's break the billion dollar barrier for these footballers and bring the whole thing crashing down.

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Image of gabe
on July 13, 2018 at 19:30:14 pm

As nobody.really states, the market price reflects the institutions, including the laws, in which market exchanges take place. Without intellectual property rights (in this case, copyright and trademarks) of such comprehensive scope and long term, the revenue of football teams, and the earnings of the players, would be a lot less. For example, why shouldn't I or anyone else be able to sell a T-shirt bearing Neymar's name and/or likeness for, say, $5? I won't claim it's authorized by Neymar (that would be fraud) but I dare say that I'll still sell a good few before someone else offers a similar product for $4.

Oh, and why do so many people feel obliged to get in a dig at the tastes of football supporters, particularly when they have behaved so well in the World Cup?

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Mark Brady
on July 14, 2018 at 11:29:42 am

"Oh, and why do so many people feel obliged to get in a dig at the tastes of football supporters, particularly when they have behaved so well in the World Cup?"

1) Yes, it would appear that the hooligans have a) either refrained from their usual boorish behavior or b) have been unable to attend due to the high cost of attending.

2) As to why the digs, perhaps, it is, at times, necessary to puncture the inflated soccer "balloon". There would appear to be far too much hot air constrained by that thin veneer of the balloon. Far too much of that hot air has leaked out and has infected American youth, who in their *strained8 efforts to emulate the continent's hooligans have taken to marching through the streets of downtown Seattle in fawning tribute to "All things Europe."
It seems these soccer afficionados, like the horrid boutique beers they pretend to like, simply "try too hard" to be something they are not.

And hey, look at how much bashing and digging is directed at American football.

Sauce for the goose, and all!

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Image of gabe
on July 15, 2018 at 15:08:04 pm

The natural rights to one's body and labor logically extend to one's name and likeness, for it is the mind, body and labor which give value to the name and likeness. It follows, therefore, that no one should be able to profit from another's name and likeness without his consent, especially since doing so could interfere with his own ability to market himself (e.g. by associating his name and likeness with things that many people having morally objectionable).

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myth buster
on July 17, 2018 at 01:12:31 am

"The natural rights to one’s body and labor logically extend to one’s name and likeness, for it is the mind, body and labor which give value to the name and likeness. "

That 's a fine -sounding assertion, but it needs to be proved. I don't doubt that a footballer's prowess doesn't give rise to recognition of his name and face. But why shouldn't the profit accrue to the person or persons who perceive the marketing opportunity for a T-shirt with his name and face on it? And that profit would, of course, be reduced, and maybe eliminated, over time through the competitive process. If supporters really want their footballing hero to receive the profit, they can choose to purchase only approved gear. And everyone else can choose to buy unauthorized apparel so long as it isn't passed off as approved.

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Image of Mark Brady
Mark Brady

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