When the Premier League was launched in 1992, Manchester United and Liverpool had payrolls of £8million each.
As the intervening 30 years have passed, the large sums of money spent by broadcasters to secure TV deals to broadcast the competition has transformed England’s top flight and played a key role in player wages skyrocketing.
Then came greater overseas investment into English clubs, as Premier League owners shifted away from the local-boy-done-good businessman of old to Russian oligarchs, United States-based consortiums and companies linked to nation states, and took footballers’ salaries to a new stratosphere.
According to recent figures, Manchester City are the Premier League’s highest-paying club, spending around £355m ($430m) a year on player wages, with Chelsea’s the second-biggest total at £343m.
Manchester United’s annual wage bill is now £323m, and Liverpool’s sits at £314m. The two north London arch-rivals Arsenal (£244m) and Tottenham Hotspur (£205m) are fifth and sixth on the league’s list of the biggest payers.
Looking at individuals, United are paying forward Cristiano Ronaldo in the region of £450,000 ($544,000) a week — which makes him their, and the Premier League’s, top earner ever… so far.
In 1992, Liverpool winger John Barnes was in the headlines having become the first British-based player to get a five-figure weekly salary.
This comparison highlights how the influx of money via broadcasters, commercial deals and wealthy club owners has transformed the business of football.
“The Premier League is widely regarded as the best league in world football and the money’s followed,” says Dr Dan Plumley, a sports finance expert and senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. “So, what we’ve seen with that is the majority of that money has gone into player wages.
“We talk about football as the people’s game, and yet there are a lot of people that watch football and have done so throughout their lives that are never even going to get close to those salaries. So you’ve got this kind of weird disconnect, it’s classed as the people’s game — and that’s where it kind of came from — but the wages have exploded.
“We don’t class them as normal wages compared to what we see in society, and that is where this fixation comes from.”
Ronaldo, Manchester United
Cristiano Ronaldo is on the Premier League’s highest-ever wages at Manchester United (Photo: Getty Images)
And as salaries continue to go up, the fascination with knowing what clubs are paying their players has not waned.
Yes, we complain about how out of touch it has become from the rest of society, but there is still that desire to find out what the footballers we watch every week are banking each month — even if, for some, it is just to reiterate a common complaint that they are overpaid.
There is, however, an alternative view.
Ellis Cashmore, an honorary professor of sociology at Aston University in Birmingham and the co-author of 2016 book Studying Football, believes society has come to accept the vast sums footballers make.
“Who isn’t a celeb nowadays? Politicians. Military leaders. Lottery winners. During the lockdown, a coterie of celebrity medics emerged. So athletes and their partners (male or female) can hardly escape being elevated to celebritydom,” Cashmore says.
“But I wouldn’t say consumers or fans are obsessed with footballers’ wages any more than they are with the $100m Tom Cruise purportedly made from Top Gun: Maverick.
“I think they were in the 1990s and early 21st century when salaries started to soar and the word ‘obscene’ was regularly used.
“Fans have learned to accommodate the fact that footballers are like other entertainers from showbiz and earn comparably high wages.”
We also persist with describing wages in terms of what male football players earn per week, whereas in the NFL, NBA and MLB in the US, for example, it’s annual salaries that are reported.
Football and the notion of weekly salaries stretches back to over a century ago when, according to the EFL’s official website, players were paid an average salary of £7 a week. In 1900-01, a maximum weekly wage of £4 for any player was introduced.
That limit fluctuated throughout the following decades until it was abolished, having climbed to £20 a week, in 1961. This paved the way for Fulham’s Johnny Haynes to become the first player to receive £100 a week that same year.
In the UK, it is normal for employees’ wages to be paid either weekly, fortnightly or monthly. That is not new, nor is it unique to football. But the game stands alone when compared to other sports when it comes to how salaries are reported, even though the huge wages we see in the Premier League still do not come close to what other top athletes in other sports take home.
Patrick Mahomes, Super Bowl-winning quarterback for the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, is paid around $45m (£37m) per year, for example. When his current 10-year contract was agreed in July 2020, the focus was on the annual figure and the total worth of the deal ($503m, £416.1m) as opposed to his weekly wage.
NBA superstar Steph Curry, who plays point guard for the basketball league’s current champions Golden State Warriors, earns on average $53.8m (£44.5m) a year.
If Curry was a Premier League footballer making that same amount annually, he would receive just over £850,000 a week before tax — approaching double what Ronaldo is on at Old Trafford.
It is the same in Formula One motor racing — any time a new contract is signed, the driver’s salary is reported as an annual figure, not weekly, monthly or per race.
Nevertheless, the focus for those working on deals in the UK, be it on the club side or as an intermediary, is a weekly package.
It has always been this way and the argument is it gives everyone involved a clear idea as to what numbers are achievable. If the player or club have an annual figure in mind, agents will tend to work backwards and turn it into a weekly salary.