Chutes & Ladders: A look at soccer’s affluent and impoverished

Posted: November 24, 2010 in Chutes & Ladders

Cristiano Ronaldo hardly needs anymore blessings. He already has $18 million to be thankful for.

By Kim DeRaedt

Soccer is supposed to be the one sport that transcends cultures and crosses borders almost entirely unscathed and unchanged.  It’s a simple game with a round ball and two goals.  Throw on a kit, shinguards, and boots, and you’re ready to take the field.  Barring substitutions, you’ll play for 90 minutes regardless of if you are a midfielder in Turkey or a goalkeeper in Argentina.  A player who scores two goals in Mexico may feel as if he has accomplished a similar feat as a player who scores two goals in Italy, but as we’ll see, no two soccer players are created equal.  In fact, after analyzing salaries from various leagues, it may very well seem as if some of these players are playing an entirely different game!  After all, how else can you justify disparities eclipsing $10 million?

Comparing apples to apples, take a look at how the value of an “elite” player varies between the MLS and the rest of the soccer world.  Clearly, somebody is confused!

MLS’s 5 highest-paid players
1 David Beckham (Los Angeles) – $6,500,000
2 Thierry Henry (New York) – $5,600,000
3  Rafael Márquez (New York) – $5,554,000
4  Landon Donovan ( Los Angeles) – $2,127,778
5 Juan Pablo Ángel (New York) – $1,918,000

The world’s 5 highest-paid players
1 Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid) – £11.3million
2 Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Barcelona) – £10.4million
3 Lionel Messi (Barcelona) – £9.1million
4 Samuel Eto’o (Internazionale) – £9.1million
5 Kaka (Real Madrid) – £8.7million

As if the difference isn’t evident enough, let’s throw in the conversion rate to further highlight the disparity.  We’ll use £1 GBP = $1.5956 USD.  This means that Cristiano Ronaldo rakes in nothing shy of $18,030,280, and even Kaka takes home a $13,881,720 purse.  Alessandro Del Piero is the 50th highest-paid soccer player in the world.  The Juventus star earns £4.1 million, or $6,541,960.  This is slightly more than Beckham who earns 3x as much as the fourth highest paid MLS player, his teammate Landon Donovan.       

Now let’s compare apples to oranges.  An overwhelming 90 of the 411 MLS players earn the minimum salary of $40,000.  This means that Cristiano Ronaldo earns over 450x more money than MLS players stuck in a minimum wage contract!  The average salary in MLS is $173,491, while the median salary falls to $92,375.  Beckham, who earns almost 3x less than Cristiano Ronaldo, makes 70x more than the middle paid MLS player, Carlos Mendes of the New York Red Bulls.     

Slice it how you want, but I’d find it hard to believe that any professional player is 450x better than another.  Even more so, you’ll have a tough time convincing me that Beckham is worth 70x more than the average MLS player.  Yes, this is the same Beckham who seems to have done everything except play since his voyage across the Atlantic.  Sure, I realize there is a difference between Real Madrid and Real Salt Lake, but I’m hardly interested in hearing the likes of Kaka or Messi complain that they deserve to be paid in the ballpark of Cristiano Ronaldo.  What could they do with over $15 million besides, perhaps, help pay the bills for an MLS player trying to support his wife and three children?  Does a college-educated MLS player, no matter bench player or starter, play for the love of the game when he could earn twice as much in the corporate world and come home to his family every night?  When is the last time you heard a MLS player make media waves about unfair compensation?  Name the last MLS player strike.

To avoid this analysis falling into the cliché realm of sports articles crying that athletes are overpaid, let’s appreciate the implications and questions left by the discussed disparity.  First off, it’s not Europe’s fault that the Euro and Pound Sterling are worth more than the US Dollar.  Cristiano Ronaldo’s £11 million translates into $18 million, but on the one hand, it’s not fair to say that Real Madrid pays him 3x as much as the LA Galaxy pays Beckham.  Conversion aside, Cristiano Ronaldo is paid 11.3 million and Beckham is paid 6.5 million.  Cristiano Ronaldo is paid almost 2x as much in this regard.  But the truth is that £11 million does translate into $18 million, and the consequences of this cannot be ignored.  In other words, if Donovan is offered $2 million to play for the LA Galaxy and £2 million to sit on Real Madrid’s bench, money may talk.  How does the MLS keep players in the league when the salary gap is so extreme?  Why does sending players overseas have such a negative undertone?  Does it matter if they are happy, getting paid more, and developing in a better league?  What is the goal of soccer in the United States?  How do we determine success?  If success is winning the World Cup, why not encourage players to compete in Europe’s top leagues?  Other countries send Olympic athletes to the United States for better training, and no one cares where they developed their talent when they’re kissing the gold medal.  Or is success related to Major League Soccer and homegrown talent and leagues?  Is the MLS really hurt by the country’s departed stars when the league seems to be expanding at quite the healthy pace?  Something to chew on:  After all of this, does money have anything to do with the United States’ soccer shortcomings?

Check out these sites for further explanation of issues touched upon in this post.

To see the complete list of the 50 highest-paid players in the world, go to:

To view 2010 MLS player salaries by club, check out:

A very interesting article by Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl analyzes MLS player salaries, but it also reveals another excellent point for future examination:  Disparities emerging between MLS teams due to the Designated Player rule.  The results may surprise you.


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