Matt Maher: Chance for big earners to play their part too
For a sport commonly considered to be swimming in money, it hasn’t taken football long to feel the financial pinch of the coronavirus shutdown.
After last week’s appeals for support from clubs in the EFL and the National League, Birmingham City became the first club in the Championship to ask players to take wage deferrals of up to 50 per cent in a bid to ease the financial pressures caused by a sudden and unexpected drop in revenues.
Within hours it emerged Leeds had done the same and many other clubs will now almost certainly follow suit. There may even be some examples in the Premier League.
To many, the notion of clubs involved in a league with a broadcast deal worth more than £5billion, needing to ask players to take a wage cut will seem shocking and bemusing.
Yet it must be remembered the vast majority of the riches in the sport are directed into the pockets of a minority at the very top. For everyone else, reality bites hard and swiftly.
“The truth is football clubs are no different to any other business,” explains Tim Bailey, an in-house lawyer at Beswicks sports agency, based in Stoke-on-Trent.
“They all have outgoings and when incomings suddenly stops, as it has for a lot of clubs in the past week, it is only natural to look for a way to address the former.”
The next few weeks and possibly months promise to be a busy period for Bailey and his counterparts, made all the more uncertain by the fact no-one can say for sure just how long the shutdown will last, or how the current season might eventually be resolved.
For now the Premier League and the EFL are suspended until at least the end of April, though even a resumption in May right now feels somewhat optimistic. Everyone across the sport is effectively working in the dark.
While Bailey expects many Championship clubs to follow Blues and Leeds in asking players to take a pay cut, he believes those further down, in Leagues One and Two, to take advantage of the government’s job retention scheme, which allows employers to place staff on furlough leave during the crisis, with the latter still able to claim 80 per cent of their wage up to £2,500-a-month.
Forest Green Rovers, in League Two, are the first club to have done so, announcing on Twitter they had effectively gone into ‘hibernation’ and would be ready to return when it is possible to play football again. Though clubs require players to agree to have their salary reduced or be placed on furlough, Bailey believes it is ultimately in everyone’s best interests.
“There really is little point in locking horns with a club which is trying to avoid a financial crisis, not when the alternative to players being placed on furlough might be the club going into administration,” he says. “Such a scenario really would not help anyone.
“I’ve been speaking to three or four players in the last couple of days, one of whom has been asked to take a 50 per cent cut in wages over the next four months, on the agreement the money is paid back at a later date.
“His opinion was that he was going to accept it, primarily because he is able to afford it but also because he was concerned the impact it might have on non-playing members of staff, who might lose their jobs if the club was in financial difficulty. I found that attitude quite encouraging. This is definitely a period when everyone needs to be working together if we are to come through it.”
It is those non-playing members of staff who always feel the biggest ripples whenever a club’s fortunes take a turn for the better or worse.
Yet this is a crisis where everyone involved in the sport is going to feel the bite – from players, to executives, to broadcasters and even agents, who know they are likely going to have to wait a little longer for payments owed.
In that respect, it is impossible to disagree with Bailey’s assertion that if football wants to emerge from the next few months in one piece, it is going to require collective co-operation and patience. Admittedly, that might not be easy in a sport where such qualities are often in short supply. At the very top level at least, greed and self-interest frequently hold sway.
Already there has been the suggestion some agents are ready to take legal action against Premier League clubs for any delay in payments owed. There have also been reports some players might take similar measures should they find themselves having to take a temporary wage deferral.
In both instances it is tough to see precisely what such action would achieve, other than further unnecessary damage to a sport which suddenly finds itself on shaky ground, a sport to which many owe their comfortable livelihoods. A short-term victory might do serious long-term damage.
Players in particular might also consider the PR implications of complaining too much about their lot.
Anyone taking umbrage at a loss of earnings is going to be given very short shrift at a time when everyone is having to make sacrifices for the greater good of society. It is worth noting the wage deferrals proposed at both Blues and Leeds only apply to players earning more than £6,000-a-week. No-one is going to be left on the breadline.
Just like society, the sport is best served by pulling together. Division, in these circumstances, will only lead to disaster.