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Coronavirus and footballers’ pay– a reputational own goal?

07 April 2020

By Guy Smith, Partner at Newgate Communications

They call it the beautiful game yet there’s currently an ugly spat in English football that could inflict much longer term reputational damage.

The coronavirus crisis has stirred up many emotions. But now curiously so have the rather large pay packets of Premier League players.

Normally how much they earn (an average of over £3m a year – 100 times the average national wage) raises more than a few eyebrows. In these abnormal times, it has descended into an unseemly row between the elite 20 clubs, the star players and their union – the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA).

The Health Secretary Matt Hancock kicked it off last week. “Everybody needs to play their part in this national effort”, he announced, suggesting players make a sacrifice and take a pay cut. Some have argued that it’s all too easy to target top flight footballers – often perceived as symbols of financial inequality.

The story so far is that initially a few of the clubs – Newcastle, Tottenham, Liverpool,  Bournemouth and Norwich – have chosen to furlough non-playing staff under the government’s coronavirus job retention scheme while continuing to pay their players in full. Critics have questioned why the taxpayer should pick up the tab for seemingly profitable clubs. Liverpool FC has subsequently apologised and reversed its decision.

But the League has asked for players to take a 30% temporary cut in salary during the virus pandemic in order to "protect employment throughout the professional game".

Not all clubs have owners with infinitely deep pockets and face very real financial concerns. Broadcasters may ask for as much as £750m to be returned if the suspended season does not resume and games are not played.

Meanwhile, the PFA - claiming the clubs are greedy - has refused, robustly arguing that a pay cut would be counter-productive and the additional £200m contribution in tax will help support the NHS. Yet this wilfully misses the point that the Government’s economic priority, at the moment, is protecting the viability of businesses through the lockdown – rather than the short term tax take.

But by digging in their heels and thinking only of their own balance sheets, footballers are lowering their clubs’ chances of survival. If clubs financially fail, fans and in turn local businesses will suffer.

England manager Gareth Southgate has decided to play his part and take a pay cut. And in business, we’ve seen many top executives lead by example and make financial sacrifices by deferring bonuses, cancelling dividends and even taking drops in salary.

The perception - often more important than reality when it comes to reputation management – is that they are empathising with lower paid furloughed staff while recognising government support. In summary, they appear to be doing the right thing.

For footballers to refuse to cut their wages to save their clubs (if indeed they are genuinely in financial stress) will only confirm every negative stereotype about them. It’s not just short sighted but it poses a reputational risk to their legacy and the game itself.

As one national newspaper put it: “one of the UK’s most valuable cultural exports is in danger of looking like a villain during this crisis”. When they look back in 30 years and tell their grandchildren about the part they played, do they really want to be remembered as being embroiled in an unedifying squabble over money.

It’s a complicated issue but a PR disaster as we watch from the sidelines, the infighting in our national sport at a time of an unprecedented crisis. Let’s hope they don’t run into extra time.