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Let’s do a little thought experiment.
If Barcelona generates over a billion dollars a year, who should be entitled to that money? The players or the executives, since the club has no owners but its dues-paying members who can’t take a profit from it?
The players, surely.
And if one of those players is the sport’s best ever, who has brought a truckload of silverware and shattered all kinds of scoring records, and papered over the cracks for years as the squad steadily declined, is he not entitled to a disproportionately large share of the pot? Especially when the rest of the squad is hardly getting by on crumbs, making their own eight-figure salaries and combining for the biggest payroll in all of sports?
Lionel Messi deserves every cent of his outsized contract.
An annual salary of up to $167 million, if all bonuses are triggered – and Messi has reportedly hit an average of 92 percent of that figure over the course of the deal, which he signed in Nov. 2017. A signing bonus of $140 million. And $95 million in loyalty bonuses.
That’s a total value of up to $903 million in just four seasons, of which Messi stands to collect about $850 million.
The backlash has been predictable. How could a soccer player make so much money? How could he charge his boyhood club pay such an exorbitant amount to play for it when Barca is struggling?
The framing of El Mundo’s headline deceives. Messi’s pharaonic contract is ruining Barcelona.
Certainly, Barca’s $1.5 billion debt, also revealed by El Mundo, casts Messi’s world-record pact – might he be the world’s highest-paid contracted employee in any field? – in a dark light. And it’s tempting to jump to the conclusion that after 20 years at the club, the Argentine superstar has become a burden on his financially crippled team.
But all of that assumes that Barcelona has no agency here. Yet Barca willingly and eagerly signed Messi to contract extensions in 2013, 2014 and 2017. In fact, last summer, Messi attempted to opt out of the final year on his deal, but the club argued that the clause had expired and threatened legal action. Messi caved and stayed. If his salary was such a problem, why didn’t the club leap at the chance to rid itself of it? Or indeed sell him then, while it could still collect a substantial transfer fee?
It also isn’t Messi’s fault that Barcelona spent a whopping 74 percent of its $1 billion in revenue over the 2019-20 season on player salaries, when La Liga supposedly caps the payroll at 70 percent of income and 50 percent is seen as a sensible proportion for a financially healthy club. He may gobble up more than a fifth of the annual salaries, but then his teammates are also some of the highest-paid players in the world.
And early in the pandemic, Messi agreed to defer 70 percent of his salary in order to help the club survive financially and save jobs.
Since the money is there, and since it goes primarily to the players, who deserves it more, or more of it, than Messi? Not only has he won six Ballons d’Or as the world’s best player and led Barcelona to 10 Spanish and four European titles, but Messi has kept Barca competitive and staved off decline for years. In the last decade, generational players like Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Dani Alves, Neymar and Luis Suarez have all retired or left. His peers Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique remain but are noticeably diminished.
The longer Messi plays for Barca, in fact, the weaker his supporting cast has become. Recall that even as he broke into the first team as a teenager the squad was stacked with Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o and Deco, in addition to Xavi and Iniesta. Yet until this season, there was no drop-off in the results – domestically anyway – thanks to Messi.
And while Messi himself no longer controls games as often as he used to, he remains its best hope of winning matches on any day that he’s on the team sheet. Less than 6 months before his 34th birthday and in spite of two injuries, Messi’s 11 La Liga goals are more than double that of his nearest teammate, the pricey Antoine Griezmann, or any of the other players bought for more than $100 million and paid tens of millions in his own right.
None of that, meanwhile, takes into account the value Messi brings to the Barcelona brand, its merchandise business or its TV ratings. Several economists have said that they believe Barca makes a profit on Messi’s wages because of his impact on sponsorship, tour earnings and prize money. By one measurement, Messi represents something like 30 percent of Barcelona’s income. If that’s true, the club’s $300 million return on his $167 million salary – or $212 million of you amortize his signing and loyalty bonuses – makes his deal look entirely reasonable.
At any rate, Messi makes more money than any athlete before him, considering that his personal sponsors perhaps double his club earnings. Yet it is an amount commensurate to what he offers the club. It is a salary justified by the mere fact of his being Lionel Messi.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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