£20 a week to £3 million a year: how footballers’ wages have changed over the last 150 years

£20 a week to £3 million a year: how footballers’ wages have changed over the last 150 years

Footballers’ wages seem to never be far from the headlines. Whether it’s the BBC’s rather odd “wage comparison calculator” or former health secretary Matt Hancock’s audacious suggestion that Premier League players should have been using their wealth to “play their part” during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, your earnings are seemingly a topic open to public discussion. 

Of course, it would be naïve to pretend we don’t know why this is: realistically, your profession does pay attractive wages. Your skills are high in demand but limited in supply, meaning you are well compensated for the hard work you’ve put into refining them. 

Over the 150 years or so since the game first went professional, players wages’ have done nothing but grow in value – and so has the public obsession over them, too. 

So, discover how the average salaries of footballers have changed over time, particularly with the immense growth seen in the last 30 years.

The subject of wages has been controversial since the 1880s

Interestingly, footballer’s wages have been a bone of contention ever since the 1880s when the first professional players started to emerge. 

Teams were seeking a competitive advantage over their opponents since the Football Association (FA) was founded in 1863. To do so, many clubs, particularly in the north of England, started offering regular wages to players who joined their sides.

However, the FA were not too pleased about this behaviour. Instead, they preferred the southern teams’ approach of amateur competition as it had been when the first matches were being played.

In turn, this led to protests from teams with professional players in their ranks. Various clubs withdrew from the FA Cup, including Preston North End, Burnley, and Great Lever, a Lancashire club that was briefly one of the very best sides in England.

As nearly 30 teams threatened to form their own separate competition, the FA ultimately relented and allowed professionalism in English football in 1885. This decision would kickstart years of growth in wages that have led us to the dizzy heights of today.

£20 a week in 1962 to £10,000 a week in 1992

The following half a decade or so saw football fully codified and formalised, with the formation of the Football League and its four divisions. In turn, this saw competition for top-level players increase, boosting wages to new records.

According to Sporting Intelligence, player wages had reached £20 by 1961, considered to be a luxury salary at the time. 

Adjusted for inflation using the Bank of England calculator, we can calculate that this amount would be worth just shy of £350 a week, or £18,000 a year in modern terms. 

In the following 30 years, footballer wages exploded. By the 1990s and the advent of the new Premier League, players could expect to earn a great deal more.

In the 1992/93 season, the first of the new era, average annual pay for the new Premier League was £77,083, just under £1,500 a week according to Sporting Intelligence’s reports on PFA data.

Liverpool’s John Barnes was the highest paid player in that season according to the Mirror, bringing in £10,000 a week.

Average annual wages exceed £3 million in 2019

While the years leading up to this point saw remarkable growth, it is since the turn of the millennium that we have seen the most significant changes. 

The PFA figures reported by Sporting Intelligence show average annual pay to have exceeded £1 million in the Premier League for the first time in the 2008/09 season, with players earning around £20,500 a week.

In the 2013/14 season, England captain Wayne Rooney signed a five-and-a-half year contract with Manchester United that moved him onto a record £300,000 a week. This would see Rooney remain as the highest paid Premier League player all the way until he left United in 2017. 

This growth has all culminated, according to the Guardian, in the average Premier League salary exceeding £3 million a year for the first time in 2019 – that sees the average first-time squad player earn just over £61,000 a week. 

Since then, even more broadcasting partnerships have continued to support footballer wage growth. Sports data website SQaF reports that the Premier League generated around £1.5 billion from agreements with broadcasters including Sky Sports, BT Sport, Amazon Prime, and BBC Sport.

There was also an additional £1.3 billion from overseas TV rights from broadcasters such as:

  • BEIN Sports in the Middle East and North Africa
  • NBC in the US
  • Super Sport in South Africa.

With the sport continuing to expand and more games being shown every year, it could be just a matter of years before average wages start creeping towards the £5 million or maybe even £10 million-a-year mark. 

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