After a protracted negotiating period, Cricket Australia and the Australian Cricketers’ Association have been unable to come to an agreement over a new Memorandum of Understanding. This means that, as of last Saturday, the majority of Australia’s cricketers are unemployed, including some of the best players in the world. And given the polarised nature of the dispute, with both sides questioning the good faith of the other side and doubling down on their own position, it seems unlikely it will be resolved soon.
In the current pay dispute I would say the public has been fairly supportive of the players. But one comment that sometimes comes up is how much they are paid. To some commenters, they should be playing for the honour of representing their country, and just agree to the terms offered and get back to entertaining us. And certainly headline figures suggests sports stars are making far more than the average layman. Is it too much? Is it unfair?
Personally, I’m not sure how much sports stars should be paid. But, if we treat it as a career, there are plenty of unusual things about that career that make me hesitant to put arbitrary caps on their pay. Most of my examples are going to come from cricket and tennis, since they are the sports I follow most closely, but I’m sure they apply to other sports too.
Difficulty of making it to the top
I had little difficulty getting a software development job straight of university, though I doubt I’m in the top 10 software developers in my home town of Melbourne, let alone in the top 100 in the world. To succeed in tennis as a career, you really need to be in the top 100 in the world (preferably the top 50). In cricket, even being a regular domestic player would require you to be in the top 50 or so in Australia. To get the headline pay of a national player you probably need to be in the top 20 and have a bit of luck go your way. Very few will reach the level of a Steven Smith or a Mitchell Starc, a Roger Federer or a Novak Djokovic.
In both sports, I think Australia is more supportive of up and coming players than many countries. But it is still a difficult road that very few will successfully take.
I have worked in my current job for over 8 years. Some of my co-workers have been there over 20 years. In sports, only the very best will have this longevity. Most sports stars have been working hard on their sport since early youth, and may only spend a brief period at the top.
In tennis, 30 has traditionally been the age of decline, when even the successful players start to lose their touch. Recent years have seen older players achieving success, including both men’s Grand Slam finals this year being contested by two players in their thirties. But this seems to have been achieved at the cost of making it harder for the teenage wonders to break through.
In cricket even among the greats many show decline or bow out in their mid-thirties, and it is rare to have an international player over the age of 40.
Some will be able to move on to roles related to their chosen sport: coaching, commentating, writing, administration. But those who do are more likely to be the successful players, not the ones on the fringes.
To take a couple of Australian examples of limited longevity:
In tennis, Marinko Matosevic took 8 years to get into the top 100 in the world. He stayed in the top 100 for 3 years, and for a brief period was inside the top 50 and the highest ranked Australia player. And yes, he earned a large amount in that comparatively brief period when he was in the top 100. But it doesn’t look so big when compared with a career of ten years, and it doesn’t necessarily help him at all finding another career.
In cricket, Ed Cowan represented Australia for 18 Tests over 1.5 years after a run of form in domestic cricket. Last summer, he moved back to his home state of NSW and topped the run tables in the Sheffield Shield. He said his batting feels better now than when he was playing for Australia, but at 35 it’s unlikely he will represent Australia again. To me, he also won points in the current pay dispute for reminding us that mean and median earnings can be two very different things.
There are plenty of other players on the fringes of the national cricket team. Some of them may only represent their country once or twice. This also stretches to domestic cricket. Plenty of fringe players will only last a few years, while some may only play a couple of matches as substitutes. Not much talk of a career there, and yet these players will have put at least as much effort into their sport as I put into becoming a software developer.
Skill and training
Few if any of the great sports stars have made it to the top by natural ability alone. Genetics may provide potential, but it needs to be developed. And sometimes it is the most talented players who underperform, because they fail to recognise that need to train.
Many outsiders see sports players playing a few matches and think it can’t be too hard. But there’s a lot of training and practice involved. And it’s not just in the on season, either. It’s day in, day out - like a real job, but possibly more intense.
Carrying the hopes of fans
Much of the work I do affects few people. The work of sports stars at the top-level is highly visible. They may be carrying the hopes of a nation, or of millions of fans. In doing this, they have the power to both cheer and disappoint others.
How many tennis fans had their day improved by Federer winning the Australian Open, or Nadal winning the French Open? There was certainly rejoicing in Pakistan when they won the recent Champions Trophy against the odds. Further back, Bradman and Phar Lap between them lifted the spirits of Australians caught in the Depression. Is this power not worth something?
A life under scrutiny
The flip side is that sports stars can be exposed to continual praise and criticism. Most people who follow the sport have opinions about which players deserve selection and success, and which players are failures who should be sacked immediately. Some of the comment threads after a particular player or team fails are terrible. Players need to develop a thick skin, and many respond by just not following the news. Sometimes it feels like we should be paying these skilled players a big bonus for this privilege to vilify them for not living up to our expectations.
And that’s just the individuals. Players also have to deal with a media that sometimes tries to trip them up or find someone to blame for a failure. I’ve read and listened to many interviews with players, and they can be fascinating. Giving these interviews is an important part of the job, and may even be a contractual requirement. And yet the least word in an interview can be taken out of context and blown out of proportion in damaging banner headlines. Speaking openly and honestly will sometimes just make it worse, and many players learn to adopt a reserved, non-committal attitude, never saying too much and certainly never saying anything controversial.
Frequently, though, the media attention goes well beyond the sport itself. Some reporters are very eager to dig up the dirt on a player’s private life, and go far beyond sporting performance to track down their love interests, their family life, and anything else that might seem relevant. Sports stars sometimes enter the public eye at a young age, and the mistakes they make as they mature are played out on the global stage. One action can end up defining them in the eyes of the public for ever.
Not only are their actions under scrutiny, but they are expected to be role models at an age where most people are expected to be still learning from role models. Great if they can do it, but should it really be a requirement?
Then, finally, there’s the drug testing. We need drug testing to ensure the integrity of the sport, but it imposes a big burden on the players. And, like the training, this is not just limited to actual competition: it’s a year-round thing. Under Australian anti-doping procedures, players have to notify ASADA of where they will be for at least one hour every day of the year, in order to allow random tests. This information has to be submitted months in advance (for example, the quarterly whereabouts information for October - December has to be entered by the start of September). Fortunately, it can be changed closer to the time, as I guess few players really know in September what they will be doing on 12 December at 5 PM. The tests themselves are invasive, with no privacy allowed. Again, good for the integrity of the game, but not so fun for the players.
Dealing with extreme conditions
I work in an air-conditioned office, where temperatures don’t change much year-round. Any players playing outdoor sports have to deal with a wide range of conditions.
Cricket players can be required to run in temperatures over 40°C, or in high humidity under a blazing sun, and all while wearing heavy protective gear. And if they just fail to make it on a tight run or dare to retire injured the spectator sipping a beer in front of their TV will be incensed. Earlier this year in India Matt Renshaw was criticised for not toughing out his sickness, and later got approving comments for staying out in the middle and vomiting by the side of the pitch.
Tennis players could be on the court for 5 hours trying to maintain their highest performance in the heat over a lengthy five-setter. Then they have to be ready to do it all over again in a day or two. A Test cricket match is five days, a typical tennis tournament a week, and a Grand Slam two weeks. To win, players really have to be at their best the entire time, and public opinion will be quick to punish any lapses.
At the elite level, many sports require a lot of travel. At first, this sounds good, but I’m sure it can become an endless grind. The professional tennis season lasts from January to November. For cricketers, domestic players may only have to play in summer. But any players who are good enough can occupy most of the year: touring other countries with the national side, participating in the IPL, in county cricket, and many other tournaments. Tennis players can feel like they are in perpetual summer, as the tour is organised to try and take advantage of good weather round the world. In fact, they can face extreme heat or humidity almost any month of the year.
Many players are at an age where they either have a family or are looking to start one. Given their travel can lead to months away from home, this means either extensive time away from family or needing to organise for their family travelling with them.
Cricket players need to provide their own equipment, though I believe travel and coaching will usually be provided once they have reached a high enough level.
Tennis players need to provide their own equipment, as well as handling travel expenses and coaching. The prize money pools may sound large, but it’s not cheap to book and change flights at short notice or to hire your own training team. Promising players may get funding and support from their national organisation. Similarly, equipment may be sponsored. But there will be a lot of expense and training before they even reach the point where that funding and sponsorship is justified.
Injuries and surgeries
Sports stars push their bodies to the limit, and it is rare for them to come to the end of their career without having faced serious injuries. Not only does an injury severely limit their ability to earn, but I can’t imagine the treatment required is cheap. Again, it may be covered by the relevant national organisations, but it may not be.
Players are expected to fight on through injuries and sickness rather than retiring and coming back another day - but this risks making the injury more serious. Similarly, injured players want to get back to the game, but if they do so too quickly they may re-injure themselves or do further damage.
In a team sport like cricket, they may find after time out of the game that their replacement has performed well enough to take their spot. In tennis, it may mean their ranking dropping enough that they get more difficult draws and find it harder to fight back to the top.
These injuries can have a permanent effect: For example, many wicket-keepers’ hands are never the same after they have retired.
Sometimes surgery will be required: For example, Tomic had a double hip replacement at age 21, and he’s not the only tennis player who has needed this. Back surgery, knee surgery, wrist surgery, the list could go on. And I’m sure some of this surgery will need to be repeated after a player has retired.
But it gets worse: Players have even died.
Elite sport is not for the faint-hearted.
The revenue generators
The sporting industry is a massive industry, earning substantial revenue. While the games could not continue without the hard work of many administrators in the background, the players are the visible face of the sport. The earnings would not happen without the players and the teams building up a following. I would imagine it is much harder to replace one sports star with another than it is to replace one administrator with another. Surely they deserve a proportion of the revenue they enable?
Supporting lower ranked players
While the discussion about players being paid too much usually starts with those who earn the most, the senior players will often assist more junior and lesser paid players, including at the negotiating table. A few years back, the senior tennis players worked hard to negotiate higher prize money at the four Grand Slams. Yes, it involved more prize money for the tournament winners. But a key principle in the negotiation was making it fairer for those who only survive a round or two.
In the current cricketing dispute, Cricket Australia has several times tried to negotiate independently with the most important players. These players could easily have got high-paying contracts, but chose to keep a united negotiating front to support the domestic players who are not so highly paid.
The role of luck
This isn’t strictly a reason for deserving to be highly paid, but it is a reminder of the difficulty of “making it” in elite sports. There are many excellent players around, and only so many elite slots available. I’m sure the best are likely to make it through no matter what, but the very good may rely on the whim of a selector, the timing of injuries, or the competition in their particular era.
In tennis, the draw for any particular tournament can make it easier or harder for a particular player to achieve a break-out result.
In cricket, there is the all-important question of team balance. If a player is the second-best batsmen in Australia, they could easily be a first choice player in all three formats. But if a player is the second-best keeper or spinner in Australia, they may only play a backup role. And they may luck out if they happen to mature late when selectors want to inject youth, to be the most reliable opener when selectors are looking for someone to start an innings quickly, the best keeper when the selectors are looking for a keeper-batsman, or the best off-spinner when the selectors are looking for the next great leg-spinner. I am sure there have been players who could have found a place in a different era or in most other nations in the same era, but weren’t quite good enough to beat those currently playing for their nation.
For example, the West Australian keeper Luke Ronchi was unable to get more than a few games for Australia, but then moved to New Zealand and represented them in international limited overs cricket for four years (though he was unable to get a regular Test spot).
Keeping them in the game
Nowadays most sports are highly paid, and some athletes are able to excel in multiple sports. In Australia, for example, cricket is considered under threat from AFL football, since there are more opportunities and it is easier to make a living without having to make it to representing your country. A sport that lacks competitive salaries is likely to lose some of the best players and some of the country’s mindshare.
But this goes beyond competition between sporting codes. Some say players should just play for the honour of representing their country, but it’s a demanding job and not all players could afford to (or want to). In the past, there were very strong views about amateurs being the “purer” sportspeople. For example, the Olympics only accepted amateurs for most of the last century. Medals were stripped from players discovered to have ever taken pay or prize money for playing any sport. In tennis the Open Era started in 1968, but before that any players who had “turned pro” were not permitted to compete in the Grand Slams, and the quality of the competition suffered as a result. In cricket, the English drew a big distinction between “professionals” (the lower classes, who actually played cricket for a living), and “amateurs” (the distinguished upper class). One place this was shown was in the annual “Gentlemen vs Players” match, ended in 1962.
Australian cricketers had mostly been considered amateurs. They could spend months overseas touring, be paid comparatively little for their trouble, and lose opportunities for career advancement in their actual career. Bill Lawry talks about the people working the sight-screen for a first-class match being paid more than the cricketers. Some, like Bob Cowper, retired early as a result. After World Series Cricket players began to be paid enough to make a living in the game, but the game still needs to provide paying pathways for players at lower levels, not just have a few well-paid players representing their country at the top and ignore the rest.
Professional sports players are highly skilled, and most who make it big have a very strong work ethic. They are the best in their field, and I am in awe of what they accomplish. I don’t know how much they should be paid, but I’m reluctant to put arbitrary limits on it. Yes, they are following their dreams, but why is that incompatible with earning money?
They have a demanding job both physically and mentally. Consider some of these:
- At a time of life when most people have few health issues, they undergo surgeries more usually reserved for older people.
- At a time of life when many young people are still trying to find their feet, they have to live in the public eye and be a role model to thousands.
- At a time of life when many settle down and start families, they spend long months away from home.
- At a time of life when many young people have difficulty deciding on a vocation, they have to pursue their chosen vocation with dedication and commitment, uncertain whether they will actually even be able to make a living out of it.
Of course, sports stars aren’t the only ones with these characteristics. There are many other highly skilled workers at the peak of their profession who share some of these characteristics and don’t earn the same money as sports stars. But I think most who complain the sports players are paid too much don’t really understand how difficult being a sports star is. There’s more to it than just a few large sounding headline numbers.