Soccer players are teaching CEOs how to handle this crisis

“You again?”
“You again?”
Image: AP Photo/Manu Fernandez
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In a sport that was never about raw numbers, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s extraordinary soccer stats have redefined the game. In the final shakedown, it’s likely that the Argentine and the Portuguese will be regarded as the two best players ever. Now they’re demonstrating their quality off the field as well.

As workers all over the world lose their jobs or find themselves furloughed because of the coronavirus pandemic, Messi, Ronaldo, and many of their teammates have chosen to take substantial reductions in pay. They are trying to help their employers in Spain and Italy, two countries that have been especially badly hit, cope with the sudden loss of revenue. Kids learn soccer skills emulating these superstars; many executives could learn something about crisis management.

TV money, merchandising, sponsorships, and stadium income have either disappeared or become subject to intense renegotiation. Including lucrative endorsements, Messi and Ronaldo reportedly earn at least $100 million a year, but the hundreds of non-playing employees at Ronaldo’s Juventus, Messi’s Barcelona, and other clubs are on mortal wages, and their jobs would be threatened without the players’ help.

In the UK, the government has urged players to “make a contribution,” but it’s not clear if these young men, often from disadvantaged backgrounds, should be the focus of attention. Andros Townsend, a player on England’s national team, said that soccer players are “easy targets,” and that it was unfair to single them out. “We do have a responsibility,” he told radio station Talksport.  “But we are giving back to the community.”

To that end, Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson, along with numerous other players, is organizing a coronavirus fund that will raise millions of pounds for Britain’s national health service NHS. In the US, NBA rookie Zion Williamson is paying arena staff’s salaries.

On the other hand, Tottenham Hotspur, based in north London, has placed all non-playing staff on furlough and taken advantage of the UK government’s job retention scheme, which covers wages up to £2,500 ($3,060) a month per employee. The taxpayer appears to be subsidizing the billionaire owner Joe Lewis, who lives in the Bahamas as a tax exile, and an $8.6 million-a-year chief executive, Daniel Levy.

In general, and certainly outside elite sport, the pay gap between CEOs and their workforces has been growing. According to a 2018 report from the Economic Research Institute, a think tank based in Washington, DC, chief executive pay has risen 940% since 1978, while workers only earn 12% more in real terms. The average chief executive of an S&P 500 company earned 287 times more than a median employee last year. Some are, of course, taking pay cuts during this crisis.

Without teams to belong to, and competitions to play in, athletes like Messi and Ronaldo wouldn’t be in a position to earn – and give up – so much money. As much as anything else, they are trying to preserve the infrastructure that sustains them. But as Messi announced his teammates’ decision, he also criticized Barcelona’s board for putting pressure on players via the media.

“We, as players, are always here to help the the club when they ask,” he said. “It does not cease to surprise us that from within the club there were those who tried to put us under the magnifying glass and tried to add pressure to do something that we always knew we would do.”