The Business of Sports / Working Class Heroes

Don't let the glaring spotlight of media exposure fool you, for almost half of Premier League soccer players earn less than the nation's average wage.

To judge by appearances, soccer players in Israel shine with the glitter of stardom. It matters little whether the teams they play for are at the bottom of the standings or are competing for a title - Premier League players appear weekly on television, their pictures are splashed across the back pages of the newspapers, and the gossip columns never cease to delve into their private lives. With this in mind, it stands to reason that these athletes would receive considerable salaries. Yet data released by the Premier League's budget supervisory office this week reveals the disconnect between their wages and their celebrity.

According to the numbers, Premier League soccer players earned less this season than in previous years. There are various explanations. Some say the league has restored some fiscal sanity following the era of Arkadi Gaydamak, when the now-disgraced former Beitar Jerusalem owner lavished senseless salaries on his players. Others cite the global financial crisis, which forced most clubs to tighten their purse strings and slash salaries.

There is yet another factor - the expansion of the Premier League from 12 teams to 16. Each club employs an average of 37 players every season. Thus, if the number of teams increases by a third, and each team fields the same number of players, budgets shrink and revenue dries up. No wonder salaries are on the downswing.

For the first time in five years, clubs slashed their budgets - by 37 percent, on average. Naturally, the first casualties of such austerity measures were players' wages.

No player - from the biggest stars to the last substitute on the bench - was unaffected. The number of players who earn more than NIS 1 million dropped dramatically - from 53 last year to 35 this season. Last year, 20 players pocketed at least NIS 2 million in gross terms. This season, only five players did.

The most startling statistic involves those on the shallow end of the pay scale. There are no less than 191 players - 32 percent of Premier Leaguers - who earn NIS 50,000 a year, or just over NIS 4,000 per month, only slightly more than minimum wage. Some of these players are technically soldiers, and the law clearly states that a team is not permitted to pay them more than "a soldier's wage," approximately minimum wage.

There is a certain logic to this. After all, most soldiers cannot work. But many of the players are not soldiers.

The next wage bracket includes players who earn NIS 50,000 to NIS 100,000 a year. This gives them more than minimum wage, but less than the national average. There are 84 players in this group - 14 percent of Premier Leaguers - none of whom are soldiers.

This means close to half of all players - 46 percent this year, compared to 43 percent last year - earn less than the average wage.

These numbers provide a heavy dose of perspective for anyone dreaming of getting rich quickly by pursuing a career as a soccer player. For every millionaire in the Premier League, there are eight who earn less than the national average. For every star who signs with a European club in exchange for a fat paycheck, there are dozens who earn much less.

None of these people are unaccomplished athletes. These are professionals who have reached the toughest league in the land. Aside from these players, there are ostensibly thousands who failed to achieve even this feat and who earn even less.

If reading this article prompts parents to dissuade their children from playing soccer and to focus on basketball instead, then here's a wake-up call: Like the Premier League, a significant chunk of Super League players - 43 percent of Israelis with contracts - earn less than the national average wage.