They may be worth £1 million or so to David Beckham, but not every player picks up a cheque for wearing a brand of boots. Not even, as Chris Britcher writes, every England player
February 1977, Wembley. Stan Bowles, the QPR striker who helped push Liverpool to the wire in the championship, is about to pull on his boots for his fifth England cap. But Stan has a dilemma. Stan has been offered, in the run-up to the match, £200 to play in Gola boots. But on the day of the game, Adidas puts £300 in front of him. Does he upset Gola, with whom he has a deal? Or does he run with the higher bid?
Ninety minutes later, in front of 90,000, Bowles trotted off following a 2-0 defeat to Holland. Unsure of which boot brand to wear, legend has it Stan had stuck his right foot in a Gola boot and the left in an Adidas shoe. It was to be his final game for the national side.
But the dilemma is one few in the game now enjoy. For the boot deal, for so long the key way of topping up a salary, is today less and less significant. In fact, according to several sports industry experts, when the England squad jets out to Portugal this summer, around four will do so with free boots but no money.
Which, given the scale and commercial impact of Euro 2004, will raise a few eyebrows. “There is a continuing focus on the very top athletes, who get 99 per cent of the deals,” explains Clifford Bloxham, head of athlete representation for the European operation of global marketing giant Octagon, whose clients include Patrick Vieira and Frank Lampard. “That trend has been on for the past five years or more – people would rather pay more for one big-time hitter and not even consider someone still good but not great.
“Considering how massive football is, the gap is even more apparent. You’ll have a lot of guys playing for England in the Euros or the World Cup who have no commercial deals and that is slightly surprising.”
You won’t be shocked to know that David Beckham and Michael Owen are not among those feeling the pinch. Indeed, estimates suggest both command boot contracts in excess of £200,000, in Beckham’s case nearer the £1 million mark.
The big boot brands want more than a reliable full-back peddling their wares. They need the superstar with international recognition and cross demographic appeal. But the household name does not come cheap, and as a result firms look to net two or three megastars – and spend most of their budget in doing so. After all, when Nike or Adidas is aiming to shift half a million units of its new boot, it’s going to want Beckham or Vieira rather than Vassell or Keown.
Perhaps it would be for the best that the players don’t start discussing who earns what from footwear while relaxing around the pool this summer – because for some it will come as a nasty shock. Three or four will be close to £50,000, but around ten of the squad will have deals worth less than £20,000 a year.
Said one reliable source close to the England camp: “There will be players who are good, but perhaps have two or three better players ahead of them when it comes to securing a first-team place. They will get free boots out of playing for England, but the chances are won’t get any money for playing in them.”
Of course, identifying those stars is commercially sensitive and no agent would openly admit their man possesses such little charisma either on or off the pitch so as to warrant not picking up a cheque. But when Sven unveils the squad for Euro 2004, applying the above criteria will indicate which players will be looking to win bonuses as their primary means of affording that holiday home in the Algarve. Because although regular first-team action and being on the fringe of the England team may land you a big deal, should you struggle to make the starting line-up for club and country then the value of your contract will shrink.
Failure to hit appearance targets can see the value of a boot deal plummet by 50 per cent within a season, and 75 per cent within two. Some have even found themselves earning nothing, but tied to a particular boot firm for years to come.
Adds Bloxham: “The brands are smart. They will not keep paying big money if the player is not playing. Many young players have signed deals which have a big headline figure, but are dependent on them having continued success.” If only things had been that simple in Stan Bowles’ day.
From WSC 208 June 2004. What was happening this month