Who’s the best worst player you can get?by Benjamin Markovits / September 3, 2019 / Leave a comment
I once heard of an academic who used to do the rounds on the speakers’ circuit. He was enough of a big shot that people paid him to show up. This is how he negotiated his price. “I’ve got two talks,” he said. “A $1,000 talk and a $500 talk. I really recommend the $1,000 talk.”
The Gareth Bale saga made me think of him. As I write these words, he’s still under contract at Real Madrid—the deal with the Chinese club Jiangsu Suning has just fallen through. But his manager, Zinedine Zidane, wants him out and at some point Bale’s going to have to go. The problem is his contract: Bale earns £650,000 a week, more than half as much again as the highest paid player in the Premier League, Alexis Sanchez. Sanchez has scored just three goals for United in two years. The next highest paid player on the list is Mesut Özil, who started only roughly half of Arsenal’s games last season. All of which suggests that the process of measuring a player’s contributions to the cause by way of salary involves more art than science.
A lot of Premier League clubs would love to have Bale in their team, but most can only afford the $500 talk. Of course, the academic was joking, and the absurdity of the joke lies in the idea that people can change their value depending on how much they get paid. I say absurd, but it happens all the time. Part of someone’s value depends on how much they have been valued. When you buy Bale you buy not only his talent but his contract, which is supposed to reflect that value. The measurement bleeds into the thing being measured.
In many American sports, clubs are used to thinking about what they can get out of players of different standing—because their leagues cap how much each team is allowed to spend on player salaries. The point is to level the playing field so that both small and big clubs can compete against each other. To avoid, in other words, what happens in the Premier League, where (with a few remarkable exceptions like Leicester in 2016) only the richest teams have a chance at winning the league.
Besides improving competitive…