Soccer has become a Tragedy of the Commons

Players are breaking down breaking down, which may not be of any particular interest to you, but it seems odd considering that modern nutrition and sports medicine has NBA and NFL players competing at later ages than previously considered possible. I’ll go farther and suggest there is a growing sense in soccer that outfield players (i.e. not goalies) are peaking earlier, particularly in the physically demanding English Premier League. What is happening in soccer that isn’t happening in other sports?

A professional soccer players runs about 6 miles (10 km) a game. They do so in a series of sprints and stops, all while humans with deadly pistons for legs kick at them repeatedly. Even without getting into the costs of repeatedly of striking the ball (and sometimes other craniums) with your skull, it is hard to overstate the cumulative toll on soccer players and their bodies.

Over the course of the 2020-21 English Premier league season, Pierre Emil-Hojbjerg played 53 games for his club and 12 games for the Danish national team. Son Heung-Min has flown 140,000 miles over the past 3 years to play for his club and the South Korean national team. The most prominent coaches in the world are adamant that their players are being asked to do too much. So, if we know that the players are breaking down, some of the most prominent figures in the sport think they know why they are breaking down, and the players are highly compensated employees who are themselves highly valued assets for their contracting clubs, why hasn’t this problem already been fixed? In two words: property rights.

Professional footballers have become a common pool resource. And if there is one thing we know about commons is that they often suffer a tragic outcome. See what I did there?

Long story short, the “Tragedy of the Commons” occurs when property rights to a good are either lacking entirely (i.e. fishing rights in the Atlantic Ocean) or incomplete (i.e. irrigation systems, professional soccer players). While it would be everyone’s interest to limit total usage to maintain the long-run sustainability of the resource in question, without property rights any individual has incentive to claim as large a portion of the resource as possible in the short run (i.e. catch as many fish as much as possible, use a player as much as possible), even if that means the resource in question is destroyed, preventing future use.

The English Football Association pays it’s national team players about 2,000 pounds per match played. When you consider that nearly all of it’s players earn in excess of 100k pounds per week from their club teams, it’s a pittance. How does the English FA get these players so cheap? Partly because they are paying the players in honor and prestige and glory and even more honor, partly because of the stigma and shame that would be levied against them if they refused the social obligation to play for their country. It’s a pretty amazing racket for FIFA (International) and UEFA (European) associations, through which 100s of millions of dollars/pounds are funneled while paying pennies to the players.

For a top player, each year is filled with final and qualifying matches for international tournaments (World Cup, European Championships, Confederations Cup, the League of Nations,…), two or three different league tournaments, and 38 games of regular league play. On top of this are the international “friendlies” that are played whenever the players might actually enjoy a break. As if designed to prove my point, FIFA has proposed having the World Cup every 2 years (instead of 4), which would only increase the load. If this sounds ridiculous, consider it from FIFA’s point of view. As far as they are concerned, player bodies are the lowest cost input in their enterprise. They don’t value the players because they don’t have to.

We shouldn’t let the clubs off the hook completely, either. Yes, they have contracts with the players, which makes them an resource that should be valued accordingly. But that assumes that the managers of a team’s resources have time horizon’s aligned with the team and it’s players, which is often very much not the case. Coaches last less than 3 years on average. Sporting Directors come and go. Even ownership can find itself looking to add short-term shine to a club so they can sell it today, even at the expense of it’s long term value. Don’t be shocked when a coach who needs to win this year to keep his or her job runs their players into the ground. What do they care about preserving their star forward’s rapidly decaying ankles if they can’t count on being around to benefit from their long term value? Hell, it’s more likely the coach will be playing against those ankles in 5 years!

At some point clubs will begin to push back – they simply have too much capital invested in these players, and international tournaments are imposing too much risk on them as franchises. But don’t expect this problem to be solved quickly or easily. The Tragedy of the Commons is an economic cliché for a reason, doubly so when one side stands to lose a lot from the (re) establishment of property rights. Fortunately in this case, there are two parties that stand to benefit from a better property rights: players and their employers. The only side that stands to lose are the wasteful grifters of FIFA and the individual national team associations, and all they have on their side is nationalist pride and populist indifference to professional athlete health….

Oh no.

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