David Alaba and Player Empowerment a MSR Chat

Maurice Separator November 9, 2020

Marc: I always find it interesting that people expect unquestioned loyalty from players towards clubs but have no expectation of loyalty from clubs towards players. Though this is obviously a generalization, I feel like for the majority it holds true. For some reason we always seem to think players are nothing but selfish money hungry playboys and the clubs are these poor organizations that are being bullied. These types of situations and negotiations always have two sides and to “blame” only one side is a very narrow minded view.

Tobias: Earning millions of money playing football is still kind of frowned upon in Germany. The public expects you to stay at your club through good and bad times just the way Dirk Nowitzki did in Dallas. Changing the club you grew up in just to earn more money is a no-go. This is deeply rooted in something we call „Vereinsmeierei“. 

In the 19th century almost every leisure time activity had to happen within the boundaries of properly founded societies. Changing your society has always been a huge effort and corresponded with cutting most of your social ties. Being a free agent is still a „strange“ concept for many Germans.

Marc: I understand. It honestly holds true in American sports where it is obviously more accepted as a practice. Nowitzki is a very rare example of a player who stays at one team for his entire career. Whenever players move to other teams, they are villainized as mercenaries or greedy and subsequently hated on by the spurned fan base. 

The simple truth though is that players have at most 10-15 years to earn the majority of the money they will make throughout their lives. While they get paid a lot of money, or at least some of them do, the reason they are paid that money is because we as consumers pay to watch. If another team is willing to pay a player a certain amount, thereby establishing a market value, and the team they are currently on is not, it’s hard for me to understand why people expect the player to earn less simply because they happened to be at that club first. 

People act as though players are indebted to the club for eternity because “they gave them their break” while completely ignoring the talent and skill that the player brings themselves. One cannot exist without the other and to view it any other way is very much selective blindness.

Dennis: As you mentioned, players like Nowitzki, Lillard and Curry are the RARE examples. On the other hand “player empowerment” has significantly increased in the last years, especially in the NBA. LeBron James’ taking his talents to South Beach as one highlight, with the ensuing backlash. The fan reaction has changed a lot compared to the current moves of LBJ to the Lakers or Kwahi to the Raptors or the Clippers.

In JJ Reddick’s Podcast he connects the negative feedback of the empowerment era to a racial bias. Seeing black athletes gaining control over their lives and their financial situation is something that some parts of the population do have issues with.

In football the transformation from “I follow a club” to “I follow a player” is also well documented. For example, Bayern’s social media followers saw significant increases after signing James or Coutinho. It’s a changing landscape.

Tobias: But, at least in Germany, people refuse to look at players and their commitment to the club in a monetary-based way. Just look at Borussia Dortmund, where the club permanently tried to convince the fans, the public, themselves that their players give it their all just because of their love for the club. Not because of money. Not because of their striving for excellence. Evil mercenaries exist only at Bayern Munich! 

That’s at least part of the reason why BVB supporters were frustrated e.g. with Götze leaving, because they genuinely believed that their players belong to a different species, that doesn‘t care about money and individual success.

Marc: I completely get your point. It’s just fascinating to me that these clubs and teams world wide are still able to get away with this. I know that there is a perception, especially in Germany with the 50+1, that the clubs still belong to the people. That this isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, a business. But the days where football wasn’t a business have long since passed. 

Loyalty only goes so far for both parties. It’s just amazing to me that clubs are still somehow able to convince their supporters that they are any different than the “evil empires” of Real, Barca, PSG, Man City, Man Utd, Chelsea, Juventus and in the case of the Bundesliga Bayern. The only difference is that due to their respective successes (or billionaire owners) they have more money to play with, but all clubs and footballers are only loyal to each other while they are both able to get the most out of the other. 

Players want to get paid and win. Clubs want to make money exploiting those players through marketing and to win. As long as their mutual interests and benefits are aligned everything is great. As soon as they don’t, it’s over. The only loyalty in sports anymore is between the supporters and the club, or in some cases between supporters and specific players, but that loyalty is not returned and it does not exist amongst the other parties.

Dennis: And furthermore it’s a bit two faced to look down upon players for choosing another club “just because of the money”, when often the same people would gladly change their job, when given the chance to earn 10 or 20% more.

Marc: Yes! That’s exactly my point. For everyone else in the world, you would be thought a fool if you turned down a significant pay increase. It makes no sense to me that we expect players to do the opposite.

Dennis: I listen to the highly recommended 11 Leben Podcast by Max Ost covering the life of Uli Hoeneß. I learned many very interesting details, that are probably common knowledge for most of you here, especially Tobias. What sticks out the most is the realization, that the commercialization of football is by no means a new phenomenon.

On the contrary, it was pursued even more openly in past decades, where the sporting success was jeopardized by running the players into the ground by sending them on exhibition match tours around the globe, even during the season. It’s a cycle that starts all over again. 

In my perception the main difference being is that the commercialization has reached a level of professionalism that makes “the pill” even easier to swallow now, compared to past times. Lewandowski and Kimmich winking into the camera is easier to stomach than Beckenbauer singing in commercials back in the days.

Tobias: Yes, I agree completely. And it‘s hard to understand, as a Bayern supporter, but even more so as a Bayern hater, that these exhibition games laid the groundwork for the success of the club. No game at Rio thursday night, no Beckenbauer-salary. No Beckenbauer, no success.

That’s also the reason why I always start rolling my eyes, when I hear the likes of Bielefeld or Augsburg demand an increased share of the international revenue. For what? Where‘s their effort?

Marc: Dennis, I missed your first reply on the NBA comparisons. The LBJ thing is really an interesting case. He went from being nearly universally liked to hated by practically everyone over night. However what he did is also pretty important for the players in the league now. It set a precedent that gave the players a ton of control over their careers, lives and finances. 

Interestingly, I’ve never really made a connection to a racial bias but I also can’t say it’s not at least somewhat true. I still would contend the bigger issue is that people feel a connection to players on their team, especially the ones that played there from day one, and expect that the players feel the same way, ignoring the obvious fact that many of them didn’t grow up loving that team, that they have families to take care of and that the organizations themselves will cut/trade/sell them as soon as there is a replacement or their performance slips.

Dennis: Without the mention by JJ Reddick, I also would not have made that connection. Concerning LBJ it also has to be mentioned that Cleveland and Ohio are in fact his hometown, so it’s not “just” leaving the club that drafted him, but also his actual home.

Marc: Yes. And I always understood why the people of Cleveland were upset, but I never understood why everyone else hated him for it. Also it must be said that very few professional athletes have ever done as much for their hometown as LBJ has done for Akron. Between that and the fact that he went back and won, there are very few people in Cleveland that hate LBJ at this point despite the fact that he left again. Though the massive player movement in the past 5 years certainly plays a big role as well.

»Eier, wir brauchen Eier!«

— Oliver Kahn

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