On March 17, 2012, football fans around the world watched on in horror as Bolton Wanderers star Fabrice Muamba lay on the pitch ‘dead’ during a match against Tottenham Hotspur after suffering a cardiac arrest. Days later, Aston Villa ordered a heart screening of all of their players as a precaution. The examination, which also involved taking blood samples, unveiled the shocking news that Stiliyan Petrov, the club’s inspirational 33-year-old captain, had been diagnosed with the potentially deadly cancer, leukaemia.
Muamba was technically dead for 78 minutes, but thankfully survived, although in August last year following doctors’ advice, he announced his retirement from professional football. Petrov continues to battle leukaemia although he was also forced to announce in May this year that his career was over.
These personal tragedies were a graphic reminder that although most professional footballers are fantastically well paid, their careers can be short-lived and are extremely precarious. These elite sportsmen rely 100% on their bodies to earn a living and one mistimed tackle in a fraction of a second can finish off their careers. It was reported in 2011 that the average weekly wage of a player in the English Premier League was £22,353 – or £1.16 million a year before bonuses – so the financial implications for players who suffer a career ending injury or illness are catastrophic.
Most professional players these days – the figure is thought to be 60-70% - buy insurance against career-ending injuries which covers them for the loss of future potential earnings. The policy will pay out significantly less than the player’s current wage, but trying to determine what a star would earn in his future career can be difficult for underwriters. For example, if you have a 24-year-old first team player, can you confidently predict that they will fulfil their potential over the next 10 years and end their career at the very top earning several million pounds every year?
Generally speaking, the older a player is, the lower his future earnings potential. A player reaching the end of his career can be seen to be a higher risk for insurers underwriting this business because there is every possibility that he will not be offered a new contract or may be offered one on substantially lower wages at a smaller club.
As the cost of players’ wages has soared, clubs themselves have increasingly turned to insurance for protection when their players become injured. The Hamro Football website reported this year that Chelsea’s Eden Hazard is the Premier League’s highest paid player, earning a remarkable £185,000 per week. Should he pick up an injury that kept him out the side for just 10 weeks, Chelsea would have to pay £1.85 million in wages for a player who could contribute nothing on the pitch.
Most clubs, depending on their appetite for risk and the level of exposure they have to high earners, take out insurance that covers them for the cost of wages for players who are temporarily injured. Players are susceptible to picking up niggling little injuries that can keep them out for a game or for a few weeks, so typically the insurance policies are not triggered until the player has been out injured for 30-90 days.
The majority of London Premier League clubs also fly their squads to most of their league games. The probability of a plane crash is extremely small, but the consequences would be catastrophic as it could result in an entire squad worth hundreds of millions of pounds being wiped out. As a result, it is common practice for clubs to take out travel accumulation insurance for their squads.
Improvements in sports science now mean that injuries that would have hampered players or even ended the careers a few decades ago can be treated, ensuring the modern professional has a better chance of enjoying a lengthy and highly lucrative career than in days gone by. Nevertheless, the stratospheric wages today’s players command are an extraordinary burden for football clubs and insurance is now a commonplace tool to transfer the high costs involved in paying players who are confined to the treatment room.