PSL can be as lucrative as European leagues
The Absa Premiership is climbing world football's money league. In the three years since a R1.6-billion broadcast rights bonanza was secured from pay channel SuperSport, top PSL players' earnings have rocketed - to the extent that staying at home can now be as lucrative as accepting a European offer.
Just as the SuperSport deal is trickling down to PSL players, so Europe's debt crisis is trickling down to ordinary European footballers. The value of contracts is dropping across Europe (this week, Norwegian league footballers accepted a 15% pay cut) while many PSL players are now earning double what they would have in 2007.
Cappy Matutoane, national organiser of the South African Football Players Union (Safpu), says wage rises have trumped union expectations. "We estimate the average basic salary is now about R20000 a month," says Matutoane. "That has led us to rethink our demand for a minimum wage of R15000. That's not a priority: we are more concerned about the National First Division, where many players are still earning too little."
Local agents estimate that the average new contract value for a PSL player is R500000 a year, including signing-on fees and bonuses. This translates to R40000 or à4000 per month.
"Big PSL clubs are now competing on salaries with most teams in Scandinavia, Switzerland and Austria, and also with mid-table or lower Portuguese, Belgian and Greek clubs," says player agent Mike Makaab. "Even some of the smaller teams in Spain's Primera Division are paying what top-end players earn in South Africa."
Matutoane says that some academy graduates in their late teens are being paid R7000 to R8000 a month - far from enough, in Safpu's view. "But those deals should increase with benefits such as provident fund investments, not cash - you can't give a teenager R50000 a month, you have to cut it into pieces. We are engaging with clubs on how to do that."
PSL CEO Kjetil Siem is also happy about wage growth. "In comparison with the 50 leagues in Europe - if you take out the big five leagues and the 10 or so clubs in smaller leagues that are owned by oil magnates - the PSL is looking after players really well."
Siem says the clubs are considering imposing both a wage cap and a minimum wage as part of the PSL club licensing programme. "We might have a rule that you can only use 'X' amount of your income on wages. Some clubs will always pay more than is healthy. It's a free market, so it's hard to regulate pay at present."
The biggest PSL salaries - banked by men like Elias Pelembe, Teko Modise, Itumeleng Khune, Jose Torrealba and Katlego Mphela - are said to range between R150000 and R200000 a month, plus hefty win bonuses and shares of prize money. A good league and cup season could net a Sundowns star R5-million or more.
The PSL is now the richest league in Africa, having overtaken the Egyptian Premier League in recent seasons.
In salary terms, the PSL is now level pegging with Australia's A-League, and gaining on the US top league, the MLS. A wage cap applies to all MLS players barring "designated" superstars like Thierry Henry and Rafael Marquez, who are both earning $5-million a year at New York Red Bulls.
Hence for experienced players, the PSL actually beats the MLS because the money is more flexible. Last year, midfielder Mark Haskins turned down an underwhelming offer from LA Galaxy, and chose to stay in SA and join Bidvest Wits.
The PSL average salary still lags those of minor European leagues. But a local football career can offer greater scope for endorsements, plus kinder tax rates and lower living costs.
Many local stars enjoy the luxurious lifestyle of a Europe-based star, though they cannot (or do not) invest aggressively.
And while the PSL's overall health is heartening, there is a stubborn hole in the business model. After the SuperSport deal was signed and Absa bought the naming rights for R500-million, the league was trumpeted as one of the world's top 10 leagues in financial terms. But that claim measured only broadcast and sponsorship money, and ignored gate takings, which are negligible in the PSL but a big part of the European game's balance sheet.
And there are still some struggling clubs out there. Agent Steve Kapeluschnik says a financial chasm yawns between the elite - Sundowns, Chiefs, Pirates and SuperSport United - and sponsorless minnows such as Maritzburg United, who rely almost entirely on their monthly PSL grant to survive.
"From 2007 until now, it's been good, but the clubs are contracted to give standard increases to their players every year, while the amount they received from the league was fixed," says Kapeluschnik. "Those that have sponsors are fine, but other clubs are feeling the pressure at the moment. Some salaries are tapering off and some are even decreasing."
This season, the PSL grant improved by R30000 to R1030000 a month - theoretically enough to pay 24 senior players R43000 each. And gate takings can supplement the grant by perhaps R200000 a month - not enough to pay a good coach and cover the litany of non-salary costs that each club faces.
As for the NFD grant, it has risen this season from R150000 to R200000 - nowhere near enough to run both a small academy and a semi-pro club.
The wage boom is to be celebrated. But there's no room for complacency, not least about the product. Only better academies, better football and bigger crowds will hoist the PSL into world football's real top 10.