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Spend it like Beckham: How French football could’ve avoided super tax

When it comes to groups of highly-paid professionals for which people have little sympathy, footballers are sure to be near the top of the list. Matt Wright believes French footballers could have avoided a super tax proposal if they were seen to be more socially responsible.

So when, as part of his 2012 election manifesto, French president Francois Hollande announced proposals to impose a 75 per cent 'super tax' on the country's highest earners, including footballers, it was enthusiastically greeted by an electorate facing significant economic hardship. However, since then, Hollande's controversial plan has gone slightly awry.

First, the Union of Professional Football Clubs (UCPF) revealed that all Ligue 1 and 2 clubs voted to refuse to play from November 29 to December 2 in the first step of a campaign dubbed ‘Football in Danger – all together’.

And although what would have been the first strike action in French football since 1972 was postponed to allow both sides to discuss a way to resolve the long-running dispute, Hollande suffered a further blow on November 27 when the French senate voted to reject his proposal.

The news is by no means a nail in the coffin for the plans, with the national assembly – France’s lower House of Parliament – still to set out its own view, but you can't help think that the entire conflict could have been avoided.

After all, Hollande's plans are largely symbolic. Aimed at a small segment of the population that earns more than €1 million per year, it's estimated that the French state will reap only the relatively modest sum of €500 million in 2014 and 2015.

And for all the media focus on the football clubs and its players, the industry is thought to make up only around 10 per cent of all those affected.

The argument put forward by the French clubs is that football is a special case, and rules that exist for other businesses shouldn't apply when it comes to The Beautiful Game.

They argue, persuasively, that the standard and profile of French domestic football will suffer if clubs are seemingly punished for paying big wages to attract the best players (such as Zlatan Ibrahimović, who is said to earn around €13 million per year at Paris Saint-Germain), who in turn attract crowds, generate revenue and so on.

But I have seen very few cases put forward regarding what such high earners are putting back into society, and how they are transforming their status as figureheads into role models.

David Beckham knew what he was doing. When the arch self-publicist – firmly on the downward spiral of his spectacular global career – joined PSG for five months last January, it was quickly announced that his entire salary, an estimated €4 million, would be donated to a children’s charity in Paris.

And on the same day that the UCPF's strike was due to begin last month, The Independent reported that two charities were finally about to receive that windfall fully – 10 months after Beckham unveiled his plans.

The newspaper reported that "lengthy wrangling with the French fiscal authorities" was concluding with agreement on how the Necker Children’s Hospital and an organisation that runs educational and fun activities to children’s wards in provincial hospitals could benefit without PSG or Beckham having to pay a substantial tax bill.

It's an extraordinary gesture by Beckham, a man who understands the value of his 'brand' and whose ambassadorial image seems likely to be the mainstay of his career after football. And it's a lesson that should be learned by his peers as disconnect between those that earn vast sums of money and the average person grows ever more vast.

In such times of economic hardship, the highest profile athletes, in particular, must be more committed than ever to sharing the huge rewards that their talent usually brings, from becoming more involved in local community initiatives to making donations (of their time and profile as much as their money) and setting up charitable foundations to promote causes in which they have an interest.

That's not to suggest that some of the above isn't happening already – all individuals have a right to privacy and there is always the fear that charitable donations are perceived solely as public relations stunts.

This danger can be averted by sustained involvement and commitment, though, and there is nothing wrong with gaining positive publicity for doing good. After all, in the current financial climate in France and beyond, highly-paid footballers need as much of the latter as they can get.

Matt Wright (@mattjobob) is an associate at socially-responsible football agency Back in Football (@backinfootball).

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