The Mind-Boggling Sums of Money Involved In a Lionel Messi Transfer

The first thing to know about soccer transfer fees and salaries is that they’re opaque. The details of most contracts are not made public, and reporting conventions—whether they are net of taxes or gross, whether bonuses are included in the value of the wages, and whether the numbers cited include image rights (more on that in a bit)—vary from country to country and sometimes newspaper to newspaper. Add in the game of telephone involved in translating technical financial details across the handful of languages that share in media coverage of Europe’s top leagues, and the incentives for soccer agents and teams to mislead journalists off the record, and the landscape can be an utter messi news

But we do have a bit more certainty about Messi’s wages than usual, thanks to Football Leaks, a massive trove of documents released to the public in 2018 by a Portugese hacker named Rui Pinto. That $100,000,000 number actually consists of two separate obligations. The first is Messi’s base salary, roughly $72,000,000 a year, and then on top of that Barcelona pays him roughly $12,000,000 for his image rights every season (unlike American sports, soccer contracts include only very limited rights for a team to use a players likeness as part of their advertising, thus teams pay players for those rights in addition to paying them to play the games).

The second obligation consists of various kinds of performance bonuses, including $14,000,000 for winning the Champions League—not, unfortunately, paid out since 2015—as well as appearance bonuses for playing in more than 60% of matches and a bonus for winning the treble (the Champions League, domestic league, and domestic cup all in the same season). There’s also a signing bonus in the neighborhood of $160,000,000. That bonus actually consists of two different bonuses: a $76,000,000 bonus for signing on the dotted line and then an additional $83,699,000 as a “loyalty bonus.”

Traditionally in soccer, bonuses like that are amortized over the course of the contract—five years in this case—meaning that Messi would likely get an additional $30,000,000 and change per year. Add that to his base salary and you get over $100,000,000 a year (not to mention a lot of confusion when comparing his salary to other luminaries, since almost a third of the money Messi brings in is from bonuses rather than wages). It’s an absolutely stratospheric number for any professional athlete and one that only a few other teams in the world could possibly match.

In soccer, Messi’s salary puts him in a class almost by himself. While reports on the specifics vary constantly—remember what we said about the murkiness of soccer finances?—and we don’t have Football Leaks-type numbers for Neymar and Ronaldo, they are likely the only players making close to Messi’s wages. The next biggest tier of earners like Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe take home about a third of what the three megawatt stars do. By comparison, the highest-salaried NBA player in 2020, Stephen Curry, pulled down $40,200,000; in the NFL, Russell Wilson made $35,000,000; and in baseball, Mike Trout took home just under $38,000,000. The major reason for these differences is that all the American sports have collectively bargained salary caps which set the ratio of player salaries to league revenue at a fixed amount of between 48% and 50%, depending on the league. (In 2015, ESPN’s Kevin Pelton estimated LeBron’s value in a non-salary-capped NBA at $100 million per year.) Barcelona’s wage bill, on the other hand, is 83% of revenue—which is part of why they may actually want to offload Messi.

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