Football: an academic study

Monday 10 November 2003

Experts in the economics of sport have completed a new academic study of the footballing profession in the post-Bosman era.

One of the main objectives of the study, carried out by academics at the Universities of St Andrews and Wales Swansea, was to examine the impact of the controversial 1995 Bosman ruling – the EU-established edict which gave out-of-contract footballers an unprecedented freedom of movement.

The research, led by Drs John Wilson (St Andrews) and John Goddard (Wales Swansea) found that one main effect of the Bosman ruling has been the harm caused to the career prospects of UK-born youngsters due to the increase in employment of overseas players.

Dr Wilson said: “We found that the post-Bosman influx of overseas- born players (especially in the higher divisions) has had a marked effect on the career prospects of UK-born youngsters, many of whom have had to accept a move to a lower division in order to extend their careers beyond their early- twenties.”

The researchers looked at the career records of professional footballers in the UK, analysing employment factors such as the hiring of non-white players, recruitment of youngsters and the movement of players as their career declines.

The study, conducted on the Professional football leagues in England between 1986 and 2001, sheds light on factors other than the Bosman ruling which have contributed to the movement of players in the last 15 years – such as the revolution of the scouting system, changes in club management and clubs responding to the pressure of making big money signings.

The main findings of the study were:

· Rapid growth in the total number of professional footballers since 1986, accompanied by a significant increase in player employment turnover.

· A steady increase in the employment of non-white players

· A consistent tendency for a player to play in lower divisions as his career progresses

· Players employed by a club that recently changed its manager are at increased risk of leaving the club within the following 12 months

· The change in the scouting profession to incorporate national and international interests has meant that it is much less likely that youngsters will end up playing for their home club than in the 1980’s.

· A change in ’employment strategies’ of promotion winning teams, which sees ‘winning’ players losing out to big name signings

· The likelihood that while very talented UK or Irish born non- white players are successful in the higher echelons, it’s more likely that more average white players will be given more opportunities than their non-white counterparts in the lower leagues.

The survey, which looks at the employment patterns of professional footballers in the 92 English Premier League (PL) and Football League (FL) clubs is the first comprehensive study into employment patterns in the footballing profession.

The research looked at probabilities of players parting company with clubs over 12 month periods due to retirement, transfer to an overseas, Scottish or non-league team, or transfer to another PL/FL team.

They found that players employed by better-resourced clubs are at less risk of leaving their club than those employed by clubs with meagre resources and that members of today’s promotion-winning teams were less likely to be retained by their clubs.

“In the 1980s, the players who had achieved promotion were typically allowed the opportunity to establish themselves at the higher level. Employment turnover at clubs that had recently achieved promotion was below average. Today promoted clubs tend to rely heavily on new signings in an attempt to survive at the higher level. Accordingly, employment turnover now tends to be above average for recently promoted club,” explained Dr Wilson.

“This probably reflects an adjustment to the tendency for differences in playing standards between divisions to widen over time, partly due to the post- Bosman influx of overseas talent concentrated heavily on the PL, and partly due to shifts in the composition of spectator demand that have widened the financial and competitive gulf between the strongest clubs and the rest,” he continued.

The researchers also found that while in the 1980’s it was common for youngsters to play for their home team, today’s players are less likely to do so. This is partly due to the change in clubs’ scouting networks, which have changed from small local operations to national and international affairs, and partly due to the big money deals offered by high division clubs. Both factors have made it less likely that geographical preference carries any weight when a young player decides which club to join.

Finally, Drs Wilson and Goddard examined the case for racial discrimination amongst hiring clubs by looking at the difference between highly-talented non-white players and non-white players of average talent. They found that while a relatively high proportion of talented UK and Irish-born non- white players are employed by the higher division clubs, lesser talented non-white players did not seem to be given the same opportunities as their white counterparts.

Dr Wilson said: “One possible explanation is that a form of hiring discrimination affects opportunities for non-white players to become professionals. While the most talented non-white youngsters tend to be able to overcome whatever barriers exist, lesser talented non-white players are less likely to do so than their white counterparts.

“Another interpretation, also supported by the data to some extent, is that the geographical distribution of employment in football tends to mirror the ethnic composition of the population in different cities or regions. Higher division clubs are predominantly located in the larger cities, most of which also have sizeable non-white populations. In contrast, many lower division clubs from provincial towns with smaller non- white populations are less likely to be able to recruit or attract non-white players, even if they wish to do so.”

Any such effect seems to be a phenomenon affecting mainly UK and Irish-born non-white players, but not their overseas-born counterparts. Most overseas players are already established professionals at the time of signing for a PL/FL club and as such their ability to perform at first-team level is already revealed.

“For team managers under intense pressure to extract maximum performance from finite budgets, ability (relative to cost) is likely to be the principal factor influencing the hiring decision for overseas players. In contrast, young indigenous players undergo a lengthy period of training and development before their ability to perform at first-team level is revealed. During this developmental period, there may be more scope for final outcomes to be influenced by prejudicial attitudes, either consciously or sub-consciously,” Dr Wilson said.

The team carried out the study using records published annually in ‘Sky Sports Football Yearbook’, formerly the ‘Rothmans’ yearly bible.



Between 1986 and 2001 the total number of professional footballers employed by PL and FL clubs increased by 61.5%, from 2,106 to 3,405.

There was a large post-Bosman influx of players born outside the UK and Republic of Ireland – there were 17.7% of such players in 2001 compared to 2.8% in 1986.

The employment of non-white players has increased more steadily over time, from an estimated 7.6% in 1986 to 13.2% by 1996 (a 2001 figure is not available).

In the years 1986-1991, almost half (44.2%) of the players left their club within five years – ten years on, over 56% of footballers moved on after five years.

* The researchers have no immediate plans to do similar studies of the Scottish football leagues.


Issued by Beattie Media On behalf of the University of St Andrews Contact Gayle Cook on 01334 467227, mobile 07900 050 103, or email [email protected] Ref: Football post-Bosman pr 041103 View the latest University news at

Category Sport

Related topics

Share this story