Injuries to big-name stars the money headache for big football clubs

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Suresh Nair

INJURIES to big-name players are burning very big holes in the pockets of the English Premier League (EPL) clubs.

This is a painful fact: The clubs in the ‘Home of Football’ have paid £134.2 million (S$246.5million) in wages to injured players so far this season, says Insurance broker and risk consultant JLT Specialty, which compiled the study. They say the cost of injuries was on track to surpass last year’s total of some £175 million for the season as a whole.

And it significantly raises concerns about demands on players even though the number of injuries is down.

“With many of the soft tissue injuries being down to fatigue, these figures will raise questions about fixture pile-ups, especially with the rising costs involved,” says Duncan Fraser, head of sport at JLT Specialty.

The insurance broker warns that the costs could rise as more lucrative television deals help push up player wages.

FRESH INFLUX OF MONEY

“This fresh influx of money will undoubtedly have a knock-on effect for players when they negotiate their contracts,” he says. “This is expected to increase the amount spent on injured players’ salaries, as the number of injuries per season continues to rise.”

Without batting an eye-lid, EPL pace-setters Manchester City paid £18.3 million to injured players in 2016/17, more than any other club in the Premier League.

Led by captain Vincent Kompany’s 255 days on the sidelines, City’s injury list included Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sané, Bacary Sagna and Gabriel Jesus at various points in the campaign. 

That calibre of absentee means that while they had one of the league’s shortest injury lists – just 30 across the season – it cost the club £611,204 on average for each.

Even for global giants Manchester United, although United’s injury count stood at 20, well below West Ham United’s 41, they paid more because of the club’s big salaries and the severity of injuries, JLT Specialty said in its latest Premier League injury index.

The study, which collected data from the start of the season up to February 5, added that the Red Devils (United’s nickname) also had the highest average cost per injury at £869,881, while tiny newly-promoted Bournemouth had the lowest at £144,531.

DECEMBER SCHEDULE

More worringly, a gruelling December schedule saw the average number of new injuries peak at more than 19 per week, the study found.

Going by positions, defenders were the most likely to get injured with 164 cases reported so far.

“With the average cost of injuries rising for another year, and the number of injuries rising at this point last season, the overall total lost by clubs looks set to eclipse the 2016-17 total,” Fraser said.

Knee injuries were the costliest to clubs, with teams paying 36.7 million overall, while hamstring injuries were the most common with 91 occurrences. Studies show that knee injuries were responsible for £50m of that, with an average length of absence of 70 days. Back injuries resulted in an average lay-off of 44 days. There were 713 injuries in total across the survey of 524 matches. 

But to be objective, you can be anywhere, from the USA to Uganda, China to Chile or Thailand to Turkey, and you’ve to remember that professional footballers are humans — they break down, rather regularly with the ultra-intense pace of the sport.

FOOTBALL BUSINESS

From my experiences as a sports journalist over three decades, I believe when it comes to injuries, football looks a lot like business. A product has to be recalled. A fire destroys a key factory. Despite the best-laid plans, disasters strike. In both cases, risk management and business continuity planning go a long way toward reducing the damage.

Injury “is a well-understood risk in the Premier League because clearly it happens a great deal,” says Martin Caddick, director of business continuity services at PricewaterhouseCoopers in London. Training routines are designed to lessen players’ vulnerability to injury, and teams offset the inevitable blow with insurance and backup players.

Similarly, companies try to reduce risk and minimise disruptions in their operations, supply chains, distribution, etc. For companies, the opportunities for breakdown are complex and often hard to spot.

In football, the supply chain is pretty transparent: the key input is player talent, and the suppliers of it are all first tier — there are no secondary suppliers. The lessons from football therefore offer distilled examples of risk management and business continuity for companies.

Definitely, the prolonged string of injuries equates with the overall club performances too, with Arsenal being a notable example as it struggles to be among the EPL top five to qualify for Europe next season.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger recently admitted his concerns over the level of injuries at the London club hampering a title charge, an anxiety that has spilled over from last season.

He says: “The costs really highlight the importance of medical teams within clubs. The clubs with the fewest injuries in the Premier League usually end up among the top teams in the league at the end of the season.”