Last weekend’s commentary stat for me was that Gareth Bale has spent more time on a football pitch for Wales this season than for Real Madrid.
Having exhausted his lucrative contract with the Spanish club, Bale is now a free agent – the footballing equivalent of golfers signing up for this week’s inaugural rebel tournament, the LIV Golf Invitational.
As fans, however, we tend to hold team players to different standards of loyalty than athletes in individual sports. Unfair?
Bale’s falling in love with Real Madrid, and vice versa, is a long-running soap opera. It turns out that his passion for golf was woven through the narrative; he was portrayed as a loner never happier than when perfecting his swing.
My mole in the FA for Wales, however, tells me that Bale is the team player of choice on national duty, off and on the park.
The football transfer market is now dominated by the analysis of player contract lengths. One year to run is the new effective expiration date and fan favorites can quickly fall out of favor with supporters if they enter the final season of a deal deliberately refusing an offered extension.
In the tribal world of team sports, doing justice to your bank balance, your agent, your family, or a combination of the three cuts little ice.
Contrast that with the language used about golfers heading to St Albans for the Saudi-backed LIV Golf event this week. This, remember, is a sport in which missing the cup after half a four-day event means no prize money. Yes, players have sponsorship deals, but nothing is more secure than a team athlete‘s multi-year employment contract.
Explaining his decision to return after a four-month absence and join the LIV Golf series, in defiance of the PGA Tour, Phil Mickelson said: “I had to start prioritizing the people I love the most and work on becoming a better version of myself. It will bring balance, allowing me to focus on a healthier approach to life on and off the course.
No mention of bank balance in the balance sheet Mickelson cites. It was reported that he was offered $200 million to sign up.
Dustin Johnson’s agent, David Winkle, said his client “finally decided it was in his and his family’s best interests to sue.” Dustin has never had a problem with the PGA Tour and is grateful for everything he has given him, but in the end he felt it was too compelling to pass up.
Winkle will have helped Johnson weigh a $150 million incentive reported by LIV Golf against possible lost revenue as a result. RBC Bank was quick to end its sponsorship of the double winner. We can guess that this did not tip the scales much.
As a fan, like many (most?), I support teams but I follow the sport. Athletes, golfers, tennis players or darts players come and go, engaging my interest for a certain period of their career, but it is the sport itself that endures in these cases.
Teams, however, are the constant in football, rugby, cricket, baseball. Their star players shine and then fade, but the ever-changing roster itself is what holds the hearts its captive.
Professional careers in all sports are fragile. For some, it might be more appropriate to measure them in months rather than years.
In the NFL, the average length of a playing career ranges from 4.87 years for kickers to just 2.57 years for running backs. Also keep in mind that these averages will include a group of footballers whose time at the top is fleeting.
I recently met a few people who changed their football allegiance from Crystal Palace to Arsenal in 1991 when Ian Wright was transferred from one to the other. I have a friend who supports Lionel Messi, and therefore follows Paris Saint-Germain now instead of Barcelona.
Everyone inhabits a different sporting emotional world than the one I know. But maybe they have a more grounded understanding than I do of career risks and the need for team players to do good with their families.
A reader contacted me after last week’s Sport inc. to advocate for Russian and Belarusian tennis players banned from Wimbledon this year.
Why should they suffer, he argued, because of their native land (especially if they now live in Monaco)? Again, team versus individual distinction.
LIV Golf boss Greg Norman proclaims that “free agency has finally arrived in golf.” The trend in team sports has been towards more free agency, with players being granted greater freedom of movement while retaining the protections of contract employment.
There remains, however, a certain degree of commitment – think of the footballer forced on loan or forced into a transfer.
It is the moral price that team sport chooses to pay for its club structures and the desire for a high degree of continuity from season to season. As fans, let’s face it, we are complicit.
Ed Warner is Chairman of GB Wheelchair Rugby and writes at sportinc.substack.com