Thursday, 22nd February 2024

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The ‘high-flying’ soccer coach’s billion-dollar era

The salaries of professional soccer managers have been skyrocketing lately.

Dan Petrescu (56, Romania), who was hired as a firefighter for Jeonbuk Hyundai last summer, took the helm with an unconventional deal estimated at around 1.5 billion won. Then, in August, Ulsan Hyundai coach Hong Myung-bo (54) signed a three-year contract for 1 billion won, the highest for a Korean coach, in recognition of the team’s first K League 1 title in 17 years.

Coach Kim Ki-dong (52) was officially appointed to FC Seoul on Thursday and was reportedly guaranteed 1.1 billion won, more than Hong. Rumors are also circulating that Gwangju FC coach Lee Jung-hyo (48), a hit product of this year’s K League 1, received more than double his previous salary (400 million won) the day before to lead the club for four more years. He narrowed the gap with last year’s K League 1 player salary king, Kim Jin-soo (1.47 billion won), as the era of guaranteeing 1 billion won to capture a local mastermind opened up.

In the professional world, salary equals value. It’s based on what you’ve accomplished so far, plus your future value.

The only two highest-paid managers in professional baseball who disclose their salaries are Lotte manager Kim Tae-hyung (56) and KT manager Lee Kang-cheol (57). They both receive 2.4 billion won ($2.4 million) over three years in contract and salary. On an annualized basis, that’s 800 million won. That’s half of what Petrescu makes.

In other professional sports, volleyball and basketball, it’s even lower. Korean Air coach Tommi Tilikainen, 36, who won the Korean Volleyball League V men’s coach of the year award for the second year in a row, is the highest paid coach, earning around 700 million won. In basketball, Super Team Busan KCC coach Jeon Chang-jin (60) is the highest paid with 400 million won.

This is likely due to the perception that soccer is a manager’s game. This is because there are practical examples of the effectiveness of investing in coaches rather than players.

Pohang’s coach Kim Ki-dong is a prime example of a team that can’t afford to spend a lot of money, but has managed to get results every year. As of 2022, Pohang’s salary ranking was 11th out of 12 teams, as the Korean Football Association has been releasing player salaries since 2013. However, this year’s results, which included a second-place finish in the K League 1 and an FA Cup win, shattered the myth that investment and performance are proportional in professional sports.

In 2023, the hottest commodity in the K League 1, coach Lee Jung-hyo, went even further. After leading a poor civic club to the title last year with the most points in K League 2 history (86), this year they finished third in K League 1, an unbelievable feat for a promoted team. Not only did they do well, but they also developed unknown players like Lee Sun-min (29) and Jung Ho-yeon (23) into coveted talents.

The charisma of a soccer coach is also a factor that affects their salary. In order for a tactic to be effective, the players must believe in it and follow it.

Alex Ferguson, 82, former manager of the English Premier League (EPL)’s Manchester United in its heyday, was famous for his ruthlessness in removing players who challenged his authority. “The players make 99% of the game, and the manager makes the other 1%. But if you don’t have a manager, you can’t have 100%.” Baseball, on the other hand, has become more data-driven and front-loaded, with the manager’s role limited to coordinating the players.

The same is true on the world stage. Diego Simeone, 53, manager of Atletico Madrid in the Spanish Primera Liga, earns a whopping 34 million euros ($48.1 billion) a year. Dave Roberts (51), who this year won the most regular-season games (111) in the history of the Los Angeles Dodgers of Major League Baseball, earns $3.25 million. The gap between soccer and baseball salaries is expected to widen as coaches’ salaries have been falling since Joe Torre (83) earned $7.5 million 15 years ago.

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