Brief moment, BIG money

Abstract: The value of a human depends on whether or not they play football…

How do you value a human being? Think of your daily commute to work: How often do you arrive at a traffic intersection and see a beggar asking for money? What is your reaction? Although you have spare change in your car, do you invariably keep it to yourself; your decision possibly shaped by the belief that the beggar’s value is somehow lower than yours?

What if, in the context of others, roles were reversed and your wealth was regarded spare change, your value considered lower? Furthermore, what if these ‘others’ provided nothing more than a mere distraction? Here’s the best part: what if you were helping finance their exorbitant wealth for this mere distraction? Confused? I’m talking about the likes of Gareth Bale.

If the name isn’t familiar, here’s some context: he plays football, specifically real football where players actually strike the ball with their feet, as opposed to what Americans call ‘football’ in which the players don’t. Anyway, Gareth Bale (normally specified in the media as being Welsh, as if it’s some kind of disability) played for Tottenham Hotspurs, or Spurs, one of the more successful English Premier clubs. He was the club’s most prolific goal scorer, which makes him highly valuable.

How valuable? During the European summer auction period that ended in August, there was talk that he could become the first player in the game to fetch £100 million. Context again: that’s more than the entire Welsh national football team combined, or what Spurs paid for their last 11 signings. Reports at the time varied on what the offer might be from Spurs to keep him at the club, but between £130 000 to £150 000 per week was considered likely. So whether Bale was sold or remained at Spurs, he would be an incredibly valuable human being.

The question is, for what? What does he do that makes him so valuable? Sports journalists will point out that his popularity accounted for about half of his club’s licensing fees. That’s not unbelievable when you consider that when Spanish club Real Madrid paid £80 million for Christiano Ronaldo in 2009, they reportedly recouped that cost in shirt sales alone in his first season at the club. So Bale, like many other football stars, has the capacity to rake in vast amounts of money for a club without even walking on to the pitch.

But my question remains unanswered: for what reason is he so valuable?

“Because he’s so good for the game” fans of football would answer, and point to the fact that this year he was peer-voted both Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year in the Professional Footballers’ Association Awards. His skill and modest behaviour on and off the pitch, they would add, also make him an excellent role model for the game.

That may be interesting, but my question still hasn’t been answered: what does he actually do that makes him so valuable?

Let’s be blunt: he’s a professional footballer, so he gets paid to do what others do for fun. For 90 minutes he has to occasionally kick a ball around, and in the process lift your spirits, inject a dash of drama into your day, get you a little frustrated at times; and, if he’s on form, make you jump into the air with joy. Of course, that’s only if you’re a Spurs supporter. If you don’t support them, you’d rather he not play at all.

So basically his job is to entertain, and in the process provide a temporary distraction from life’s little realities – like beggars at intersections.

Those ninety minutes also happen to be the same duration as the average Hollywood movie, another form of entertainment distraction that rewards its stars with extravagant earnings; some to the extent that even Gareth Bales’ projected earnings pale in comparison. According to Forbes magazine, Robert Downey Jnr – currently Hollywood’s highest-paid actor – earned an estimated $75 million for the period June 2012 to June 2013.

The fault is not Gareth Bales’, neither is it Robert Downey Jnr’s; they’re simply products of a system. The fault lies with what drives the system, what powers it. That’s basic economics. As passionate consumers of entertainment – whether it’s sport or movies – we value the temporary distraction of football and movies so highly that the system has become skewed, so skewed that the measure of that value flies off the scale.

Now back to you, and a question that’s closer to home: Is your reality that awful that you’ll place such a high value on those who’ll help you forget it for a while? Think about that; because just as the value of Bale and Downey Jnr may seem justifiably disproportionate to you, so does yours to that beggar at the intersection.

Now, where do you keep that change again?

Originally published in the September edition of Leadership magazine