You may think footballers earn more than enough with their basic weekly salary but it is extremely common for players at almost all (professional) levels of the game to earn additional bonuses on top of their regular income. As we will cover, there are a wide range of bonuses a player can negotiate to have in their contract, many of which can increase earnings by a significant amount. As well as examining the type of bonuses commonly added to contracts, we will ask why many clubs adopt this approach to paying their players.
There is a long list of bonuses that a footballer could have in their contract but here we will focus on the most common to feature. Some relate purely to the individual while others are based on overall team performance. Remember that bonuses are not exclusively found in the contracts of the most elite players, but they are also present in lower league paperwork too.
What Are Bonuses In Contracts?
When signing for a club, every player will agree a standard salary amount in their contract. This will be payable no matter if the player is injured, dropped to the reserves or even if they go out on loan (the loan club may pay all or part of the salary). Many contracts are rarely as simple as this though as typically footballers today, or more accurately their cut-taking agents, will negotiate additional bonuses which can help boost overall earnings. When fulfilled, bonuses will be paid on a specific date as listed in the contract so there are no surprises as to when the extra funds will be received.
This second element is important because not all footballers earn £200,000 a week. For those playing in the likes of the National League, knowing when you are going to receive an additional payment can make a big difference to your financial planning. Very rarely do you find news of clubs failing to pay bonuses or failing to pay them on time, so they have very much become something players can rely on as an extra source of income.
How Do Clubs Benefit From Bonuses?
Imagine a situation in which a club is prepared to pay a striker £80,000 a week. They could either offer this as a flat, guaranteed salary or they could offer the striker £70,000 a week with a £20,000 goal bonus. This reduces their risk a little because if the striker ends up injured for the full season, or simply ends up being a complete donkey, they are saving themselves £10,000 a week, or close to that amount.
Should this striker prove to be hot-stuff though, and ends up averaging two goals every three weeks, the club will end up paying more than £80,000 a week. They have something to show for their extra investment though as they have a striker that is regularly scoring goals. Any club would be happy to pay the extra amount in this instance as all the additional prize money his goals may well earn will very likely outweigh the bonus cost.
What Is The Benefit To The Player Of Bonuses?
We can see why clubs are fond of bonuses but why would a player opt for a bonus-heavy deal over a higher flat salary? The possibility of higher earnings likely proves appealing for many players. You have to remember that many footballers are very confident in their own ability and may even think having these additional incentives might make them play better. If you knew that you would receive £50,000 for every clean sheet you managed, you might be that little bit more committed to chasing down that striker who is through on goal, or putting in those extra hours on the training ground.
You may think that bonuses will mean next to nothing given how rich many footballers already are but players have a relatively short career, so anything they can do to boost earnings is welcome, especially away from the Premier League. This is not to say that all bonuses will be viewed as attractive additions to contracts though. A defender, for instance, will not be persuaded to lower their basic salary in order to have a generous goal bonus. Similarly, someone signed to be the backup keeper probably would not want to have a contract heavily weighted towards an appearance fee.
These bonuses are not strictly linked to the success of the team in a particular competition and usually work on a match-by-match basis instead, although not always.
A goal bonus will see a player paid an additional sum for every goal they score. The amount paid could potentially vary depending on the competition but in any case, there will be a financial incentive for putting the ball in the net. Money can be paid on a goal-by-goal basis and/or there can be large one-off payments for reaching certain milestones e.g. 15 league goals. There is a lot of room to shape contracts so there is no standard format or goal amount clubs must follow.
As goals win games, goal bonuses can be extremely lucrative especially at the highest levels. When playing for Manchester United, Zlatan Ibrahimovic earned £47,000 for each of his first five goals, £79,000 for the next five, rising all the way up to £119,000 for goals number 21 and above. This could make strikers greedier, although this is not necessarily a bad thing.
That said, in reality strikers are unlikely to be thinking about bonus payments when they are through on goal and in the heat of the moment instinct takes over. On his popular podcast, Peter Crouch stated that he never thought about any goal bonuses when he played as a striker and we are inclined to believe him. Whether all players would be similarly unmoved by a potential bonus we are less certain.
For anyone playing out wide or behind the striker, it may be that an assist bonus is more appealing to them than a goal bonus. This will typically work in the same was as a goal bonus, only that it is assists that qualify rather than goals. There can sometimes be some dispute over what qualifies as an assist but no doubt clubs will simply refer to a credible source to avoid the risk of their being any disputes. There have been some examples of assists and goal bonuses being combined together. The Mirror wrote back in 2018 that Alexis Sanchez was entitled to a £2m bonus if he could manage a combined 40 goals and assists in a season (all competitions).
Clean Sheet Bonus
A player does not have complete responsibility over the success of this bonus but they can still play a significant part, especially a goalkeeper. As the name suggests, this financial incentive is payable should a player help keep a clean sheet in a match. Unlike some others, this particular bonus has the possibility of being a little less straightforward than others. For example, the contract may specify that a certain number of minutes need playing in order to qualify. This will be to prevent a bonus being paid out to a defender subbed on in the last minute to preserve a 1-0 lead.
As with goals/assists though, a club can either pay a reward per clean sheet or it can pay a large lump sum when a certain threshold has been met. The reason that we have classed this as an individual bonus rather than a team bonus is that certain players may register a clean sheet, and others not, in the same match. Imagine if a right back is subbed after 80 minutes with the scoreline 0-0 but then five minutes his team concedes. In this case, it is perfectly possibly that the subbed defender would still qualify for the bonus while his teammates would not, although again different players would have different, very specifically worded, clauses in their contracts.
A contract with a low base salary but large appearance fee can be particularly attractive for clubs when signing a good player with a poor injury record. Should the player’s injury problems persist, then the club do not end up losing a great deal of money. Stay fit though and the team has a useful player on their hands that will be worth the money. Often known as a ‘pay as you play’ deal, this is what Owen Hargreaves was reportedly offered by Manchester United in 2009 as his injury woes deepened.
Even excluding injury prone players though, appearance fees are very common in contracts, after all, players are signed to play matches first and foremost. If they are unable to do this for any reason, then clubs would like to save themselves some money. The appearance itself could be an absolute disaster-class but as long as they play a qualifying number of minutes, or even just start the match (depending on the contract) this will be enough.
International Cap Bonus
Club managers can often end up at loggerheads with coaches of national teams but this does not mean that clubs are anti-international football. Indeed, they could even pay money when their player registers international appearances as it is something that demonstrates they have reached a particular level of quality. It could be that a player is rewarded for just their first cap, if they are yet to debut for their nation, or every cap is compensated (or certain milestones). We would not expect these payments to be especially large though, as clubs do not want to incentivise international football too much, but it is a useful way of rewarding clear improvement. In addition, should a player represent their country it will probably add to their potential sell-on value.
For star players within a team, a club might take extra measures, on top of their lucrative salary, to incentive them to stick around for longer. When desperate to persuade Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to join from Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal offered the Gabon striker loyalty bonuses worth £15.15m. Paid over four instalments, he would be entitled to the full amount if he saw out his contract which expired in 2021. The straightforward thinking behind it is that a player will be more inclined to stay put if doing so will make him considerably richer.
Much to the ire of many Man Utd fans, Paul Pogba collected a £3.8m loyalty bonus when he left Old Trafford on a free transfer in the summer of 2022. He was fully entitled to this despite largely being seen as a poor signing, as this bonus is not linked to performance in any way, shape or form.
These bonuses relate purely to the performance of the team. They can either be written as specific bonus in a player’s contract or clubs can state that a prize pool will be shared among the squad for meeting a particular achievement (not necessarily equally).
This one will not be too lucrative otherwise teams could end up bankrupt but nevertheless a little extra cash for securing a win is always welcome. A small payment may do little to incentivise already highly motivated players to win but it is a nice gesture nonetheless. Usually, a win bonus will go to all players in the matchday squad, not just those who took part in the game.
Securing promotion to a higher division can often unlock some very pricey bonuses and extras, particularly when the league above is significantly richer. As well as triggering things such as automatic salary increases, players will likely end up with a fixed sum payment for their efforts. This is likely to be the biggest bonus players are entitled to given how much guaranteed extra income promotion guarantees a club.
When Hollywood stars Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds took over Wrexham FC, they offered players a whopping £250,000 bonus should they clinch promotion. Given that many of the Wrexham squad at the time were on salaries of around £1k to £3k a week, this bonus was would have dwarfed their annual salary.
Finishing higher up in a league can bring with it substantially more prize money, even if European qualification is not secured. In the 2021/22 Premier League for example, each additional position in the table paid an extra £2.2m. So, to incentive payers to fight for every point, even when heading towards a mid-table finish, players may be entitled to larger bonuses the higher up the table they finish. People often talk about mid-table clubs having nothing to play for late in the season but they forget they could well still be playing for a considerable sum of money.
In 2017, it was revealed that Newcastle players would (collectively) be paid £4m for avoiding relegation and a further £1m for every place above 17th place. Coming into the final round of fixtures, the Magpies were sitting in 10th place, unable to reach any higher but in danger of slipping as many as five places if results went against them. Maybe the £5m in collective payments made no difference but Newcastle ended up securing a surprise 3-0 win over top-four hopefuls Chelsea.
As clubs receive money for progressing within a cup competition, they may see it fit to share some of their earnings with players. They will likely be ambitious, but feasible targets, so the very biggest clubs may only pay bonuses should their players lift a trophy. This was reportedly the case at Chelsea for the 2021/22 season as they were going to split £1m between players if they bested Liverpool in the FA Cup final. The plan was not to split this equally but to issue it proportionally based on number of appearances in the cup.
Divided between so many players, this may not have worked out as a large amount each (in relation to weekly salaries) but cup bonuses can be bigger. Former Newcastle owner Mike Ashley agreed to hand out a massive £20m if his side won the FA Cup in 2017/18. He was never in danger of having to pay this out though as the Toon Army were eliminated in the fourth round.