Mbappe’s NBA-style career approach: Shorter contracts, more leverage inspired by LeBron, Durant

Is Mbappe copying LeBron, Durant in contract negotiations?

On Tuesday, PSG’s Kylian Mbappe confirmed to the AFP that he won’t be activating the third-year option on his current contract. Essentially, he’ll be a free agent next summer … just like he was last summer.

Arguably the best player in the world, at just 24 years of age, telling everyone that they can come sign him in a year? It certainly seemed to shock PSG, who had planned to build a new French-focused kind of team around Mbappe and are now, according to ESPN’s Julien Laurens, begrudgingly considering letting him leave this summer for a suitable fee.

The story also shoved Lionel MessiKarim BenzemaJude BellinghamManchester United and Harry Kane abruptly to the side. This is going to be the story of the summer.

But if you ask Mbappe and his self-appointed “entourage” what’s really going on, they’ll tell you something slightly different: in short, that this isn’t surprising at all. They claim they informed PSG last summer that they wouldn’t be triggering the option. And if you take a quick step back and remove yourself from the norms of soccer’s player-movement market, you, too, will quickly come to a similar realization.

Mbappe had two options: 1) activate an extra contract year for a predetermined amount, or 2) renegotiate a new deal with leverage from offers from all of the richest clubs in the world.

Wouldn’t you do the same thing? After all, LeBron James and Kevin Durant did it, too.

A recent history of basketball contracts

The NBA is in its so-called “player empowerment” era. Like so many phrases related to money, it’s a euphemism that tiptoes around what’s really happening. But in simple labor and management terms, NBA players have realized how much they’re worth to their employers, and they’re using the power that comes from that value to extract concessions for themselves — whether that means increasingly more money, different co-workers, or a new place to work.

The clearest example of this came in the summers of 2015, 2016 and 2017.

When James returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014, he signed a two-year deal with a player option for the second year. His arrival in Cleveland came with the prerequisite that the team trade away a bunch of young players and future draft picks in order to acquire Kevin Love, a veteran star capable of immediately contributing to a title-winning team.

Despite the roster upheaval done in service of his arrival, James could, theoretically, have left the Cavs after one season and after that first season, which ended in a Finals loss to the Golden State Warriors, James declined his option and became a free agent. Of course, he then re-signed with the Cavs on an improved contract with the same one-and-one structure. Cleveland then beat the Warriors to win the NBA title the following season, and then James once again opted out of his contract, once again signing an even better deal with the Cavs.

That same summer, in response to the loss against Cleveland, Golden State acquired Durant, arguably the second-best player in the league at the time behind James. Golden State then beat Cleveland in the Finals, and Durant then did what James did: he opted out of his contract, became a free agent and signed a better deal with the Warriors.

The Warriors then beat the Cavs again the following year, and Durant did it again. Then the Warriors lost to the Toronto Raptors in the Finals and Durant opted out again, but this time he signed with the Brooklyn Nets, where he seemed to exert a large degree of control over the players they signed and the coaches they hired.

For some, this all sits uncomfortably within the context of the team, where we’re told you’re supposed to sacrifice yourself for the greater good and help create long-term stability; also, where we’ve grown used to watching a group of players wearing the same uniforms for a long time. For others, it’s the least these players should be doing, given that there are multiple artificial caps put on what they can be paid, the league wouldn’t exist at its current financial scale without them, the draft prevents them from choosing where they work and the average career only lasts for about five years. From the latter perspective, the onus, then, is on the organizations — particularly the owners — to make it so their star players don’t want to leave.

In other words, the onus is on them to do exactly what Paris Saint-Germain — more of a brand than a team, hiring and firing managers for fun while still building a video game roster instead of a “real” one — haven’t done.

How Mbappe learned from LeBron and KD

When Mbappe signed for PSG in 2017, he agreed to what was essentially a five-year contract. He was 18 at the time, but within about a year, he’d already established himself as one of the two or three best players in the world. He blew up at the 2018 World Cup and seemed destined to become an all-time great, the obvious heir to Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. He had the soccer world at his feet and he first truly exercised that power last summer, when his initial contract finally ran out.

We all expected Mbappe to leave PSG and sign for Real Madrid. Instead, he essentially pulled a LeBron/Durant; he let his contract run down and then used the fact that he could sign for anyone else as leverage to negotiate a better deal with his current club. Per the estimated — emphasis on “estimated” — wage data at the site FBref, Mbappe signed a contract worth approximately $78 million a year, more than doubling his previous salary and making him by far the highest paid soccer player (and maybe athlete) in the world.

Yet the financial figures were almost less important than the rest of it. Laurens reported that Mbappe would be given a say in the makeup of the team’s front office, and that he’d rejected a long-term offer in favor of a three-year deal. In all sports, it used to be that long-term contracts were saved for superstars, the only players teams were willing to commit to for an extended period of time. Long-term deals locked in a ton of money and protected against debilitating injury or sudden performance decline.

But at least as of today, sports franchises continue to get richer by the year. Yesterday’s price is never today’s price. And for a superstar, locking yourself into a long-term deal means you’re guaranteeing you’re going to make less money than you’d be worth on the open market in the future. You’re also locking yourself into a situation that could change and suddenly leave you unhappy.

NBA players have reacted to this — and so too has Mbappe.

When he re-signed with PSG last spring, I wrote the following:

[E]xpect more players to follow the Mbappe playbook in the coming years, including Mbappe himself. His new deal will expire six months from his 26th birthday — smack dab in the middle of his prime. Get ready to do this whole thing again in 2025.

We weren’t aware of the third-year option at the time, so I was a year off: get ready to do this whole thing again in 2024. Or, as might be the case, get ready to do it again this summer. Mbappe still hasn’t gone quite so far as James and Durant and signed a two-year deal with a one-year option. If he wants to leave PSG this summer, he’ll have to do it in the way that most players still move teams: through the transfer market.

Is the transfer market on solid ground?

We’re still less than 30 years removed from the “creation” of soccer’s free agent market, when Belgian midfielder Jean-Marc Bosman brought his case to the European Court of Justice. It used to be that players couldn’t change teams even after their contracts expired, without a transfer fee being paid to the original club. Bosman wanted to leave his club, RFC Liege, but they refused to let him go after his contract expired, instead signing him to a new contract and a 75% pay cut. Bosman won his case, which meant players were now allowed to freely change clubs once out of contract, but the sport was not inundated with frictionless player movement as many, like Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, feared.

Although players could now presumably sign more lucrative contracts since they could run them down, and because acquiring teams would no longer have to pay an additional fee to hire them, it proved hard to push back against established norms for a number of reasons. Players who saw down their contracts ran the risk of being frozen out. Their agents, who typically earn something like a 13% commission from their players’ transfer fees, were incentivized to tell their players not to run down their deals. And the players themselves still usually preferred the comfort of a long-term contract over the potential freedom and payday offered by a riskier succession of short-term deals.

However, that’s all slowly started to shift. Every year, we see key players contribute for top clubs while in the last year of their contracts: David Alaba for Bayern Munich and Antonio Rudiger for Chelsea are two recent names that immediately come to mind. In the past, they might have been marginalized in favor of players who were committed to their clubs for the long term.

Bespoke insurance policies have also allowed players to protect against potential career-ending injuries, and maybe more will soon follow the Mbappe model, too.

“The optimal way for footballers to mitigate the risks involved in signing shorter deals may be to sign long-term deals, but with these NBA-style opt-out clauses,” sports lawyer Jake Cohen told me back in 2017, when Mbappe first moved from Monaco to PSG. “This type of contract structure not only provides the player with financial security. The player can always choose not to opt out should market and personal conditions dictate that he’s already in the best possible situation. But it also provides the player with the freedom to test the market and a mechanism for which to earn his full market value, rather than having a sizable chunk of his value siphoned off by his current club in the form of a transfer fee.”

In 2015 Fifpro, the international players union, brought a case against FIFA to the European Commission. It argued that the transfer market unfairly restricts player movement, and it also attempted to beat back one of the last remaining justifications for the existence of the transfer market: that it redistributes wealth among clubs. Instead, using research from the economist Stefan Szymanksi, Fifpro argued the exact opposite: that the transfer market creates an anti-competitive environment where only a small group of clubs can afford to pay the massive fees required to acquire certain players.

The case, however, was eventually dropped, and as we’ve seen over the past two windows, the transfer market is more active than ever before. (Just ask Todd Boehly.) So, if change won’t happen in the courtroom, perhaps the players will eventually make it happen themselves. Maybe Mbappe’s approach will inspire other stars to do the same, and maybe that will trickle down to how your run-of-the-mill European pro approaches his career and manages his employment, too. Or maybe this is just a one-off situation for a once-in-a-generation player.

Whatever the implications, Mbappe is about to get paid, and even more than he did a year ago.

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