English football meets MLB: The rise of ‘pillow contracts’

“The pillow is intended for restful sleep and is not designed for long periods of time,” said Scott Boras. Athleticism.

One of the most powerful sports agents in the world, the former baseball player turned top talent broker is also an inventor.

“The ‘pillow contract’? Yeah, I created that,” he says.

But what are they, how do they work and why are they becoming more relevant in English football?

Take Jesse Lingard’s one-year contract at Nottingham Forest, for example.

His stock was high after a successful loan spell at West Ham in 2020-21, but his final year at Manchester United did not show his talents as he would have liked. Instead of agreeing a longer-term contract elsewhere – David Moyes wanted him back at the London stadium – he opted to sign a very lucrative 12-month deal with newly-promoted Forest.

Nottingham Forest

Lingard, 29, has signed a one-year contract at Forest (Picture: Getty Images)

Forest are getting an England international with no commitment to continue paying him the Premier League wage if he doesn’t survive in the top flight next season, and Lingard is effectively betting on himself to succeed and get another high-paying contract l ‘next summer.

Athleticism spoke to a host of football stakeholders, including agents, ex-players and people working in recruitment roles at clubs, to find out whether the so-called ‘pillow deals’ – short-term deals sometimes also called ‘fix’ contracts – becoming more commonplace in the English game. The sources have asked to remain anonymous to protect the best interests of their players.

So will we see more pillow talk in the Premier League in the years to come?

“I wanted fans to understand that when you do things for the short term, just a year, you’re doing it for immediate comfort and long-term benefit,” Boras explains. “You decide to give a player a comfortable, restful performance opportunity, hence the name ‘pillow contract’. It’s short term, designed for optimization or getting back to performance that year, so he can then look for a longer term relationship.

The idea was conceived in 2010 when Seattle Mariner third baseman Adrian Beltre, then 30, reached the end of his contract and was looking to give his career a boost. “It applies to a great player who either got injured (like Beltre) or didn’t play at his normal level,” Boras explains. “He was offered multi-year contracts at discounted values ​​which tried to win his favor with a multi-year guarantee.”

But Boras was playing the long game. “His real value was triple what those three-year deals were per year. So my advice was take the pillow deal, do a year, then you get the six-year deal and earn three times as much per year if he performs at a high level. It’s worked really well.”

“In one year with Boston, (Beltre) rebuilt his value by having his best season in six years”, Athleticism Major League Baseball editor Marc Carig explains. “He’s turned this season into the long-term deal he’s wanted all along: a six-year, $96m (£78.77m) deal with Texas Rangers, where he’s become a central figure in the game. a team that won the American League pennant. He was a star in three of his first four seasons and ended up staying beyond his initial contract at Texas, where he became a beloved player. His next stop will be the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Adrien Beltre

Beltre at Fenway Park in Boston in May 2010 (Photo: Michael Ivins/Getty Images)

But it turns out that it’s not a giant leap between the world of Alex Rodriguez – another of Boras’ former clients – and that of Lingard.

In England, one-year deals tend to be more common for older players who are no longer liable for training compensation (paid to the club the player has been at until the end of the season during of which he will be 23 years old). They are basically betting on themselves to perform in hopes that it will lead to something bigger in the future.

A well-paid player turned free agent could sign a one-year contract with a view to joining Major League Soccer or another Premier League team afterwards. However, a lower paid footballer would be looking for longer term security.

With Lingard, Forest has taken a gamble which he hopes will be mutually beneficial. He admitted in a recent BBC interview that he ‘could have gone abroad for a lot of money’ but wanted to stay in the Premier League. Being closer to his daughter was also cited as a reason, alongside wanting to prove himself again in the league he is most familiar with. He is said to be earning around £110,000 a week with significant extras and bonuses.

An agent says: “The shorter the contract, the more potential there is for a player and the agent if they do really well in a year or two and then have the potential to be a free agent or hold the cards in a renegotiation”.

“Lingard’s situation is low risk, maximum reward,” said another. “It’s the ultimate ‘inward looking’ strategy. But not all guys are able to handle this pressure. For some, it brings out the best in them.

However, he wanted to stress the dangers of such agreements.

“There’s always this (risk) because of injuries and the general volatility of football,” he says. “But I think apart from the big deals that you see when a player moves for a big sum and it’s in everyone’s interest to sign a long-term deal on big salaries with a stable commission over the duration of the contract for the agent, then there will be more and more players signing shorter term agreements.

A former Premier League footballer who now acts as a player representative adds: “There is a lot to be said because a player has to support themselves. As for Forest, Jesse can see it as a stepping stone to a bigger club, and that makes a lot of sense for a player who thinks he can get back to the top level.

Another acknowledges that timing is everything in situations like these. “There are pros and cons in my opinion,” he says. “If the players support each other it can pay off in the long run, but I usually think it’s because the player thought there was something else in the market and realized there wasn’t. This type of deal will work for players who have transfer fee value, but if you can’t demand a transfer fee, you’re a dead asset to the market.

Views differ in the boardrooms too, with one Championship executive pointing out how pillow deals work particularly well for newly promoted clubs. In one respect, parachute payments and relegation clauses in contracts mean clubs fresh into the Premier League are playing it safe on one-year contracts – even if they end up being relegated.

Athleticism saw an email communication linked to an ongoing transfer negotiation between two Premier League teams outlining how additional payments are also heavily weighted to ensure the buying club retains status. The relatively small payments – in this case, two amounts of £1.5m and £1m – would be easily affordable if they stay in place and a practical saving if they go down.

If a free agent signs a one-year contract with a similar contract structure based on staying in the Premier League, these bonuses do not need to go directly to the selling club and can be paid to the player instead . This can provide additional motivation which can benefit both the player and his club.

But a Premier League technical director familiar with the dangers of battling relegation is skeptical of the value of one-year contracts.

“More often than not there is a good reason why a player becomes a free agent and by the time he becomes one he is less desirable than he was when he started to terminate that contract. Kylian Mbappe (at Paris Saint-Germain) is a rare exception. I don’t imagine there are many examples of a one-year contract becoming a three-year contract 12 months later.


Mbappe has agreed a new deal with PSG a few weeks out from his old contract (Photo: Aurélien Meunier – PSG/PSG via Getty Images)

An agency recently negotiated a one-year deal for a Championship player to join a lower league side. “If he gets injured, he’s in a tough spot,” a source said. “Our player hasn’t played much in the last 12 months and the hope is that if he plays (the majority of the time) this season he will make up for what he won’t get in safety and salary during of the next summer strike and he has minutes and goals in the bank.

The underlying principle of the one-year deal is “try before you buy” – but if all goes well, the ticket price will go up.

“Sometimes in deals like this, the club or the players struggle to predict where they will be in terms of the salary they ‘deserve’ for the second, third or fourth year, and so that’s a solution too”, explains one of them. agent.

Another agent from a large company with hundreds of footballers was brief. “It tends to be relevant for players who have a point to prove. If you’re a high-demand player, there’s no way you’ll get it.

A top football administrator sees it that way. “Activated agents address clubs’ aspirations for short-term success and offer players to clubs on the basis that they receive an upgrade on what they have, plus it gives the player time in the showcase for getting better deals from bigger clubs.This works best for international players who want to prove themselves in the UK.

Twelve month deals are called different things and also come in different forms.

“The Championship version of the pillow contracts are loans”, explains a sports director of this division. “You just have to commit the money for 12 months so you don’t break your budget and you charge a Premier League player hoping he makes a difference.”

Permanent one-year deals have also been agreed recently in the division.

After the failure of his transfer to Club Brugge, Benik Afobe left Stoke City and signed for a year at Millwall (where he was previously on loan) and will take stock of his situation at the end of the season. Ryan Nyambe has terminated his contract at Blackburn and was in talks with a number of clubs over a longer-term deal, but agreed a one-year contract with newly promoted Wigan Athletic. Again, he and the club will take a stand in May.


Afobe joined Millwall on a short-term deal after spending time there on loan (Picture: Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

When asked if he had ever heard of the term “pillow contract”, one agent admitted that he had not, but might adopt it in the future.

“It’s nice to know that (it could become part of the English football transfer lexicon),” Boras said when briefed. “It’s a dimension that allows value adjustments to be made and creates fairness (for the club and the player). But hopefully I won’t have to do much because that usually means a very skilled player has been injured or for some reason underperformed.

One step at a time, but the seed of “pillow contracts” may now have been sewn.

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