Brazilian footballer Givanildo Vieira de Sousa, better known as Hulk, celebrates scoring one of his four goals for Shanghai SIPG. A new report published in the UK indicates each of those goals cost the club £4m in Hulk's wages alone. Photo: AFP/Cao zichen/Imaginechina

The Chinese Super League (CSL) is the “most skewed” sports league in the world in terms of wage distribution.

According to the seventh annual Global Sports Salaries Survey, which was published by the UK-based sports website Sporting Intelligence on Monday, China’s top football league is so “star heavy” that 47 players — constituting the top 10% — claim more than 81% of the total pot of earnings.

The next most unbalanced sports league in this way is America’s Major League Soccer (MLS), in which the top 10% earn 58% of the cash.

The highest-paying sports team in China is Shandong Luneng, at 160th in the world, up from 190th in 2015, while overall, the CSL ranks as the 12th highest-paying sports league in the world and the 6th highest-paying football league.

However, the report finds that the number of footballers (11 of them) earning more than US$10 million per year in the CSL is the same as for Spain’s La Liga, and that both leagues have the same number of individuals (five each) in the world’s top 15 highest-paid footballers.

Observing that hosting the 2030 edition of football’s World Cup on Chinese soil “looks likely,” the report states: “In little more than a year, China has become the source of a wave of financial and political backing for football on a scale rarely seen before. And the strategy is being implemented from the top — on the orders of the leader of the world’s most populous nation.”

Preparations for the 2016 season witnessed a doubling of average first-team CSL salaries, fueled by a relatively small number of enormous contracts as Chinese clubs outbid European rivals for certain targets for the first time.

A handful of China’s richest men have been responsible for signing the checks, but there is every indication that the impetus has indeed come from Xi Jinping, the country’s paramount leader, who has stated that he wants China to be a “world football superpower” and has mandated the establishment of 20,000 dedicated training centers by 2020.

Marquee signings in the CSL include Brazil’s Hulk, who earns almost£17million (US$21.4m) a year at Shanghai SIPG. According to the Sporting Intelligence report, Graziano Pelle (of Shandong Luneng), Ezequiel Lavezzi (Hebei China Fortune), Ramires (Jiangsu Suning) and Jackson Martinez (Guangzhou Evergrande) all earn more than £10m per year in basic salary — which is more, incidentally, than the Barcelona striker Luis Suarez, who won Europe’s Golden Shoe in 2015-16 for being the most prolific footballer in world football’s richest continent.

Hulk’s four goals for SIPG in the season just finished in China arrived at an average cost of £4m apiece in wages; by contrast, Suarez’s 40 goals for Barca last season cost around £250,000 each.

Graziano Pellè of Shandong Luneng (right) vyes with players from FC Seoul in an AFC Champions League match. Photo: AFP

Besides the spending splurge from Chinese clubs, Chinese businessmen have been busy investing in clubs overseas. Through his Dalian Wanda Group, China’s richest man, Wang Jianlin, has owned a 20% stake in Spain’s Atletico Madrid since 2015, while the list of majority Chinese-owned clubs includes England’s West Bromwich Albion, Aston Villa and Wolves, Spain’s Espanyol and Granada, Sochaux of France and Den Haag of the Netherlands. Retail giants Suning bought Italian giants Internazionale in June.

Earlier this year, Dalian Wanda also became a leading commercial partner of FIFA, world football’s governing body. Alibaba Group, which has part-owned Guangzhou Evergrande since 2014, has likewise been in talks about becoming a FIFA partner.

At £587,000, the average CSL salary is more than twice the average in MLS (£237,000) and more than three times the average in Japanese soccer’s J. League (£161,000).

The highest-paying sports team in Asia in terms of average annual salary paid (US$4.7 million) in the period under survey was Royal Challengers Bangalore of cricket’s Indian Premier League (IPL). That puts them at number 51 in the world, although the IPL as a whole is the third highest paying league. The J. League ranks three places behind the CSL, at 15th.

“The strategy is being implemented from the top — on the orders of the leader of the world’s most populous nation”

The Cleveland Cavaliers of the NBA were found to be the best paid team in global sport. Their average first-team pay for the new NBA season, which commenced on October 25, was US$8.7 million a year.

A huge new TV deal for the NBA combined with the effects of Brexit on the dollar-pound exchange rate shook up the rankings, with NBA teams surging up the list en masse. Last year there were eight football teams in the GSSS top 10. This year there are seven NBA teams in the top 10, including the Cavaliers at number 1, and the LA Clippers at number 3, separated by another US-based sports team, baseball’s New York Yankees, at number 2.

Manchester United, of football’s English Premier League climbed from No. 6 in the last GSSS to No. 4 on the new list to become the highest ranked football team, and the best paid football team in the world.

The GSSS looks solely at earnings for playing sport, not for endorsements or other extra-curricular activities. It considers 333 teams in 17 leagues across 13 countries in seven sports: football, baseball, basketball, gridiron, cricket, ice hockey and Australian Rules football.

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