Defoe's deal is a home run for him but not for Bournemouth's future
Jermain Defoe's time in North America was so brief that he may not have understood Major League Soccer, let alone Major League Baseball. He left Toronto FC in 2014 after making 19 appearances and scoring 11 goals so quickly that he probably never got a taste for the city's baseball team, the Toronto Blue Jays.
Yet he may be football's equivalent of a baseball player. Not on the sporting field but on the balance sheet. Even as Defoe's return to his homeland helped revive an international career that began in 2004 and could extend to the 2018 World Cup, one of English football's great survivors has a contract that may be the equivalent of some of baseball's more notorious deals.
The issue is not so much whether Defoe earns the £130,000 a week his deal at Bournemouth is reported to be worth, courtesy of a combination of his signing-on fee and salary. It is that the 34-year-old's contract at Dean Court spans three years, keeping him on Bournemouth's books until 2020. It was a triumph of negotiating, not by the Cherries, but by the forward's representatives, who emulated their baseball counterparts by getting an aging player a deal with guaranteed money that could outlast his usefulness to the team.
Defoe remains speedy and sharp. He has scored 15 Premier League goals in each of the last two seasons, a total he had only reached once previously. He has resisted the passing of time, but that does not mean his spirited defiance of the ageing process will continue indefinitely.
He will be nearer his 38th birthday than his 37th when his new contract expires, and short, quick strikers, as a breed, are not known for their longevity. Ryan Giggs, Paolo Maldini and Teddy Sheringham have proved it is possible to play elite-level football at an older age. But it is also the case that Giggs spent his latter seasons on one-year contracts; should he have declined dramatically at any point, Manchester United had an exit strategy. In a similar fashion, Arsene Wenger is renowned for giving thirty-somethings only 12-month deals. Eddie Howe has proved altogether more generous.
The probability for Bournemouth, however, is that they are trading short-term footballing gain for long-term financial pain; Sunderland were relegated despite Defoe's best efforts, but he and his new colleague Josh King scored 31 league goals between them last season. Repeat that in harness, and Bournemouth would almost certainly survive next season. Given the price of a place in the Premier League, Defoe might be worth £130,000 a year in the immediacy.
But it is harder to believe Defoe will deliver in the spring of 2020, almost two decades after his first-team debut. Significantly, an out-and-out scorer is less of a supplier than Sheringham; even the great perennial never topped 12 top-flight goals after he was 35.
So Bournemouth are using their future to pay for Defoe's deeds today. A reported £20 million package is the equivalent of transfer fees that are staggered over several years, but when the signing is decidedly short-term. Yet the closer comparison may come from across the Atlantic, where wages are already the greater cost, where budgets for forthcoming years are dominated by men who could well be declining, and where sporting pensioners are guaranteed premium pay cheques.
MLB is littered with such deals, secured when players were at the peak of their powers. Albert Pujols is in a 10-year contract with the Los Angeles Angels until 2021. He will be near his 42nd birthday when it finishes, and there is already a marked drop-off in batting average since his most productive days in St. Louis the best part of a decade ago. Meanwhile, Robinson Cano's 10-year deal with the Seattle Mariners takes him up to his 41st birthday; he is justifying his considerable salary now, but it is less likely he will as he enters his fifth decade.
There are more extreme examples, cases where lengthy contracts become pay-as-you-don't-play scenarios. The New York Yankees are giving 41-year-old Alex Rodriguez $21 million not to play in 2017. The famously immobile Prince Fielder is paid seven-figure sums by both Detroit and Texas even though, because of injury, he cannot play in the final four seasons of an eight-year deal that always looked optimistic.
And this is in a sport where ageing sluggers who can no longer field can be accommodated; they can be designated hitters. But football does not permit designated shooters, specialist finishers who are spared the game's other duties. Defoe will probably retain his clinical instincts in 2020; it is a moot point if he will possess the pace to demonstrate them.
Perhaps Bournemouth are betting that wage inflation will continue so his salary will not stand out then. Perhaps they will subsidise him to drop down the divisions. Perhaps.
It is a problem they can postpone for now. Only nine men scored more Premier League goals than Defoe last season; only six did the previous year. Were his contract valid for one year or even two, it would be less controversial. But by the time it ends, the man who fled North America may end up as Bournemouth's baseball-style drain on the wage bill, the best-paid player whose waning powers, rendered predictable by age but ignored when given a lucrative deal, mean he no longer deserves a place in the team.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.