In Flux: The Migration of Elite-Level Soccer Players

THURSDAY, APRIL 19, 2018Soccer

When people think of individuals moving to take a job, professional sports players likely don’t come to mind. As an associate professor of sociology at UNCW, Daniel Buffington thinks a little differently than most.

“The excited reactions of fans to a migrant athlete who has just signed for ‘their’ team strikes me as distinctly different to the xenophobic manifestations of ‘nativism’ that most immigrants face,” Buffington said. “Part of what I am addressing is the different experiences of migrant athletes versus non-athlete migrants. The treatment of migrant athletes demonstrates that we can be welcoming to immigrants when we choose to be.”

In a time where migration is consistently being covered by news outlets, Buffington’s research looks at the global phenomena from a different viewpoint: the migration of elite-level soccer players.

“A misconception in the United States is that all immigrants are relatively low-skilled and are moving to improve their economic conditions,” said Buffington. “While many do fit this profile, one of the features of global migration after 1965 is its diversity of migrant types and motivations. Increasingly people are crossing borders for non-economic reasons – such as family reunification – or with highly desired skills. Elite athletes clearly fall in to this category as do engineers, computer programmers and academics.”

The most popular team sport in the world demands quality athletes at a constant pace.

“Soccer's popularity has led to the development of professional leagues in the vast majority of countries, creating an international labor market in which the movement of players across national borders is not only a distinct possibility, it is a routine occurrence,” Buffington said.

Buffington did an extensive review of the literature in order to properly design his study. He purchased a data set from International Federation of Football Association (FIFA) involving some 15,996 international transfers in and out of 10 countries significantly involved in the migration of soccer players – transfers that will be analyzed using multiple regression to test four major theories of migration. He then conducted 91 in-depth interviews with players, coaches, agents and other front-office staff involved in international player transfers. 

In all, this project has taken Buffington approximately five years, with more research to come and a book to write, as well. He has signed a contract with Lexington Books and is currently working on submitting the first draft of his manuscript. “My hope with this book is to expand the American idea of who is a migrant,” he said.

--Matt Stephenson ’20M