Lionel Messi, Mohamed Salah, and Neymar are three of the highest-paid soccer players in the world, according to the latest ranking by Forbes. They also happen to be immigrants playing for European teams.
The diversity of European soccer clubs, where athletes of color account for one-third to one-half of the players, makes the sport an ideal setting to study whether organizations that employ more skilled immigrants outperform their rivals.
That’s the basis of a paper by Wharton management professors Britta Glennon and Exequiel (Zeke) Hernandez, published last month by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The professors analyzed the data from European soccer teams from 1990 to 2020 and found that each additional immigrant player improves a team’s margin of victory by .12.
The researchers wanted to understand the reason for the correlation, so they considered two theories. The first is that enhancing the diversity of a team results in better collective performance. The second is that immigrants are simply more talented than their native colleagues.
Based on the study, superior talent wins. The scholars explained that in order to overcome the hardships of the hiring process—including moving from another country—foreign players have to be at the top of their game. They must come from the right-tail of the talent distribution, not unlike the most talented women who overcome gender discrimination to join male-dominated fields.
Glennon points out that although the results of the study aren’t generalizable to every industry, there are similarities to the technology sector, where demand for premium talent is high.
“Both technology companies and football clubs are trying to find the best talent in the world,” she says. “Their success is tightly connected to the quality of the human capital in the organization. And in both places, the technical expertise is more important than anything else.”
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