Indeed, the average professional athlete in the United States is making near record amounts, so it’s tough for us to put ourselves in their shoes. But a look at the data reveals that their share of the sports revenue pie is actually shrinking compared to the owners, and their minor league counterparts continue to make very little.
To be clear, major league salaries have exploded over the last three decades. Take a look at the MLB, NBA and NFL — consider these all approximations because, sometimes, sports contracts are complex.
NFL players make and made the least: $790,000 in 1990 to about $3.3 million — roughly four times higher — for the average annual value at the end of last season.
All told, the average player in these sports is earning three to five times more than they did three decades ago, even when taking inflation into account.
The average, though, masks to some degree how much the big salaries have increased. No one in any of the major three sports was making more than $10 million a year back in 1990.
A lot of Americans work incredibly hard and can only dream about the salaries these players are making.
To put some numbers on the gap between the average major leaguer and the average American, examine the personal disposable income per capita nationwide over the same period; it hasn’t gone up anywhere near the same degree as average major league salaries. We’re talking about an increase from about $40,000 to a little more than $55,000 with inflation taken into account — or roughly an increase of 1.4 times.
Arguably, the players aren’t getting their fair share. What do I mean by that though?
This is at least twice as much as the salaries in these given sports have increased since 1990. The players are getting richer because the owners are — but even so, they are not getting rich at anywhere near the same pace.
It’s also notable that, while the owners have been getting pretty consistently richer, the same cannot be said for the players. There have been some clear bumps in the roads for the main attractions of these leagues.
Now, you can make the argument that Jordan was the greatest player ever, so it makes sense he is the top highest-paid player ever.
Of course, all this discussion of rich players versus even richer owners misses an important point: it takes a lot to get to the major leagues. There are a ton of professional basketball, baseball and football players who don’t play in the major leagues.
All of these minor league minimums are less than the average American makes in a year. It can make it tough for these players to get by. Many baseball players in the minor leagues reportedly live in squalor.
The truth is we often concentrate on the major league players because they’re the most famous. But for all the rich major league players, there are many minor leaguers who are living paycheck to paycheck.
And in that way, the story of professional athlete salaries is often the story of the whole economic system in America. Yes, there are the rich guys, but there are many less fortunate.
Either way, the owners tower over all of them, as they are making more and more — and that is something many Americans can relate to.