Being a professional athlete isn’t a bad gig. You devote your life to playing a game that you love and, if you reach the upper levels of your sport, you make very good money along the way. It’s no wonder that so many kids dream of being sports superstars when they grow up.
But not every sport compensates its players equally. Even among the most lucrative and popular sports leagues in the world, there are sometimes big differences in the amount of money players earn and the certainty of their earning it…
One of The Greats
You could certainly make the case that Aaron Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history. The career Packers player has led his team to a Super Bowl, twice been the league MVP, and has broken records for his passer rating and interception statistics, making him easily one of the best quarterbacks in the league.
So when his contract with the Green Bay Packers came to an end in 2017, he was in a prime position to negotiate for an exceptional extension. In fact, he signed a four year extension deal worth $134 million, making him the highest paid NFL player of all time.
While the total cash, roughly $33.5 million per season, was an astronomical sum, it wasn’t the only reason Rodgers’ contract stood out from those offered to his peers. To best understand the biggest difference, it would help to consider the 2010 contract extension of Donovan McNabb.
The six-time Pro Bowl quarterback signed what was at the time one of the best contracts in NFL history after his first year of playing with the Washington Redskins. The five year contract McNabb signed just before his 34th birthday was supposed to give him $78 million, with incentives to increase that to as much as $88 million. But he would never collect a penny from that contract.
It turned out that nothing in the contract beyond the current season was guaranteed. So after McNabb had one of the worst seasons of his career in 2010, the Redskins simply traded him to the Minnesota Vikings where he played the last season of his career, illustrating how fleeting things can be for a football player.
The big difference between McNabb’s and Rodgers’ extension contracts was that the Packer had a guarantee in place that, no matter what, he would receive over $100 million. Unlike in the four other major American sports, there are almost never contract guarantees in the NFL.
That seems strange at first glance, especially considering the NFL is the most lucrative sports league in the world bringing in nearly $14 billion in total revenue in 2017. By contrast, the second and third most lucrative sports leagues were the MLB and NBA, which brought in roughly $9 billion and $7 billion, respectively.
It’s also strange that Rodgers’ contract, which had him earning an average of $33.5 million per season, was the record high for the NFL, considering that there are five players in the NBA who are making more than that for the 2018-19 season. To understand what’s going on, you have to take a closer look at the nature of the NFL.
The first thing to take note of is the injury rates of the different sports. Players in the NFL are far more likely to be hurt than players in the other sports. Violent collisions are central to the game, with some players smashing pads as many as 70 times per game, meaning small injuries happen constantly and career ending ones are far from rare.
Because of the risks, NFL teams are highly reluctant to guarantee players anything. It’s easy to see how a team could be stuck in a situation where they’d be footing the bill for a significant number of players who won’t play another game due to injury, potentially for multiple seasons. Those long-term debilitating injuries are far more uncommon in baseball or basketball.
As for player pay, the lower salaries in the NFL are dictated by simple math. It may seem counter-intuitive considering that the NFL makes nearly twice as much as the NBA, but that money also has to be spread a lot thinner.
Each of the NFL’s 32 teams has a 53-man roster compared to the 15 roster spots on each of the 30 NBA teams. That means player pay is split between nearly 1,700 men in the NFL versus just 450 men in the NBA.
There’s one more major factor that reduces NFL players pay which is a bit hard to hear for the players or fans of the game. Most players in the NFL are, to a degree, more replaceable than players in the MLB, NBA, or NHL. Before you start typing up some hate mail, that’s not to say that NFL players aren’t some of the most incredible athletes in the world, they absolutely are.
The faster NFL players have 40 yard dash times that would make them competitive at the Olympic levels of track and field. Receivers and defensive backs also need world-class hand-eye coordination. And linemen combine the brute force of a sumo wrestler with the agility of a dancer.
More Skill Intensive
But being strong, fast, and coordinated are also requirements in the MLB, NBA, and NHL. On top of that, you need to be able to have the acuity and reaction time to pinpoint an 80-mph curveball, dribble a ball while weaving through several defenders, and skate forward and backward while firing a puck past a defender into a tiny net.
In football, you have players like Antonio Gates who never played a single college football game and will likely be inducted into the hall of fame one day. There are guys like Julius Thomas and Jimmy Graham, who went from being college basketball players to NFL standouts after playing a single year of college football.
That’s not to say that there aren’t skill positions in Football. Kickers and punters have to rely far more on technique than athletic ability to do their jobs. They are rarely injured and have much longer careers than most other NFL players. As a result, they’re actually the highest paid players in the NFL in terms of the number of dollars they earn per down they play.
Quarterbacks are generally considered the most skilled players in the league and among the most skilled athletes in the world, with only a couple dozen truly great ones playing professionally at any given time. Their position requires a blend of athleticism, hand-eye coordination, near supernatural field awareness, intelligence, and hard earned skill.
those necessary attributes are why Rodgers and other NFL quarterbacks are the only ones in their sport whose pay is on par with those of MLB and NBA players. And while most NFL careers only last around three-and-a-half years, the kickers, punters and quarterbacks regularly have careers that last more than a decade.
Few Signs of Change
For all of those reasons, it’s not likely that the record-breaking pay and baked in guarantees of Aaron Rodgers’ contract extension will become the norm for other players in the NFL. For the rest of the league, the name of the game is to stay as healthy as possible and get as much money as you can in the few years you’ve got.