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Analysis: Why sport stars are wealthier than ever — but still may not be getting their fair share

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.

Back in 1990, the average MLB player made about $1.4 million with inflation taken into account. This year, the average player makes about $4.4 million — or roughly three times higher.
For the NBA, the increase has been even greater: $1.9 million in 1990 to $9.6 million now — roughly five times more.

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.

The top salary in all three sports is now between $43 and $50 million annually. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers earns the top honor at $50 million. Compare that to 1990 when legendary San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana was only pulling in $7.4 million in 2022 dollars.

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?

Look at major league team valuations. Back in 1995, the average team in each of these leagues was valued at about $200 and $300 million with inflation taken into account.
At the start of their last regular season, the average franchise was worth anywhere from a little more than $2 billion (MLB) to $3.5 billion (NFL). The worth of the average MLB, NBA and NFL team, in other words, has increased by about 10-fold since 1995.

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.

The highest NBA salary in the last 30 years, perhaps not surprisingly, was not earned this century. Michael Jordan was pulling in about $60 million per year in 2022 dollars back with the Chicago Bulls in the late 1990s.

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.

Arguably the best basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan commanded a salary worth the title -- about $60 million a year in 2022 dollars back in the mid-to-late 1990s.
Consider, though, the average MLB salary. It’s actually gone down over the past few years. From a little over $5 million with inflation taken into account in 2017 to a little over $4 million now.
MLB team valuations, however, have gone up over the same period by about $210 million, according to Forbes.

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.

These minor league players can get paid very little. The minimum salary in Minor League Baseball is less than $5,000. The G-League (basketball) and USFL (football) minimums are greater — $37,000 and $45,000 respectively — though they are a far cry from their major league counterparts. The minimum salaries in the major leagues are at least $700,000.

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.

Advocates for Minor Leaguers, a nonprofit founded in 2020, aims to shine a light on what it calls the “exploitative working conditions” many Minor League Baseball players are forced to endure.

Last year, for example, the organization reported that two MiLB players were sleeping in the team’s clubhouse as they couldn’t afford to pay for housing.

When will MLB finally step in and address the MiLB housing crisis?

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.

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