The numbers don’t lie. For more than 30 years, the NFL has been the most popular sport in America, it has the highest attendance figures — granted, NFL stadiums typically hold more people than a baseball stadium or NBA and NHL arenas — and when it comes to revenue, other spots pale in comparison to what the NFL brings in annually. Despite the gaudy advantage the NFL holds in all of these categories, their star players don’t make anywhere near as much as star players in other leagues and in some cases, relative unknowns in the NBA and MLB will make more money than your top NFL stars.
We see it every year. Free agency starts in the NBA and MLB and fully guaranteed contracts (something else an NFL player doesn’t get) start rolling in, the dollar amounts seem crazy and NFL players take to Twitter to complain. To fully understand the complaints, take a look at this comparison. In June, Andrew Luck became the highest paid player in the history of the NFL when he signed a six-year, $140 million deal. Less than a week later, Mike Conley, a point guard for the Memphis Grizzlies (just so you didn’t have to look it up) became the highest paid player in NBA history after signing a five-year $153 million, fully guaranteed contract. In less than four years of playing time, Luck has thrown for over 14,000 yards, more than 100 touchdowns and completed almost 60 percent of his throws. Conley, on the other hand, shoots well under 50 percent for his career and his scoring average of 13.6 points per game doesn’t exactly keep defenses up at night.
I think we would all agree that, in the grand scheme of things, Luck is worth way more to the Colts than Conley is to the Grizzlies; so why the discrepancy in pay? There are several reasons, but it comes down to two basic fundamental issues. Despite the fact that the NFL generates almost nine billion dollars more in revenue each year than the NBA, basketball players get a slightly larger piece of the revenue than NFL players. Additionally, there are 30 NBA teams whose rosters are capped at 15, while there are 32 NFL teams whose rosters are capped at 53. In short, there are almost four times the number of roster spots to pay in the NFL than there are in the NBA. Slightly more teams, way more roster spots to fill and a smaller percentage of league revenue to go around, adds up to once-a-year Twitter rants by many NFL players.
Two other factors that can’t be ignored are age and injuries. The list of NBA players who have played into their 40s is long and distinguished. The same thing, however, cannot be said for NFL stars. While the list has some distinguished players on it, the majority of these players had lost meaningful effectiveness long before they hung it up. Higher risk of injury is often cited as a reason why an NFL player will earn less than their counterparts in other sports, but statistics would seem to debunk this injury myth to some degree.
Finally, we come to guaranteed contracts. The same age and injury issues (perceived or real in terms of the injuries) that impact overall dollars earned also explain why the NFL can’t guarantee contracts the way the NBA and MLB can. At the end of the day, even if NFL stars are paid less than their counterparts, they are still doing better than the rest of us.