Perhaps baseball legend Babe Ruth summed it up best by saying, “I had a better year than he did,” in response to reporters who asked why he should have a higher salary than President Herbert Hoover. Ruth’s high salary marked a new beginning for athletes and also served as a stepping stone for thousands to follow.
One of the most debatable issues in professional sports is the incredible price tag included with most every athlete. Are the players worth the money? How does it affect their sport and fans? Who’s to blame, and how can sanity be restored?
Before the 1970s nobody dreamed that an athlete could land a multi-million dollar contract. According to a 1995 issue of Sports Illustrated, the average baseball salary in 1971 was about $31,000 per year. Since 1977, when ball players were granted the freedom to change teams without the owners; permission their salaries have soared.
Athletes in sports other than baseball are also loading up the Brinks truck. For example, Sports Illustrated reports that every time Emmit Smith scores a touchdown, he earns $45,000. Mike Tyson earned $280,898 in each second of his 1995 fight with Peter McNeely, a fight that lasted one minute and 29 seconds (you do the math).
It is fitting that in this bullish market our own Michael Jordan leads the way. He receives about $200,000 dollars for every basket, over $30 million for one season with the Bulls and over $45 million in endorsements. Currently the minimum price of admission to Forbes’ Super 40 list of the top earning athletes is $6.3 million per year.
Still not convinced? The following average yearly salaries were obtained through league offices and are accurate as of two weeks ago: NBA $2.2 million, MLB $1.37 million, NHL $892,000 and NFL $795,000. In contrast, the average pay for a classroom teacher in the United States is $38,000 per year. At that rate a teacher would need to teach more than 27 years to make $1 million.
The average pay for firefighters in the US is near $40,000 and $29,000 for police officers. President Clinton will earn $190,000 this year. Do athletes deserve more than firefighters, teachers, or the president?
It’s no secret that athletes live a luxurious lifestyle that a normal working person could only dream of. Ironically, it’s the fans who suffer. As a result of high salaries, owners are forced to raise the prices of tickets, concessions and souvenirs.
The typical family of four or five planning to attend a major league baseball game can expect to spend at least $180-$200. The high cost of attending a game affects attendance. Many teams have not drawn huge crowds, forcing owners to move their teams to new cities and leaving fans with nothing more than memories.
Who’s to blame, and is there an answer that is fair to all? Many feel it’s the owners’ faults, for reasons previously discussed. However, if the situation is examined from a “macro” point of view it is obvious that there are a variety of sources at fault. The main reason for the constant increase in salary is media exposure. Top players have come to represent their teams the same way famous brands symbolize corporations.
Another contributing factor is the increasing interest of the media, entertainment and telecommunication companies. Finally, the expansion of all four major sports has sent a shift in the supply and demand curve with regards to talent. The number of talented players has not increased as quickly as the quantity of positions needed to be filled on the new teams.
As a result, talented players refuse contracts and demand “big bucks.” Though many like to blame the athletes, it may be difficult to do so. After all, if someone was willing to pay you a huge amount of money, wouldn’t you take it? Of course you would. So in the end, professional sports face a unique yet difficult question — how can the salaries be controlled?
Is there a solution to this madness? Only time will tell. Possibilities include a rookie salary cap, stiffer salary cap rules for teams, and free agency rule changes. It seems that the ultimate “clash of titans” between sports and business can no longer accommodate fan satisfaction or appreciation. Hopefully, everyone will soon be able to enjoy a baseball game without having to worry about the price of their peanuts and Cracker Jacks.