Why sports stars are wealthier than ever — but might still not be getting their fair share

In fact, the average professional athlete in the United States makes almost record amounts of money, so it’s difficult for us to put ourselves in their shoes. But a look at the data shows that their share of sports revenue is actually shrinking relative to the owners and their minor league peers continue to earn very little.

To be clear, major league salaries have skyrocketed over the past three decades. Take a look at the MLB, NBA and NFL – consider all of these approaches as sports contracts are sometimes complex.

In 1990, the average MLB player made about $1.4 million, adjusting for inflation. This year, the average gamer will make about $4.4 million — or roughly three times that.
For the NBA, the increase was even greater: $1.9 million in 1990 to $9.6 million now—roughly fivefold.

NFL players earn the least: $790,000 in 1990 to about $3.3 million – about four times higher — for the average annual value at the end of last season.

All things considered, the average player in these sports makes three to five times more than they did three decades ago, even adjusting for inflation.

However, the average obscures to some extent how much large salaries have risen. No one in any of the big three sports made more than $10 million a year in 1990.

The top salary in all three sports is now between $43 and $50 million annually. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers earns top honors at $50 million. Compare that to 1990, when legendary San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana made just $7.4 million in 2022.

Many Americans work incredibly hard and can only dream of the salaries of these players.

To quantify the gap between the average major league player and the average American, examine national disposable personal income per capita over the same period. it hasn’t risen nearly as much as average major league salaries. We’re talking about an increase from about $40,000 to just over $55,000 when accounting for inflation – or roughly a 1.4x increase.

The players don’t seem to get their fair share. But what do I mean by that?

Check out Major League team ratings. In 1995, the average team in each of these leagues was estimated to be around $200-$300 million, accounting for inflation.
At the start of their last regular season, the average franchise was worth between just over $2 billion (MLB) and $3.5 billion (NFL). In other words, the value of the average MLB, NBA, and NFL team has increased roughly 10-fold since 1995.

That’s at least twice what wages have increased in these sports since 1990. Players get richer because the owners are – but still, they don’t get richer at nearly the same pace.

It’s also worth noting that while owners have gotten richer fairly consistently, the same cannot be said for players. There were some noticeable bumps in the roads for these leagues’ main attractions.

The highest NBA salary in the past 30 years, perhaps unsurprisingly, hasn’t been earned in this century. Michael Jordan was making about $60 million a year with the Chicago Bulls in the late 1990s in 2022.

Now you can argue that Jordan was the greatest player of all time, so it makes sense that he’s the highest paid player of all time.

Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, commanded a salary worthy of the title -- about $60 million a year in 2022 -- in the mid to late 1990s.
However, consider the average MLB salary. It has actually gone down in recent years. From just over $5 million, accounting for inflation, in 2017 to just over $4 million now.
However, according to Forbes, MLB team ratings have increased by about $210 million over the same period.

Of course, with all this talk of rich players versus even richer owners, one important point is lost: it takes a lot to get into the big leagues. There are a lot of professional basketball, baseball, and football players who don’t play in the big leagues.

These minor league players can be paid very little. The minimum salary in minor league baseball is less than $5,000. Minimums for the G-League (basketball) and USFL (football) are higher — $37,000 and $45,000, respectively — although they’re a far cry from their major league counterparts. Minimum salaries in the major leagues are at least $700,000.

All of these minor league minimums are lower than the average American brand in a year. It can be difficult for these players to get through. Many baseball players in the minor leagues are reported to live in squalor.

Advocates for Minor Leaguers, a nonprofit founded in 2020, seeks to shed light on the so-called “exploitative working conditions” endured by many minor league baseball players.

For example, last year the organization reported that two MiLB players were sleeping in the team’s clubhouse because they couldn’t afford to pay for lodging.

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

The truth is that we often focus on the major league players because they are the most famous. But for all the rich major league players, there are plenty of minor leagues living paycheck to paycheck.

And in that way, the story of professional athlete salaries is often the story of the entire economic system in America. Yes, there are the rich, but there are many less fortunate.

However, the owners tower over them all as they continue to produce more – and that’s something many Americans can relate to.

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