SBJ/20080818/Opinion

For NFL players, numbers don’t add up as they do in NBA, MLB

Sports Illustrated published a series of charts, graphs and information titled “Where the Money Goes” in their “Where Are They Now” issue earlier this summer.

Having spent the past nine years negotiating and managing player payroll in the NFL for the Green Bay Packers, I was startled to compare pay ranges in the NFL with those in Major League Baseball and the NBA.

At the Packers, we had player costs (excluding benefits) averaging slightly more than $100 million during the past few years. NFL payrolls in 2007 ranged from $86 million to $126 million with an average of about $107 million a team. (Note the league as a whole was spending beneath the $109 million salary cap.)

With four times the number of players in the NBA and more than twice the number of players in MLB, the NFL looks downright miserly compared with those two leagues.

Salary caps

The NFL and the NBA, of course, have salary caps, although they are not “hard” caps. A few NFL teams, as noted above, are paying more than $120 million on a $109 million cap.

The NBA has an even softer cap. The New York Knicks, for example, are paying $93 million on a $53 million cap.

MLB does not have a salary cap, although teams have their own versions of caps — called budgets — that determine their payroll.

As far as individuals, the highest-paid player on the Packers for the past several years has been Brett Favre. Now a New York Jet, Favre has a contract that calls for him to earn $12 million, making him one of the highest-paid players in football.

The $12 million contract of Brett Favre (center) is a few
hundred thousand dollars short of Wally Szczerbiak’s
(left) and half that of Jason Giambi’s.

That salary would land Favre a few hundred thousand dollars short of such NBA players as Wally Szczerbiak ($12.3 million) and Raef LaFrentz ($12.44 million). Think of it: One of football’s legends making the largest salary of his 18-year career makes less than NBA backups!

As for baseball, Favre would make a little more than half of what Jason Giambi ($23.4 million) will make this year and about $3.5 million less than players such as Jim Thome ($15.7 million) and Richie Sexson ($15.5 million).

Guaranteed money

Even with the recent geometric rise of salaries and guaranteed money over the past couple of years, the gap is striking.

At the top of the NFL food chain are superstar Pro Bowl players with gold-standard contracts. They average about $10 million a season for several seasons, with $15 million to $20 million of the entire amount guaranteed.

This summer, the Golden State Warriors — owners of the NBA’s lowest payroll this season ($35 million) — awarded six-year contracts worth $67 million and $63 million, respectively, to Monta Ellis and Andris Biedrins. That is $130 million, all guaranteed, to players who have never been all-stars and to one, Biedrins, who averages 10 points a game.

More remarkably, top NFL and MLB players can make preposterous sums of money while being lauded for not taking more. Gilbert Arenas was praised for taking $111 million from the Wizards and not the maximum potential contract of $127 million. The Packers team that hosted the NFC championship game last season did not make $111 million.

What makes the contracts of baseball and basketball players more impressive is that, unlike the vast majority of NFL contracts, they are predominantly guaranteed for skill and injury. That is, a player will receive his money despite being released or injured.

An NFL player can be released the day before the season begins, after a grueling training camp, and not receive a dime, assuming he has no guaranteed salary.

Disparity of pay

Why the disparity of pay for these sports, especially with so much made of the brutality and life-shortening effects of the NFL?

There is an argument that addresses the strength of the respective unions, although it is unfair to pin the blame on Gene Upshaw of the NFL Players Association, who has garnered the best deal the NFL players have ever had with the owners by a good margin.

That deal provides NFL players 59.5 percent of revenue as a salary cap, yet, as noted above, teams are not spending to the cap. As to why, that is a story for another issue.

While the number of players in the NFL is larger than that in the other leagues, NFL revenue is also the highest of the three sports. NFL 2007 revenue exceeded $7 billion, compared with less than $6 billion for MLB and $3.6 billion for the NBA.

As someone whose job was to pay NFL players — and pay them well — over the past nine years, I rarely let the enormity of other sports’ salaries enter my thinking.

Seeing the article in Sports Illustrated brought to light the fact that NFL players are paid handsomely. But compared with basketball and baseball players, they live in a much more pedestrian income bracket.

Andrew Brandt (andrewbrandt2@gmail.com) was vice president of the Green Bay Packers, where he negotiated all player contracts, managed the salary cap and handled football-related legal matters.

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