Follow the Money—Sports

Why Guys Are Getting Paid Big

Throwback Week at Follow the Money

Every sport has a throwback night…or several…

You know how it works. Teams wear old uniforms, use old logos. It’s a great money-making scheme for the major professional sports leagues. It’s a chance for fans of all ages to take in the history of their favorite teams and bask in some of the ugliest color and logo combinations ever devised.

This week, I’m having a throwback on this blog. I’ve always heard the stories from my dad and older generations about how much pro athletes got paid before free agency, before sports became media driven, before agents and signing bonuses. When my dad was growing up, he lived across the street from Cleveland Browns linebacker Jim Houston, who I believe is now in the Hall-of-Fame. Houston was one of the best players on the Browns team, yet lived in a ranch-style house in Middleburg Heights, Ohio, surrounded by the middle-class citizens. That is a stark contrast to today’s star athletes, who own houses on celebrity islands on the coast of Florida.

Basically, I wanted to display for you just how much different player salaries were in decades past than they are now. Here’s a list of some star players who made next to nothing by today’s standards, as well as some general numbers for you to chew on.

1.) Nolan Ryan, Hall-of-Fame pitcher who tossed seven no-hitters in his career. He signed a contract in 1979 that made him baseball’s first million dollar player. That’s right, Nolan Ryan was the first pro baseball player to make a million. In 1979, that was considered a gigantic contract. What would a guy like Ryan be worth now? My guess: $150 million.

2.) Rickey Henderson, Hall-of-Fame center fielder and the greatest base stealer of all time. In 1990, Henderson became the highest paid player in baseball, making $3 million. Today, a guy who produces like Henderson did in his prime gets a minimum of $100 mil.

3.) The average MLB player in 1970 earned about $30,000. That’s not a typo.

4.) In 1985, the average NBA player salary was $330,000.

5.) In 1972, Wilt Chamberlain, considered one of the best basketball players ever, made $200,000. In today’s NBA, there are third string point guards buried at the end of the bench who are making at least $100,000.

6.) Walter Payton, considered by many to be the greatest running back to ever play (Next to Jim Brown, of course), was the NFL’s highest-paid player in 1980, working for a $500,000 contract. That number is the total, not pay for just one season. In 2008, Payton would be on a $70 million contract with a signing bonus of close to $30 million.

7.) Here’s a more recent one for you. In the mid to late 1990s, at the height of his game, Michael Jordan played with a contract that was just a shade over $33 million. Jordan is widely considered the best basketball player to ever play, hands down. Just to illustrate for you how much salaries have grown in the past 10 years, point guard Stephon Marbury, a lockerroom cancer, ball-hog and generally weird guy who’s currently sitting the bench waiting for a trade, will make $21 million…THIS SEASON…Jordan has six NBA titles, five MVP awards, won the scoring title more times than can be counted, won two gold medals and became the most profitable marketing machine in the history of pro sports. Marbury will best be known for throwing his name on $8 shoes at Steve and Barry’s. That is case and point of how much player salaries have increased over the years. There are some scary numbers out there.

That about wraps it up for “Throwback Week” at the blog. Hopefully Wilt Chamberlain isn’t rolling over in his grave as I type this.


November 3, 2008 - Posted by | Throwback Week

1 Comment »

  1. Very interesting stuff. Could use more context to maybe talk about what AVERAGE salaries for “regular” people were at these various times.


    Comment by Jim Foust | November 3, 2008 | Reply

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