An NFL star is a "greedy, me-first diva" if he holds out of training camp to protest being paid far below market worth, and is selfish if he doesn't emulate Tom Brady1 by agreeing to take less money "for the good of the team". Yet in a league where contracts are not guaranteed, on the frequent occasions when teams cut players under contract it is a smart "business decision" and no one howls about "not honoring an agreement".
Professional athletes who sign big money deals based on their accomplishments are often looked at as sullied. They play a game, goes the common gripe, and being paid $100 million -- or poo-poohing that amount as too little -- to play a game is ridiculous. That's why ticket prices are too high for the average fan to attend, laments the typical ESPN talking head, newspaper "hot take" sports columnist, or pugnacious radio caller. The assumption is always that star players make too much money -- when actually, given the enormous value they generate for their franchises, the best talents often should be paid far more than they are.
Marquee athletes are millionaires and because of that they may not engender sympathy with the public -- until you consider that in their world, they are small fries compared to the billionaire owners. It's actually counter-intuitive that the average sports fan has been conditioned to root for more dollars in the pockets of tycoons in suits rather than the players responsible for generating that lucre. The jump shots, fastballs, and tight spirals of the highest-performing athletes are what generates the money which pours into owners' coffers from ticket and concession sales at taxpayer-funded ballparks, apparel and other license goods sales, corporate sponsorships, and cash-cow broadcasting contracts. Team owners know this, and that's why wealthy moguls will pay stupendous amounts to get their hands on a team and start raking in profits2.
Last year, the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers came on the market after the controversy over their racist owner, Donald Sterling. Despite the urgency of that transaction, the team -- which has never won a championship and long played second banana to the Lakers -- still sold for $2 billion3. That's because new owner Steve Ballmer surely knows that his team's new TV rights deal alone could bring in $150 million per year. Across town, MLB's Dodgers signed a 2013 deal with Time Warner worth well above $300 million/year for the next 25 years! It has enabled them to not sweat (at least financially) their latest attempts to put together an "expensive", star-studded roster. And while reports of LeBron James' recent return to Cleveland being a gigantic economic stimulus to the region are far-fetched, there's no question that the salary owner Dan Gilbert pays James is covered many times over from the massive surge in attendance at Cavaliers games, from the rush on #23 jerseys, and yes, an impending new local TV contract.
Despite all this, in recent years, ownership has only furthered its control over players. The 2011 NBA lockout resulted in owners reducing players' share of the league's "basketball-related income" (paid out as salaries) from 57 percent to 50 percent. When the NFL locked out that same year, “the owners used the bad economy to cry poor, and then they took everything” in a hugely favorable collective-bargaining agreement. So while Americans may think athletes are well-off because today's Stan Musials and Roy Campanellas aren't working regular-joe jobs in the offseason, they are missing the bigger picture: in a world of much, much bigger dollars, more of those dollars are flowing to the very top. Like with so much else in the sports world, this isn't just about sports.
1. Sort of. Mechanics of Brady's restructured contract aside, the QB has been a well-paid star for years and receives plenty of endorsement money to cushion the blow of a salary cut.
2. Sports teams don't make their financial records public, but Forbes estimated, probably conservatively, last year that 31/32 NFL teams and 26/30 NBA teams made money; estimating MLB is considered tougher since "team owners do things like create management companies consisting of the owners and their families as a means of taking untold amounts of money from the club and putting it in their pockets", and small market teams additionally benefit from sharing in the local revenue of large market teams.
3. Similarly, another "second banana" NBA team is about to go on sale, and could fetch a similar $2 billion price tag -- or 10x higher than what owner Mikhail Prokhorov paid less than five years ago to buy the team.