Super Bowl Stars Are Underpaid Davide Dukcevich, 01.24.03, 1:15 PM ET
NEW YORK - No sport in America produces more passion--or money--than pro football.
The numbers for Super Bowl XXXVII attest to the NFL's strength: About 130 million broadcast viewers will tune in on Sunday, and advertisers are expected to spend nearly $85 million trying to reach them. In contrast, championship games for the next-largest American pro sports leagues--basketball and baseball--have seen their viewership decline by more than 35%, capping off years of declining interest from alienated fans.
So why are elite football players so much less famous--and less wealthy--than their counterparts in basketball and baseball? In the past five years, pro football players have appeared on The Celebrity 100--Forbes' ranking of America's most powerful celebrities based on yearly income and media exposure--only eight times. Last year, not a single football star cracked the list.
This is a paltry showing compared to the number of stars in other sports who have populated The Celebrity 100 during the past five years. NBA players have made the list 43 times, in addition to 25 pro tennis players, 23 baseball players, 18 boxers, 15 golfers, and 14 race car drivers. There have even been two pro wrestlers, World Wrestling Entertainment's The Rock and Chyna. And sometimes the NFL stars aren't even famous for being football players, per se. Future Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, who appeared on The Celebrity 100 in 1999, is most famous for supplementing his football career with several seasons in Major League Baseball.
Earnings By Sport Average Salary($mil):
Basketball $4.5 Baseball $2.5 Football $1.1
Number of Players on Celebrity 100 (2002):
Basketball: 7 Baseball: 5 Football: 0
Best-Paid Player (Salary + Endorsements, 2001-02 Estimate):
Basketball: Michael Jordan $36 million Baseball: Alex Rodriguez $25 million Football: Donovan McNabb $16 million
There are several reasons why football players get robbed. The biggest setback is the nature of the game itself. Football fields are crowded with too many players, all of whom compete for a viewer's attention. A football field hosts 22 players, while baseball diamonds and basketball courts hold only ten--not to mention one-on-one sports like tennis and boxing. A pro football team roster has 55 people, whereas a baseball team has just 25 and an NBA team has 12. Even ardent football fans can rarely name each player on his favorite team.
To add to the anonymity, face-mask helmets do exactly that: mask faces. This means that a football player's mug gets much less airtime than Michael Jordan's constantly exposed tongue, Anna Kournikova's dimply pouts or Mike Piazza's goatee. Football players who play the same position are pretty much indistinguishable.
In addition, most football careers are brutish and short. Career-ending injuries are endemic. Thirty-three-year-old running back Emmitt Smith is considered miraculous as he rushes into his 14th professional season, while in the NBA stars aged 40-plus are not uncommon. Despite his staying power, a recent Visa commercial plays on Smith's lack of face recognition by featuring several imposters claiming to be the Dallas Cowboy.
These factors make football players eminently less marketable than other professional athletes. Even casual basketball fans know that Michael Jordan sports Nike gear, Shaquille O'Neal wears Reebok and Kobe Bryant wants out of his contract with Adidas. Few people, on the other hand, know whose cleats Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre wears.
Perhaps football players can take solace in the fact that their sport's egalitarianism is much more appealing to fans than the rank selfishness and individuality that has tarnished the NBA and MLB. After all, while most of America will be watching 22 relative unknowns toughing it out on Super Bowl Sunday, the only times most Americans will see Michael Jordan this year will not be in a basketball game, but in a commercial for Sara Lee's Hanes underwear.
Certainly a point to ponder: Is the fact that there are fewer NFL players among the rich and famous in the celebrity world a reason for the NFL's popularity in America exceeding that of the NBA and MLB? Or is it simply a matter of irony?
On a side note, if you were to ask wrestling fans which two WWE performers had made it onto Forbes Celebrity 100 over the past five years, I'm sure almost 100% would guess The Rock. But Chyna? That's a bet I know I would have lost!
It's the fame and fortune of stars that makes baseball and basketball sports of declining interest. Football is more of an "everyman" kind of game, where selfishness is not rewarded but rather frowned upon (sort of).
And of course the game is designed so players can't ask for overwhelming sums of cash. No one players can rule the field and take the game over. They have to depend on their teammates to be able to play the game as well. So with the salary cap in place, the more the star QB charges for his services, the less his team can spend on star players for him to throw the ball to. And if you don't win, your worth just goes down.
I do appreciate that football is more of a team game, and the wealth is more spread out. However, part of me thinks maybe they should be paid more just for the fact that the game is much more hazardous to your health than basketball or baseball.