With a slew of NBA players (most of whom aren’t household — or even recognizable — names) making millions over the past week, plenty of chatter has emerged regarding the differences between NBA and NFL player compensation.
PFT explained the differences over the weekend. NFLPA spokesman George Atallah, appearing on Wednesday’s PFT Live on NBC Sports Radio (with Jon Stashower sitting in for the normal host, whose name is neither household nor recognizable), explained that the differences primarily flow from roster size.
“I think frankly that’s the end of the discussion right there,” Atallah said. “It’s a good opportunity when these types of issues come up and that media want to talk about it, especially in the offseason, to describe some of the nuances but it’s also good to describe just straight up economics. One business has fifty-three employees; it’s the NFL. One business has fifteen employees per team, and that’s the NBA. So by definition the smaller business is going to be able to pay their employees more money per employee than the bigger business is . . . . I wish more of the certain members of the sports media would just do some basic math before they popped off.”
Here’s the basic math, as explained in Saturday’s article: With the NFL’s salary cap at $155.27 million and the NBA’s at $94 million, the average cap space available per player is $2.92 million for the NFL, and it’s $6.26 million for the NBA. So all NBA contracts are going to be larger, and there’s going to be even more money available to pay the best players in the sport.
So why and how did this even become an issue? Atallah sees it as a natural consequence of players choosing to use their voices, and of some echoing those voices without explaining the basic differences between the sports.
“I think players react on social media [and] the rest of sports fans react,” Atallah said. “I think sometimes it’s good to remind the rest of the people following this business that athletes have their own voice, athletes have a way to communicate directly with fans, and obviously Twitter is one way that they do that. So I don’t think it’s any different than the average sports fan who watches and follows NBA free agency to look at this stuff and react in kind of a natural way [to the fact that] these contracts are huge. . . . So from my end this is a sort of made up controversy by a handful of people who have taken what some of the NFL players have said and kind of turned it around and made it something into it’s not.”
On difference between NFL and NBA contracts is that, in the NBA, teams have adopted the custom of providing full guarantees at signing. In the NFL, that hasn’t happened, yet.
“Well, we’d love to see that,” Atallah said. “I mean certainly we’d love to see more guaranteed contracts in the NFL but once again I think this type of discussion provides us with a great opportunity to share with anyone who’s interested that we are reaching more guarantees than we’ve ever had before in the sport.”
Atallah pointed out that, on average, more than 60 percent of a given contract is currently guaranteed at signing, whether in the form of signing bonuses, guaranteed salaries, or other guaranteed payments.
“That’s something we’re proud of and we’re trending in the right direction but look again back to your original point about comparing apples to oranges in one sport. Our average career length in the NFL is less than four years,” Atallah said. “In the other sport the average career is well beyond that and so guaranteed contracts in each sport are by design factoring in some of those things that are unique to NFL players.”
In other words, with wear and tear and a constant supply of highly-skilled college football players continuously providing competition for roster spots, NFL players become obsolete more quickly than players in other sports. If all contracts were fully guaranteed, all contracts necessarily would be shorter, especially for older veterans who are, according to the statistics, playing on borrowed time. Otherwise, teams would be forced to risk carrying on the books expensive players who simply don’t have it any more, simply because their salaries are guaranteed.
It’s money that could go to younger players who are in better position to help teams win. While some positions, like quarterback, necessarily have longer careers, the size of their annual salaries makes it even more important for teams to retain flexibility on the back-end of big-money deals, in the event that age, injury, or ineffectiveness makes the player less desirable than he was.
Ultimately, it’s a zero-sum game among all current and prospective players. Someone is going to get the dollars each year, especially with a spending minimum. Having fully-guaranteed contracts across the board enhances the risk that the money will go to players who no longer deserve it, at the expensive of players who do.