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Top athletes are now paid more than ever before. In fact, even when adjusting for inflation, older salaries fail to compare to current ones. As a result, nearly all of of the highest-paid athletes in current dollars are playing or have retired in the last decade.
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Still, even in earlier times — when sports teams made far less money — they paid the best players much more than others. A better way to look at athletes’ pay requires examination of all salaries since modern professional sports began. By comparing the salaries of the top-paid athletes from each era with the average salary of the sport at that time, the highest-paid players of all time can be counted. Based on an analysis of the highest salaries in the NBA, NHL, MLB and NFL in the last century, 24/7 Wall St. has identified the top-paid athletes that made at least 10 times the average player’s salary when they played.
When looking at the highest salaries of all time based on current dollars, the lists are dominated by players from the last decade. Of the highest single-season salaries in baseball, the top 100 paid players are all from the last twelve years. It is no different in the other major sports. Even when adjusting for inflation, current salaries are much higher than those paid to elite players in the past.
Babe Ruth, who was paid $80,000 in 1930 by the New York Yankees, would make just over $1 million in 2010 dollars. However, he was paid over 10 times the average salary of other baseball players during the 1930 season. By contrast, while Kobe Bryant is currently the highest-paid player in the NBA with a salary of $25 million, he makes less than five times the league average, and barely makes the top 10 for the NBA using our metric.
The phenomenon of massive salaries is driven by over-spending in the professional sports with limited or non-existent salary caps – frequently fuelled by only a few teams. Baseball, which has no salary cap, has more highly-paid players than any other sport.
In 2000, Kevin Brown was the highest-paid baseball player of all-time, with a salary of $15.7 million from the Los Angeles Dodgers. The following year, Alex Rodriguez signed a 10-year contract with the Texas Rangers worth $252 million, which paid him $22 million during the 2001 season. Rodriguez became the highest-paid player again in 2009, when he signed a new contract with the New York Yankees that paid him $33 million that year — an increase of 50% in less than a decade.
Similarly, while NFL teams have a hard salary cap, there is no maximum that teams are allowed to spend on a single player. Under these rules, Manning’s new salary would be an increase of nearly 150% over the highest salary of 2001. Meanwhile, the league’s salary cap has only increased 80% over the same time frame.
In the 90’s, sky high salaries hit the NBA and NHL, sports with limited or no salary cap at the time. From 1990 to 1998, the average NHL salary more than quadrupled. Wayne Gretzky, the undisputed best hockey player of all-time, was paid $3 million in 1990 by the Los Angeles Kings. Less than a decade later, Joe Sakic, a future Hall-of-Famer, was paid more than five times Gretzky’s salary by the Colorado Avalanche. Similarly, average salaries tripled from 1990 to 2001 in the NBA, topped by Michael Jordan’s 1998 salary of $33.1 million with the Chicago Bulls.
Both of these sports have had multiple labour disputes in the past 20 years, leading to the implementation of a hard salary cap in hockey and a highly-structured soft cap in basketball. Unlike baseball which has no maximum, the changes have limited explosive salary growth in both sports in recent years.
Based on greatest players lists from the professional sports leagues and several major sport news sites, 24/7 Wall St. identified the the 25 top-rated players of all time in each of the four major sports. To account for the changes in overall sports revenue and the compensation given to the best-paid players, we determined the highest salaries of all time relative to contemporaneous league averages. We consulted leading statistical websites for each sport, newspaper archives, sports encyclopedias and athlete biographies to determine the salaries for each player. In some cases, slightly different salaries are attributed to a player for the same year; in these instances, we took the most frequently cited number. When the average salary for a specific year was not available, the amount was estimated based on the years in close proximity. Ranked by the ratio of the player’s salary to the average player salary at the time, we identified the eleven players that made 10 times the league average.
While previous methods may have missed all-time greats, we ranked players from all eras. This is 24/7 Wall St.’s highest-paid players of all time.
- Salary ratio: 10.18
- Sport: baseball (third baseman)
- Highest salary: $33 million (2009)
- Average player salary: $3.29 million (2009)
In 2007, Alex Rodriguez negotiated a 10-year, $275 million contract with the New York Yankees that, by 2009, had him earning $33 million per year. Since he began playing baseball with the Mariners in 1994, A-Rod has hit more than 600 home runs, one of just eight to do so. He has been voted an All-Star 12 times, and was named American League MVP three times. Rodriguez also has fourteen separate 100+ RBI seasons, the most of any player in league history. In 2009, Rodriguez helped the Yankees win the World Series and won the Babe Ruth Award as the postseason MVP.
- Salary ratio: 10.8
- Sport: hockey (left wing)
- Highest salary: $270,000 (1973)
- Average player salary: $25,000 (1973)
Bobby Hull spent 23 years in the NHL and the now-defunct WHA, playing for the Chicago Blackhawks, the Winnipeg Jets, and the Hartford Whalers. In 1973, the first year he played with WHA, Hull earned $270,000 -- more than 10 times the average NHL player's salary at the time. Hull scored 913 goals over the course of his combined NHL and WHA careers. He won the Stanley Cup in 1961 with the Blackhawks. Hull scored 20 or more goals for 19 straight seasons, and had eight seasons of more than 50 goals. Hull is also notable as the father of Brett Hull, considered another one of hockey's greats.
- Salary ratio: 10.85
- Sport: hockey (centre)
- Highest salary: $14 million (1999)
- Average player salary: $1.29 million (1999)
Russian-born Sergei Fedorov played 18 separate seasons with four teams, but is best known for his thirteen seasons with the Detroit Red Wings between 1990 and 2003. While Fedorov was in Detroit, the Red Wings won three Stanley Cups, as well as winning a record 62 regular-season games in the 1995-96 season. During the 1998-99 season, Fedorov earned $14 million, nearly eleven times the average player salary in that year. Fedorov holds the record for the most goals scored by a Russian-born player in the NHL, at 483. He was also the first European-born player to be awarded the Hart Trophy as league MVP.
- Salary ratio: 11.11
- Sport: baseball (left fielder)
- Highest salary: $100,000 (1954)
- Average player salary: $9,000 (1954)
In 1954, past the halfway point of his legendary career as a lifetime member of the Boston Red Sox, Ted Williams was in the middle of a contract paying him $100,000 a year. This was eleven times the average player's salary that year. Williams' career spanned 22 years from, 1939 to 1960, missing three seasons between 1942 and 1946 to serve in the Marines as an aviator. Williams was one of the greatest hitters in baseball, batting .344 over his long career; leading the American League in batting average six separate times; and being the last player to bat over .400 in a season. While he never won a World Series with the Red Sox, Williams won the American League MVP twice. He was inducted into the The Baseball Hall of Fame in 1966.
- Salary ratio: 11.5
- Sport: hockey (centre)
- Highest salary: $11.32 million (1997)
- Average player salary: $984,000 (1997)
Mario Lemieux is considered by many to be the second-greatest hockey player of all time, trailing only Wayne Gretzky. Despite a career plagued by health problems--including a fight with cancer and chronic back injuries--and an early retirement, he finished #3 in goals/game, #7 in all time points, #9 in goals, and #10 in assists. He was the rookie of the year, won 5 MVP awards, skated in 10 All-Star games, and led the Pittsburgh Penguins to their first two Stanley Cups. Upon his first retirement after the 1996-97 season, he was immediately inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, and became the 3rd player ever to play after being inducted when he returned to the ice in 2000. In 1992, having led the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cup championships, Lemieux signed a 7-year, $42 million contract, which would pay him over $11 million in the 1996-97 season.
- Salary ratio: 12.59
- Sport: baseball (outfielder)
- Highest salary: $85,000 (1927)
- Average player salary: $6,750 (1927)
Ty Cobb played 24 years of baseball between 1905 and 1928. The first 22 of those years were with the Detroit Tigers, with which he never won a World Series. However, over the course of his career, Cobb was outstanding, setting 90 separate records. To date, Cobb still holds the lead in several major categories, including the record for the highest lifetime batting average, at .366. Cobb also led the league in batting average a record 11 seasons, far more than any other player has done. In 1927, after leaving the Tigers, Cobb signed with the Philadelphia Athletics. That year, his second to last season, he earned $85,000, more than 12 times the average player's salary at the time. Cobb was voted in as one of the first five Baseball Hall of Fame inductees, with 98.2% voting in favour.
- Salary ratio: 14.56
- Sport: hockey (centre)
- Highest salary: $17 million (1998)
- Average player salary: $1.17 million (1998)
It should probably come as a surprise that Joe Sakic is the highest-paid player in one of the four major sports. Sakic played his entire 20-year NHL career with the Quebec Nordiques franchise, which became the Colorado Avalanche in 1995. During his tenure, Sakic won two Stanley Cups with the Avalanche, was league MVP during the 2000-2001 season, and was voted to 13 All-Star games. Sakic currently holds the record for the most playoff overtime goals, at 8. In 1998, two years after the Avalanche won the Stanley cup in their first year as a team, the New York Rangers made a substantial offer that Colorado was forced to match. As a result, Sakic earned $17 million that season, more than 14 times the average NHL salary that year of $1.17 million. This deal, arguably more than any other in hockey, made NHL salaries higher than possibly sustainable for small-market teams. This drove the league down the path to its missed 2004-5 season and the subsequent salary cap system that it now has in place.
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