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How Much Do Athletes Make

July 21st, 2017

How Much Do Professional Athletes Make?

Most of us have imagined what life is like as a professional athlete. Even if you never break six feet, it’s fun to dream about life as a basketball pro. The fame, the glory, the money — what’s not to love about life as a professional athlete? What most people don’t realize is not all athletes make millions of dollars each year. Professional athlete salaries vary significantly by sport and even from one player to the next in the same sport.

How Professional Athletes Make Money

Professional athletes typically earn a set salary based on their contracts, with the exception of some sports that pay players part of a purse for a tournament based on finishing place. The contracts may be for one year or multiple years, depending on the sport and the player. Contracts typically come with a guaranteed salary, which gives the player some financial security even if the season doesn’t go well.

The top athletes that become household names are typically the ones earning the salaries worth millions of dollars. But what about the rest of the roster? Many of them bring home significantly less. Through collective bargaining, athletes in many of the top pro sports make at least a set minimum. That minimum salary for even the most popular pro sports is often well under $1 million. That means many of the players you see on the sidelines aren’t living in mansions or vacationing on private islands.

On top of the basic salary, some professional athletes also earn bonuses, particularly if the team performs well. The athlete’s salary is based on the standard number of games in the season. When teams continue in the playoffs or championship game of their respective sport, the players earn more money as pay for the extended season. Signing bonuses are also a part of the pot for some highly sought-after athletes.

Endorsement deals make up another large part of players’ salaries. Many brands are willing to spend big bucks to sign famous athletes. Athletes are considered very influential and often increase sales significantly. The company easily makes up the cost of the endorsement deal with the increased sales revenue. Endorsement deals again vary based on the athlete and just how influential that person is, but these deals can add millions to the yearly income of top athletes.

How Professional Athletes Are Taxed

Each year you file your federal and state tax returns based on where you live. While there are lots of complexities in the income tax code, it’s a relatively straightforward process. Pro athletes must jump through a lot more hoops — and file a lot more tax returns — thanks to something known as the “jock tax.”

The basic idea of the “jock tax” is that athletes pay income taxes based on the states and sometimes the cities in which they play games. Over the course of even one season, that ends up being several different states and cities. Because they play in so many different cities and states, the salary for any given game can be quite different from other games due to the differences in tax rates.
Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington and Wyoming have no state income tax, so games played in those states typically have larger paychecks, although you won’t see many pro games played in many of those states. On the other hand, paychecks for games played in states with some of the highest tax rates, such as California, Minnesota and New York, end up much smaller by the time taxes are withheld.

This tax process also causes headaches at tax time. Instead of filing in just one state, athletes must file taxes in all the states they played in during that year. That can add up to quite a few different tax forms each year, not to mention all the money paid out to the different cities and states. The number varies, with some sports having more tax forms to fill out than others due to the number of games played in a typical season.

The typical number of different tax filing jurisdictions for a few sports includes:

  • NFL players: 10 to 12
  • NBA players: 16 to 20
  • MLB players: 20 to 26
  • NHL players: 14 to 16

That’s a lot of paperwork just to comply with the special tax rules for professional athletes. Failure to file those taxes properly could result in penalties for the athletes. Your tax returns suddenly don’t seem so complicated.

Other Expenses for Pro Athletes

Taxes aren’t the only higher expenses athletes face. You hear a lot about the high salaries many pro athletes receive, but you rarely hear about the expenses that the average person doesn’t have to pay. An agent is one of those expenses. The pay structure for a sports agent varies. Some take a percentage of the salary, typically ranging between three and five percent. Others charge by the hour, with the rate around $400 per hour. Some agents charge a flat fee, while others use some combination of methods.

Other potential expenses for pro athletes include:

  • Union fees
  • Financial advisors
  • Personal trainer fees
  • Training equipment
  • Nutritional supplements
  • Fines for league violations

Career Length Considerations

Pro athlete salaries seem huge, but a major difference between the average person and a pro athlete is the length of the career. Many athletes only play in the pro leagues for a few years at most. While the salary for those few years is often very large, when you average out over a lifetime, those millions don’t look quite as staggering. Many athletes finish their careers in their 20s, leaving them with decades before they reach traditional retirement age. Even with proper money management, those athletes may need to find other careers once they leave the pro world.
Playing a professional sport takes a toll physically and mentally. Injuries sideline many players, and a serious injury can end an athlete’s career suddenly and unexpectedly. While the average person can receive a pink slip unexpectedly, that person also has a good chance of finding another job in the same field. When a pro athlete faces a career-ending injury, that income ends with no way to continue playing the sport.

Professional Football Player Salaries - How Much Do NFL Players Make?

The Super Bowl may draw millions of viewers, but that doesn’t mean all professional football players are raking in the dough. NFL players average lower salaries than NBA, MLB and NHL players. So how much do professional football players make? That depends on a number of factors, particularly who you are and how you are expected to perform. The position of a player also influences salary. For example, quarterbacks tend to make higher salaries because of their importance.

Here are some quick stats of NFL players’ salaries:

  • Minimum salary: The minimum salary for an NFL player with no league experience as of 2016 was $450,000. Salaries go up based on experience.
  • Average salary: The average NFL salary is $2.1 million, according to Forbes. However, many players earn more than this amount. Because teams have 53 players on the roster, many of the rookies and players who don’t see much field time bring down the average. 
  • Top earners: The highest-paid NFL players earn much more than the average, with many making more than $20 million each year. 

Professional Baseball Player Salaries - How Much Do MLB Players Make?

On average, MLB players earn more than NFL players do, but the average salary comes in behind NBA stars. Just like football, the specific salary a player makes depends on where he plays, his skill and how well-known he is. Baseball players also bring in more money beyond their basic salaries through endorsement deals.

How much do professional baseball players make? Here are some stats:

  • Top earners: The highest-paid MLB players make over $30 million in salary alone, plus additional bonuses and endorsement deals..

Professional Basketball Player Salaries - How Much Do NBA Players Make?

NBA players rank among the highest-paid professional athletes, with an average salary higher than professional football and baseball. Like other sports, salaries vary depending on who you are, where you play and your talent.
Here are some salary stats for NBA players:

  • Minimum salary: New NBA players with no experience in the NBA make a minimum of $543,471 for the 2016 to 2017 basketball season. 
  • Top earners: The highest-paid NBA players make around $30 million, similar to the top MLB players. 

Professional Soccer Player Salaries - How Much Do Soccer Players Make?

Major League Soccer players get paid significantly less than many other professional athletes. While salaries are increasing, they come in much lower than MLB, NBA and NFL salaries. This is due to soccer being less popular and generating less revenue than more popular sports in the United States.

Another characteristic of MLS pay is the vast difference between the lowest-paid players and the big names. Many players who aren’t well known make less than $100,000 per year, while the well-known players make millions.

How much do professional soccer players make? Here are some numbers:

  • Minimum salary: In 2015, the minimum salary for MLS soccer players was $60,000. This is much lower than the minimum salary for other professional sports.
  • Top earners: While several MLS players earn millions, the exact numbers are much lower than other popular sports. Top players only earn around $6 million per year in terms of base salary.

Professional Golfer Salaries - How Much Do Golfers Make?

Professional golf pay is different than other major sports. Most athletes in other sports get an annual contract guaranteeing them a set amount of money for the year, regardless of performance or injuries. Golf pros have to earn their pay through winning or performing well in golf tournaments.

Pro golfers who participate in tournaments earn a percentage of the total purse for the event. The percentage varies depending on the finishing place. For example, at the 2016 U.S. Open, the total purse was $10 million. Everyone in the tournament received a payout, with the golfers finishing below a certain cutoff each getting $4,000. The players who finished above the cutoff earned varying amounts starting at $22,321. The number-one finisher earned 18 percent, or $1.8 million, with the second-place finisher also earning over a million for the tournament.

While the payouts for the top finishers can be quite attractive, keep in mind golfers pay a lot of expenses out of their own pocket, including travel expenses and caddy fees. Many pro golfers also have agents who get paid for their work. This significantly cuts into those earnings, even for the top players.

Endorsements are big in golf. Players might get paid to have a corporation’s name somewhere visible while playing. However, those paydays are also often tied to performance. Players may receive a prorated amount of the endorsement deal if their performance slacks or they get injured and are unable to play. Golfers can also earn money from things like paid guest appearances, speaking gigs, instruction videos and other related activities.

Professional Volleyball Player Salaries - How Much Do Volleyball Players Make?

The answer to, “How much do professional volleyball players make?” varies widely, but volleyball player aren’t making nearly as much as other professional athletes. Few volleyball players ever pass over into making millions in volleyball over their entire careers, let alone in one season. In the U.S., pro volleyball earnings are made in a similar way to golf. Players earn a part of the purse when they win tournaments. The amount varies depending on the tournament and the finishing place.

Another route for professional volleyball players is to join a team in a pro league overseas, where players earn a salary just for playing. Some of the top players in those leagues can earn six figures, although many earn much less. One perk of this option is most expenses are covered, including medical care, room and board, and transportation, which means players end up keeping most of the money they do make.

Professional Hockey Player Salaries - How Much Do Hockey Players Make?

How much do professional hockey players make? When we look at average salaries, NHL players typically come in slightly ahead of football players in the NHL but behind both baseball and basketball players. However, the highest-paid NFL players typically make significantly more than the highest-paid hockey players.

Here’s a rundown of professional hockey salary stats:

  • Top earners: The highest-paid hockey players come in with an annual salary around $10 million. 

Professional Athlete Salaries

When you consider the wide range of pay from unknown rookie players to the household names, it’s clear that pro athlete salaries aren’t cut and dry. While many of your favorite athletes make millions, they likely have teammates earning much less. Taking into consideration higher taxes, fees for agents and other expenses those athletes pay out of pocket, the take-home pay is much less than you might imagine. Pro sports careers are often much shorter than the typical career, so athletes don’t make their cushy multi-million dollar salaries for decades.

Page Updated October 5, 2017