Are Professional Football Players Overpaid?

by Johanna Crawford

Sports is one of the most lucrative and also one of the most debatable branches of the entertainment industry that exists today. One of the hottest topics, especially in regard to the economic aspects of the sports industry, is whether or not athletes are overpaid.

To answer this question, it’s necessary to figure out how much players are paid in the first place. We know it’s into the millions of dollars, and football players are glamorized as the new American ideal, with expensive cars and homes, female companionship, and brands vying for their endorsement. But how many millions are they actually paid?

Above is a table of the top 10 highest paid NFL players according to Sporting Derek Carr, quarterback for the Raiders, comes in “just” at number 10, earning $25 million on an annual basis. Russell Wilson, quarterback for the Seahawks, comes in with the highest paycheck at $35 million annually.

By comparison, the median income for an American household in 2017, according to the Census ACS Survey, was $60,336. So, given that NFL players are literally making 414 times the income of the average American home, they are obviously paid a lot, but are they paid too much? How do you determine how much you pay someone anyway?

Minimum wage has seen a substantial increase from the 1930s, but has since plateaued in the 2010s. However, with minimum wage set to be raised to $15 in Illinois, there’s a growth spike set to go up again within the next few years. Minimum wage is, of course, the bare minimum you can pay someone for a job, but how does one get paid more? Economically, there are three ways to fairly obtain more pay:

  1. If you work harder and/or better than your peers.
  2. If you have resources that your peers do not have. (For example: if your company mows lawns and you bring your own lawnmower).
  3. If you have more knowledge than your peers.

In short, the more you can offer your employer, the more you get paid in a competitive market. So what do football players offer their employers?

Because the NFL is a private business, it’s not required to release financial reports, so finding the league’s exact profit per year is difficult. However, the teams do release reports. Investopedia found that the Green Bay Packers’ annual report stated that the NFL made a total of $8.1 billion in 2018. The majority of the NFL’s profits come from the sale of broadcasting rights to different networks like ESPN. According to Sports Illustrated, ESPN is paying $15.2 billion for NFL broadcasting rights over 8 years. Smaller profits come from concessions, tickets, and merchandise sales.

To answer the question “What do football players offer their employers,” football players play the games which bring the NFL huge amounts of profit. The players sacrifice a lot to play the game, and are offering their own bodies up to the sport. Many players suffer horrible injuries that not only end their football careers, but also could potentially severely limit any other options they might have to support themselves, especially because many athletes make no plans for what they’ll do if anything does happen to them on the field. There are also many personal sacrifices that athletes make for their job, including drastic changes in their lifestyles due to fame, extensive amounts of travel time, bearing the impact on their families, and the intense media scrutiny they receive. From this perspective, there might even be an argument that athletes are underpaid. It’s unlikely that any athlete will ever be officially compensated for the above sacrifices, though, as many mental and emotional costs cannot be measured in dollars.

The reason athletes get paid so much is because they do a job that most other people can’t do. There’s a reason why cashier is a minimum wage job: it doesn’t take special talent to perform. Football is different. It’s one of the hardest and most dangerous sports to play, as well as one of the most physically and personally taxing. The men who play it know the risks and choose to play anyway because they love what they do and are great at what they do.

As such, as a football fan and as a future economist, in my opinion, professional football players are not overpaid.