An Ode to Baseball’s Player Union.

Just putting it out there, but does anyone else find it slightly ridiculous that LeBron James will be paid $19,067,500 for his efforts during the 2013/14 NBA season? Many would say it’s way too much already, considering he plays a game for a living – plus he’s got endorsement deals to go on top of that base figure. Others – Bill Simmons for instance – think that James’ check should be significantly larger, say, in the $75M range. After all, he has been named the NBA’s MVP 4 times, won 2 titles, lost another 2, and been a 7-time All-NBA 1st Team selection – and even that’s cutting his career resumé very, very, short. Either way you look at it, overpaid or undervalued, one thing is clear however; compared to baseball’s salaries, one of the best players in basketball’s history has been truly shafted by his union’s negotiating skills (or lack of).

Let’s take James’ current 2013/14 salary, $19,067,500, and see where it would land him amongst baseball’s highest (total salary) earners in 2014; 22rd, behind not only top players like Miguel Cabrera and Robinson Cano, but the slightly less desirable likes of Ryan Howard ($25,000,000), Mark Teixeira ($23,125,000) Carl Crawford ($21,107,142). He’s barely ahead of Mark Buehrle ($19,000,000), and will likely fall further behind as soon as Mike Trout puts pen to paper. Now admittedly, LeBron famously took less money to sign with the SuperFriends in Miami, so is only tied for the 8th highest salary in his own sporting field (with teammate Chris Bosh as it happens; Dywane Wade is no. 10), but even the very top NBA earners are overwhelmed in number by their baseball-playing peers. In fact, Only Kobe Bryant’s (egregiously awful – I’m a Suns fan) $30,453,805 2014 salary would crack baseball’s top 11 for the current calendar year – Dirk Nowitzki, if anyone’s interested, would check in at no. 12 – just behind Felix Hernandez – if such a joint rich list formally existed.

Now I’m not saying that baseball players don’t deserve their money (well, maybe in the cases of Howard, Teixera, Crawford et. al), but when looking at the similar revenues generated from the two sports, one thing is drastically apparent; one union clanked iron at the negotiating table, and the other smashed their labor deal out of the park. If the puns didn’t make it apparent, the MLBPA might be the strongest professional sports union in existence, whereas the NBPA, well, it blows.

Since 2000, NBA revenue is up 120 percent, from about $2.5 billion to $5.5 billion, while MLB revenue has also seen a significant, but similarly proportioned boom; it has increased from about $3.4 billion in 2000 to about $8 billion in 2013, good for a 135 percent jump. But while the MLBPA have long fought off a salary cap on players earning power, the NBPA famously agreed to maximum thresholds for the sport’s top stars in order to end the 204 day lockout which nearly nixed the league’s 1999 season. And in doing so, they preserved basketball’s middle class, but screwed the big stars. In the word’s of super-agent Art Tellem, “They are really stealing from LeBron.”

Per Sports Business Journal, and spotrac.com, in 1999-2000, of the 20 players whose contracts had the highest average annual value, 11 were NBA players, led by Kevin Garnett at $21 million a year. Baseball made up the other 9, but Kevin Brown was the sport’s highest earner at only $15 million a year. By 2002-03 the distribution became a little more even; of the top 21 (three NBA players tied at No. 19 averaging $15 million a season), 11 were NBA and 10 were MLB, with Alex Rodriguez’s first 10-year deal significantly entering the fray. Fast forward to 2007-08, and the numbers had flipped – nine of the top 20 highest-paid players were in the NBA and 11 were in MLB, who in A-Rod and Johan Santana could boast sport’s top two highest earners. And finally, 2013, where of the top 21 highest-paid athletes in America (two players were tied for 20th place), 13 were MLB players, and only 6 NBA athletes (the other two were NFL quarterbacks Joe Flacco and Drew Brees). Furthermore, 8 of the top 10 deals belonged to baseball players – and this was all before Cano, Masahiro Tanaka, Clayton Kershaw or Jacoby Ellsbury signed new contracts this winter.

The discrepancy between the two sport’s top salaries really is remarkable, and even more so when you consider the proportional importance of individual players to each game; with only 5 players a side, a star in basketball can have much more impact than the one of the 9 players in a baseball lineup. Mike Trout being taken away from the Angels would cost them around 10 wins a season. When LeBron left Cleveland, the Cavs went from a league best 61 wins in 2009/10 to a conference-worst 19 the following season – a 42 win differential – and along the way also tied the longest losing streak in any American professional team sport (26). And you’re telling me Masahiro Tanaka, who has yet to throw a pitch in an MLB regular season game and will likely appear in 50 fewer games than James, will make $2,922,500 more than him in salary during 2014?

Seriously, well played MLBPA.

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