You can’t open a sports page without reading about an NFL or NBA player’s multimillion-dollar deal. But not every athlete makes the big bucks. Some professional athletes’ salaries are less than you might think.
How exactly does the above-average swimmer or runner pay their bills? It’s not always about the big paycheck. Some pro athletes have to get creative. And because they spend the bulk of their life training, it’s sometimes a struggle to keep the lights on.
What Makes an Athlete “Professional” vs. “Amateur”?
The gulf between an amateur athlete and a professional is pretty wide — and it’s paved with money.
According to the attorney-writers at Findlaw.com, “Generally speaking, amateur athletes are not paid for their athletics performances… Professional athletes, by contrast, are typically paid annual salaries plus incentives tied to individual and team performance.”
Simple, right? Get paid = professional. Don’t get paid = amateur. Sorry, it’s just not that easy.
What Do Student Athletes Make in College?
In college, an adept athlete might get a full or partial scholarship in return for attending and performing for the school. The NCAA touts that it awards more than $2.9 billion to some 150,000 student athletes in Division I and II schools each year. But the competition is stiff. They calculate only 2% of high school athletes will make the grade, so to speak, and receive an athletic scholarship for college.
That scholarship money usually covers tuition, room and board, books and fees. And it also can be renewed (or declined) year to year, depending on the school and student’s agreement.
But it doesn’t end there. Just this past spring, student athletes won a class action suit against the NCAA who had previously capped the amount of scholarship money that they could receive. The students’ argument was that while universities profited, the athletes were stuck with their “amateur” labels and therefore cut out of the cash pile.
How Gold Shines at the Olympics
In the modern Olympics, rules used to mandate that competitors be amateurs and not professionals. Since 1988, the IOC has allowed professionals to compete (deferring to the individual sports’ federations to make the call). This leads to some confusion, when federations change their mind on allowing their athletes to compete every four years, like how the NHL recently pulled the plug on permitting its athletes to skate in the Winter Olympics in 2018.
Opening up professional sports to the Olympics is also how you get Dream Teams like the U.S. men’s basketball squad in 1992. The IOC, also reaps some benefits from having famous professional athletes raise the Games’ profile.
The Olympics offer a difficult field (pun intended) for various countries’ athletes to navigate, from strict and ever-changing sponsorship rules, to situations where some sports allow corporate for their athletes while others do not. As with everything in the sports world, it’s a complicated game and not everyone wins.
What Kinds of Expenses Do Athletes Have?
Athletes have more expenses than just the basics of room and board, however. As a professional, they also have to pay for things like:
- Gear. (From climbing shoes to bathing suits.)
- Travel. (Getting to competitions around the world isn’t cheap.)
- Medical treatments. (When your body is your instrument, you may need to fine-tune it from time to time.)
- Sports agents. (These folks negotiate those contracts for professional athletes and also take 4-10%.)
Where Does the Money Come From?
It’s not just gold medals that can pay an athlete. Many different revenue streams make up their income.
- Win a competition, get a check. (Athletes often compete for the “purse” at an event, with the winner taking home the most bucks.)
- Sponsorships. (A brand wants you to wear their stuff, so you sign a contract and they outfit you, plus maybe pay you some cash.)
- Appearance fees. (Not just cutting ribbons at the car wash, appearances can mean just entering a competition, especially if you’re an Olympic winner or record holder.)
- Product endorsements. (Think Wheaties boxes, automobiles and sports drinks. On the luxury end of things, these can prove very lucrative.)
All of these deals are negotiated by the athlete or their agent, with varying amounts depending on the deal made. Some athletes renegotiate when they get bigger in their sport, and others go shopping for the better offer year after year.
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What Kind of Big Bucks Are We Talking About?
Truth is, it varies widely…and a lot of it isn’t public knowledge. Some available information is estimated from anonymous sports agents (who, to be fair, should have a good idea).
In 2018, LetsRun.com asked sports agents to estimate various salaries based on their inside knowledge of the industry and the players. They ranged wildly from person to person, given many factors including where the runner was from — runners from the U.S. were paid better than those from Kenya or Ethiopia, even though runners from the smaller countries won more races — and how they were performing recently.
Professional track and field athlete salaries (men and women) ranged in estimates from $32,000 to $237,000 per year. Sprinters ranged from $430,000 to $1,725,000. And marathoners varied from $10,000 to $141,667 (in the Boston Marathon men’s field) to $1,667 to $200,000 (in the Boston Marathon women’s field).
Other details come from surveys from various sports groups, that looked to professionals in their arena to dish on the reality of their salaries.
In 2012, climbing magazine Rock and Ice talked to climbing enthusiasts who worked in different jobs related to climbing. From climbing gym workers ($5,000 to $40,000 per year) to gear reps ($50,000 to $100,000) to professionals. Those who call themselves professional climbers were noted by the magazine as “sponsored climbers” and say that they “earn up to $100,000, but 58 percent earn under $5,000. Only 20 percent make more than $20,000.”
Even if the “rock star” salary isn’t that stupendous, the perks are great if you’re in love with your sport, writes Rock and Ice: “Go climbing dude! Also get your picture taken, sign posters, provide product feedback and be a good ambassador for your sponsor. Amazingly, only 70 percent said they’d recommend their jobs and 25 percent said they are not living the dream.”
David Arluck,CEO of the Fitter and Faster Swim Tour, notes that young swimmers who are looking to jump into the world of professional swimming “need to look at sponsorships not as ‘what can I make’? But more about what’s the value they’re bringing to the companies.”
He continues: “And that can be difficult…For a young college swimmer who just made an Olympic team, it can be hard for them to handle. The opportunity is there with patience and finding the right sponsorships and not accepting low-ball deals. You need to understand what your name and likeness is worth. Understand that you can be positioned to drive tremendous value to these companies.”
Where Do Old Athletes Get Their Money?
Those who can’t, teach, right?
Staying paid in your sport can mean a career as a coach (private or collegiate) or opening up a school or training center to make money off your name. For many of the world’s top athletes, they’re considered “over the hill” if they’re competing in their early 30s. There’s a lot of living to be done, and income to earn, in the years that follow.
Arluck’s company employs young, mid-career and older swimmers who provide clinic instruction for the Fitter and Faster Swim Tour (FFT). In a 2017 interview, Arluck said:
As a matter of fact, we have several swimmers who would do just a few clinics with us annually while they were competing. Then, once they retired they would do many more – in several cases generating upwards of $30,000 annually while working weekends and making plans for their long term careers. This is much needed income for an athlete who may first be entering the workforce at age 25 or older and is no longer getting the support of USA Swimming stipend and sponsorships.
What Happens When You Need to Take a Break (Like to Have Kids)?
Maternity leave for women in sports has come under scrutiny this year, with dramatic images of professional runners competing while pregnant, like Olympian Alysia Montaño. Montaño recently alleged that her sponsor, Nike, responded that if she wanted to have a baby while she was still a full-time athlete, they would simply pause her contract and stop paying her. Both Montaño and Olympic runner Kara Goucher had children while under contract with Nike. Due to the company’s policy, they returned to their sports soon after giving birth.
“The bulk of an elite runner’s salary comes from whatever apparel company sponsors them, so turning off this particular spigot is akin to removing their primary income,” wrote Patrick Redford at Deadspin. “[Montaño] then [left Nike and] switched to Asics, which responded in similar fashion. Montaño faced additional financial pressure from the United States Olympic Committee, which stopped paying for her health insurance after she didn’t race for a while.”
So, not only did these women lose their paychecks while pregnant, but they also lost their healthcare to support that pregnancy.
“Montaño and Goucher both told the [New York Times] that they lost their health insurance from the U.S. Olympic Committee and U.S.A. Track & Field while having children,” wrote Caitlin O’Kane at CBS News. “Nike said it has changed its approach so athletes are not penalized in such situations, but declined to say if protections were written into its contracts.”
The Big Gender Pay Gap in Sports
Even without dealing with a pregnancy, women face challenges in terms of pay equity in professional sports. You have likely read about the recent domination by the U.S. Women’s Soccer team at the World Cup.
During the celebrations, their fans cheered — and chanted “equal pay.” Why? Because the women’s team has won four World Cups, while the U.S. men’s team has won none. But the women’s team is paid less than the men’s. A lot less. And while the calculations aren’t 1-to-1 because of different payment structures that are complex (to say the least), it’s clear that the prize money for men’s and women’s soccer aren’t equal globally, and that means the players aren’t treated equally either.
The gender pay gap in sports is even more dramatic than in the office. In 2018, for example, this list of the top paid 25 U.S.athletes didn’t include a single woman. From tennis to surfing, female athletes are speaking out on the disparity in prize money in their sports.
“The highest-paid female tennis stars earn a third of what the highest paid men make, and the highest-paid female soccer player in the world makes 182 times less than the highest-paid male,” notes Mental Floss.
This summer, in fact, while the women’s soccer team was heading to France for their competition, they were also dealing with an ongoing lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation, which decides how and how much they’re paid.
“The lawsuit asserts, for example, that from 2013 to 2016, if a male and a female national team player each played 20 exhibition games in a year, members of the men’s squad would have earned an average of $263,320, while members of the women’s squad would have earned a maximum of $99,000,” wrote Lizzy Goodman at the New York Times. U.S. Soccer has refuted the claims made in the lawsuit.
Truly, professional athlete salaries are as complicated and as varied as there are competitors around the globe.
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