In professional sports, the almighty dollar reigns supreme.
Owners fork over millions of dollars to elite athletes who, in turn, help make them billions of dollars. Leagues sell their television rights in eye-popping deals to networks who covet sports coverage, one of the last remaining platforms for true live TV in an era of PVR’s, web streaming and on demand viewing.
In today’s top sports leagues, free agent bidding wars see top stars drift towards those teams with the deepest pockets. And man, are salaries starting to soar. Salary caps in the NFL, NBA and NHL have helped ensure that league champions aren’t simply dictated by clubs with the wealthiest owners (Major League Baseball implements a luxury tax system that punishes those that exceed a $189 million payroll), but that hasn’t stopped some franchises from paying their way to a title.
Although its nice to believe that success in sports is achieved through the right mix of team chemistry, complimentary talent and honest will and determination, these 10 championship winners proved that sometimes money talks.
10. 2002-03 New Jersey Devils
A string of success that saw the New Jersey Devils win three Stanley Cups in nine years is often credited to legendary goaltender Martin Brodeur and the team’s savvy in executing the ever-frustrating neutral zone trap. For at least one season, however, a willingness to fork over some extra cash also played a role. The 2002-03 Devils enjoyed a surge in spending, rising from a $43 million payroll in 2001-02 up to $56 million, a 30% jump (their payroll would drop back below $49 million before the following season). This extra cash netted them full years from Joe Nieuwendyk and Jamie Langenbrunner, two key mid-season acquisitions from the year prior. The biggest earners on that New Jersey club were Brodeur and defenceman Scott Stevens, franchise cornerstones who made nearly $14 million combined and who, if you ask any Devils fan, were worth every penny.
9. 2011-12 Miami Heat
The Miami Heat of the Big Three era were the team that basketball fans loved to hate. NBA traditionalists despised the idea of LeBron James and Chris Bosh opting to team up with Dwyane Wade rather than looking to test themselves against one another, Cavs fans were up in arms that James, their hometown hero, broke up with them on live TV in an ESPN publicity stunt and just about anyone with taste was put off by their self-congratulatory introductory press conference. Credit all three men with sacrificing some of their potential earnings to allow for the others to come on board, but a trio of players making almost $48 million – 62% of the team’s payroll – doesn’t strike me as charitable. Many watched with glee as they fell to Dallas in the NBA Finals in their first season together, but hate-watchers could get no such satisfaction out of the next two seasons.
8. 2011 Los Angeles Galaxy
Okay, so the ballyhooed David Beckham deal that brought the international soccer superstar stateside was never actually worth $250 million. But at $5.5 million per year, it still represented a bold, expensive risk in a league where most players make less than $100,000. After signing the deal in 2007 amid hype and fan fare, it took four injury-plagued seasons and constant rumors of Beckham’s exit to pay off. It finally did in 2011, by which point the AEG-owned Galaxy had surrounded Becks with Landon Donovan ($2.3 million) and Juan Pablo Angel ($1.25 million), giving them three of the league’s seven biggest contracts.
7. 2012-13 Miami Heat
The 2012-13 Heat returned to defend their NBA title with most of the same roster from the previous season’s championship run, most notably the Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. What did change, however, was an increase in the back-loaded salaries of the aforementioned stars. Where the trio had made over $47 million during their first title run, their combined salaries had surpassed $52 million by the second of their back-to-back championships. Role players like Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem also saw their earnings increase slightly and Ray Allen ($3 million) was added as a free agent in the summer between the two title runs.
6. 2001-02 Detroit Red Wings
The NHL will almost certainly never see another collection of talent that rivals the 2001-02 Detroit Red Wings, a group that nine future Hall of Fame players, three Hart (MVP) trophy winners, two Norris (best defenseman) trophy winners and a Vezina (best goaltender) trophy winner. Nowadays, a salary cap prohibits the type of excessive spending that saw the Red Wings shell out $80 million for a roster that included the likes of Nick Lidstrom ($8.5 million), Dominik Hasek ($8 million), Steve Yzerman ($7.5 million), Brendan Shanahan ($6 million) and Chris Chelios ($5.5 million). To put the $80 million in perspective, the league’s first salary cap was set at $39 million four years later.
5. 2005 Chelsea FC
Chelsea won the Premier League in 2005, two years after the takeover by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich. Under Abramovich, the English club’s spending soared from £56 million in 2003 to £116 million in 2004 and £109 million in 2005. Abramovich’s wealth enabled Chelsea to be very active in the summer transfer market, claiming stars like Michael Ballack and acquiring Andriy Shevchenko on a club-record £30m purchase. Concerns over Chelsea’s spending, aggressive measures that resulted in significant net losses for the club, would even make their way to European parliament. Not that it mattered, as they would win the Premier League title again in 2010, spending £173 million in order to do so.
4. 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers
Arguably one of the best basketball teams of all-time, the ’71-72 Lakers benefited from the deep pockets of owner Jack Kent Cooke, who had acquired the impossibly dominant Wilt Chamberlain in 1968 to pair with fellow all-time greats Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. Chamberlain was paid $250,000 per year after taxes, which is pretty pedestrian by today’s standards but was a Wilt-sized salary at the time. To put the number in perspective, the second-highest paid Laker was West, who earned $100,000 before taxes. Those Lakers rode Chamberlain’s 14.8 points and 19.2 rebounds per game to a 33-game win streak in the regular season and, later, an NBA title, with Chamberlain earning MVP honors.
3. 2011-12 Manchester City
If Chelsea’s spending for their 2005 Premier League title was excessive, then Manchester City’s spending under owner Sheikh Mansour has been comical. When Mansour took over in 2008, it was reported that he set aside £5oo million to acquire new players. Since then, the club has spent £3oo million on new additions and has become the highest-salaried franchise in the Premiership by a wide margin. All that money paid off during the 2011-12 season, as Man City won the first Premier League crown in their history on the strength of highly paid talent like Sergio Aguero (£35 million), Edin Dzeko (£27 million), Carlos Tevez (£25 million) and Mario Balotelli (£22.5 million).
2. 2003 Florida Marlins
Under owner Jeffrey Loria, the Marlins have mastered the art of getting in, getting theirs and getting out in a cynical, money-driven ploy to cash out before the ink is dry on their championship banner. In both 1997 and 2003, the Marlins brought World Series trophies to Florida with a mix of young, homegrown prospects and high-priced veterans. In both cases (and again after a non-title 2012 season), the club stripped their roster bare with head-shaking fire sales in the immediate aftermath of the championship win. Players like Ivan Rodriguez, Robb Nen, Al Leiter, Kevin Brown, Derrek Lee, Carl Pavano and Brad Penny weren’t around long enough to try to defend the titles they had helped win.
1. 2009 New York Yankees
You knew the Bronx Bombers would wind up somewhere on this list. In 2009, with an Opening Day payroll of $201.4 million, the Yanks secured the highest payroll of any MLB club for the ninth consecutive season, outspending their counterparts by more than $52 million. In other words, they held the biggest payroll in the majors even without the $33 million they owed to Alex Rodriguez, their most expensive player. Amazingly, their payroll had actually decreased by about $8 million from the year before, a season in which New York didn’t even make the playoffs. In addition to A-Rod, the Yankees sent some pretty hefty checks to the likes of Derek Jeter ($21.6 million), Mark Teixeira ($20.6 million) and AJ Burnett ($16.5 million).