41950s: Today’s Wages Brought to You by Your Favorite Sponsor
Before the 1950s, fans flocked to stadiums to watch their favorite teams play; but these arenas were no Rose Bowls with 92,000 seats. Room for just 5,000 to 25,000 in the early stadiums clearly limited ticket sales, but when televisions began spreading throughout cities and suburbia, soon everyone was watching
larger-than-life professional players work their magic. Television allowed sporting events to reach multitudes of fans, and suddenly advertisers could push their products during game pauses. It didn’t take long for companies to hook up with the players themselves, too. With endorsements come big checks.
A sampling of athletes’ salaries in the 1950s includes Mickey Mantle, who earned $100,000 ($1,002,000 in today’s dollars) per year, and Jackie Robinson, who earned $35,000 ($351,000 today). In the 1920s, golfer Gene Sarazen began milking an endorsement deal with Wilson Sporting Goods – an arrangement that lasted for a whopping 75 years.
The first million dollar contract didn’t land on an athlete until 1964. And despite what you may expect, it wasn’t given to a first baseman or a quarterback. It all turned on who had the biggest audience – and in the early 60s, that was six-time bowler of the year Don Carter. Bowling ball manufacturer Ebonite paid Carter to spread the word of the Don Carter Gyro-Balanced ball. Now an international company owning many other bowling equipment brands, Ebonite clearly benefited from the relationship, despite the high price.