When we think of pro athletes, images of fame and fortune inexorably spring to mind. Kobe’s jewelry. A-Rod’s lavish Hollywood Hills mansion. Mike Tyson’s tiger. But these guys are superstars in their fields – what about the rookies and the benchwarmers?
Imagine going to work, sitting next to your colleague one cubicle over and doing exactly the same work day in and day out – but getting paid 140 times less than that person. For some athletes, that’s the reality of their job. Major league teams, especially those in Major League Soccer have recently come under tight scrutiny due to massive disparities in player salaries.
Often professional athletes are bringing home about the same salary as - or less than - the average Joe. In fact, some of the athletes on this list make even less playing a pro sport than they would flipping hamburgers. The unfortunate truth of the sports industry seems to be that if you aren't a top pick right out of the gate or haven’t otherwise proven that you can sell tickets or gear and impact the bottom line of a franchise, you'll likely be stuck with an entry-level salary the same as any of us. If a team member happens to lack that one-in-a-million, marketable quality, it’s highly likely that he or she will be “rookie-zoned” for the entirety of his or her career.
The list below outlines the major league sports with the lowest minimum salaries for new players. This excludes athletes who rely solely on prize money, such as pro golfers on the PGA circuit, professional cyclists and other tournament-based athletes. The sports players on this list receive highly regulated salaries implemented by a league commissioner. Grueling practice and workout schedules often require athletes to put in more than the typical 40-hour work week, which means the sport is often their sole source of income. And remember, in pro sports your health is everything – and you’re putting it on the line every time you step onto a field or into an arena. One misstep, one injury, and your potential worth is down the drain.
Keep all of that in mind as you check out the very meanest salaries in the world of professional sports:
5 WWE: $40,000
Not surprisingly, top-paid WWE superstars like John Cena and The Rock rake in a base salary of nearly $3 million. And that’s nothing compared to the millions more they’ll make from winning bonuses, merchandise profits, film and television deals and more. However, just like the rest of us, they had to pay their dues first before getting to the top tier of the WWE salary list. Wrestlers typically make incomes very closely tied to the total amount of revenue they draw in for the franchise – which for rookies and less successful contenders ends up being much closer to that of an elementary school teacher.
Additionally, this base salary does not include benefits, so professional wrestlers are responsible for their own health insurance and hospital bills. This wouldn't be such a terrible deal if they were teaching beginner-level geometry, but an average day of work for these guys probably includes being body-slammed by one or two 400 pound sweaty hulks of meat and muscle or taking a blow to the head from a metal folding chair for show.
4 WNBA: $35,125
In the world of pro sports, the NBA is one of the most elite leagues in the world. With millions vying for a chance to play and lineups of only 12 men per team, you can expect the annual earnings of those guys to be stratospheric. That’s why it’s not surprising that the minimum salary for the NBA is one of the highest in pro sports, coming at just under $460,000.
The stakes are just as high for women, with only 12 highly coveted spots per team available in the pro league. Yet, the earnings of these players are shockingly low. In contrast with the male equivalent of $460k, the minimum salary for the WNBA comes in at just over $35k.
Additionally, there’s a cap on MVP earnings, so even the best player in the league can’t break $100k per year. Compare to last year’s NBA MVP LeBron James, whose salary – before bonuses, endorsements and other sources of income – topped $20 million in 2013.
Speaking of endorsements, WNBA players can accept endorsements as additional income, but even some of the highest endorsement deals for female athletes pale in comparison to their male counterparts. For example, when Brittney Griner signed her $1 million endorsement contract with Nike, it was hailed as one of the biggest deals in women's sporting history. However, the celebration loses some of its luster when you compare it to another famous basketball star’s deal with the same company – Lebron James’ Nike endorsement contract is valued at $90 million.
3 MLS: $35,125
Soccer is arguably the single most profitable sport on the planet. But in America, where it’s overshadowed by American football, it’s often met with some of the absolute lowest minimum salaries in pro sports.
Rookies who sign with Major League Soccer may have the potential to earn millions like superstar soccer players David Beckham and Clint Dempsey – whose $6.695 million salary in 2014 surpassed the entire payroll of most MLS teams - but that would be a rare and exceptional case.
Last year, MLS player Kofi Opare famously penned a look at the life of a pro athlete living on a rookie’s salary. Far from the diamond-encrusted jewelry, fancy cars and ridiculous mansions you'd expect of a big-time basketball or football player, Opare lives in a small apartment that he splits with his brother; the most expensive item in his possession being a flat-screen TV. Meanwhile, some of his teammates – including worldwide superstar Landon Donovan – make upwards of $5 million and live in luxurious beach houses with in-house saunas, home theaters and other ridiculous amenities.
2 Women’s Professional Soccer: $12,875
Again, the difference between men’s minimum salaries in sport versus that of women’s in the same sport is astounding. Sure, it’s certainly tied to the revenue these athletes bring in, whether it be ticket sales, jersey sales or other fan memorabilia, and women’s athletics just don't profit at the same level men’s sports do. But when you consider that female athletes are doing the exactly same work and practicing, traveling and risking their health just as much as their male counterparts – but getting paid half as much – it’s easy to see why the pool of women who dream of one day going pro is exponentially smaller than the number of men with the same ambitions. Nowhere is this more true than in soccer, where female players can expect salaries as low as under $13k while the very lowest male salary in the game is more than double this.
1 National Lacrosse League: $9,200
They may have once been the kings of high school, but professional lacrosse players make next to nothing at the lower end of the salary scale. To put the $9,200 annual salary into perspective; you could earn nearly twice the salary of a professional lacrosse player working full-time at McDonalds.
To add insult to injury, there’s really not much more room to grow. At least in the case of men’s soccer, a rookie can look forward to transforming that measly 35 grand into millions, with the possibility of signing on to big endorsement deals with sports apparel and video games. But when was the last time you saw a professional lacrosse player hocking the latest athletic gear on TV? The max salary in the National Lacrosse League is less than $35,000.
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