Sports Salaries Part 1, Teams & Leagues

A co-worker and I were talking about salaries in the various U.S. sports leagues not too long ago. The conversation started by discussing which sports had the highest paid players, probably triggered by some recent signing or related news. Then, we started speculating about which sports or athletes would pay the most adjusted for number of games, since it varies from the NFL’s 16 game season to MLB’s 162 games. Taking it even farther, the question became; how would that look adjusted for minutes played?

Well, fortunately this can be determined without too much difficulty! There are hundreds or maybe thousands of sports statistic sites out there, so salary data is available that we can standardize and then analyze. I started the search by assuming I would look at 2016 salaries and compare them to 2016 games played per player. Unfortunately, that was easier said than done; the NFL was the only league I could find 2016 player salaries listed in a way that was easy to copy into Excel. I was only able to find NBA, MLB, and NHL salaries by player in easy-to-copy format for 2017.

Data Sources Used for Salaries:

I also could not find well-formatted per player data for games played, so I decided to just use a full season for each sport multiplied by minutes per game. Since MLB games are untimed, I used the Wall Street Journal calculation estimating 18 minutes of action on average per game. Baseball is 90% standing around anyway, so I figured that was fair.

This first post will cover leagues and teams with the highest total salaries, average salaries, per game salary average, and per minute salary average. As a bonus, I also grouped teams into major metropolitan areas (ex. San Francisco includes Oakland and San Jose) to see which areas spend the most money on teams. These totals are calculated from the sum totals of player salaries listed at the above resources, so it’s possible these values may not match one-off lists of salary cap numbers for teams. Reported salary or salary cap numbers for teams may use calculations that I’m not aware of, like factoring in released players, guaranteed money, signing bonuses, and so on. Again, this data simply shows sums of all players’ salaries.

League Salaries 4 tables

Table 1. From left to right, top to bottom: Sum of all salaries per league, average salary per game for each league, average salary per league, and average salary per minute for each league.

Top 10 Regions

Table 2. Top 10 metropolitan areas/cities, total salaries across all leagues with a presence in that city/area.

All Teams by Sum of Salaries

Table 3. All data (total salaries, salary averages, per game averages, and per minute averages) across the four major leagues, sorted by most total salary.

So, what jumps out at me here? Well, first the total dollar value of salaries across the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL is staggering; almost $13 billion. It’s probably not too surprising that per game salary averages found the NFL on top and the MLB on bottom, since the season lengths involve a 146 game difference. I was a bit surprised to see that the top three were fairly close in per minute averages (NFL, NBA, MLB). I usually think of the NFL as having a collective bargaining agreement favoring the owners more than the players, but they seem to make the most per minute on average. Alternatively though, the NFL has higher revenue than the other leagues, so I’m sure an argument could be made that the NFL should be in first place by a wider margin. Also, this analysis doesn’t factor in guaranteed contracts, team owner net profits, or player union strength in administrative/disciplinary matters, so certainly don’t use this salary data in a vacuum.

In the next post, we’ll explore the position and player ranks for overall salary, per game salary, and per minute salary!

Part 2, Positions and Players:


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