As the NBA continues to raise its wage cap, players’ salaries have exploded. Just last summer, Stephen Curry, arguably the most valuable player in the league, signed a contract promising him US$40 million a year. This gargantuan sum shocked the sports world, and further emphasized the wage gap between NBA players and their peers in other American sports leagues, most notably the NFL and the MLB.
But, when evaluating the salary difference between the three, it is important to consider the wide range in revenue, roster size, and season length among the leagues. During the NFL season, each team plays only 16 games. Conversely, the NBA season spans 82, coupled with longer playoffs. It’s no surprise that NBA players make more money, as their longer season allows teams to generate more revenue. The MLB, however, has the longest season of all three with 162 games, which is almost double the length of the NBA season. As a result, the league enjoys the second-highest set of television ratings and revenue—nearly $10 billion per year—of all American major sports leagues.
Given the gaping disparity in volume of games between each sport, it is more informative to examine how much the average player for each league is paid per game. The NFL leads the three leagues with ease, as the average player makes $131,000 per game, easily more than the NBA’s $76,000 and the MLB’s $27,000. It makes sense that NFL players make the most per game, when considering both the number of games on each league’s schedule and the NFL’s stellar television viewership numbers—a fundamental element in a professional sport’s profitability. This difference helps to explain why the NFL earns a revenue of about $14 billion a year, dwarfing the NBA’s $5.87 billion, and sitting comfortably ahead of the MLB’s $10 billion.
Despite the NFL’s large revenue, team roster size negatively affects individual athletes’ paychecks. After the final cuts, there are 53 players on each NFL roster. In comparison, NBA team have 15 rostered players. With fewer competitors, each NBA player gets a larger share of the salary pie, more than making up for the NBA’s smaller revenue stream. By that logic, one would expect the MLB with its 25-man rosters to pay individual players more than the NFL, so it’s surprising to see the average MLB player earn just $27,200 per game.
Each MLB team plays an astounding 162 games per season—plus the playoffs—which makes it much harder to raise per-game wages. Still, the world’s best baseball players are not hurting for money. The biggest annual contract in baseball is Clayton Kershaw’s $33 million, not much less than Curry’s $40 million in the NBA. Additionally, the average MLB player makes $4.5 million a year, which is only $1.6 million less than the average NBA player, despite the fact that MLB rosters nearly double the size of those in the NBA.
The injury risk and physically taxing nature of football keeps the league from being able to increase revenue by adding more than 16 games. Furthermore, this sum must be shared between 53 teammates. Meanwhile, in baseball, drawn-out seasons mean players aren’t getting near as much money for the time they’ve invested. Overall, pro basketball players get the best deal. Their season is neither too long nor too short, their teams are not very big, and they’re third in television views in North America. When it comes to the money-to-work ratio—something everyone tries to maximize—NBA players seem to have it all figured out.