In 2014, Brady Aiken became the third top pick in MLB history not signed by the team that drafted him. He was owed a $6.5 million signing bonus (almost $1.5 million less than the MLB’s assigned pick value for the first-overall pick that year), and this year, Aiken is again eligible for the draft.
As all eyes turn to tonight’s draft, the conversation around player salaries is again contemplated.
Following a historic deal signed in 2012 by Fox Sports, TBS and ESPN, Major League Baseball is now feeling the first of many money waves coming its way. The estimated $12.4 billion profit through the year 2021 is finally paying off as 2014 has displayed an increase in payouts to teams, coaches and players alike. However, while MLB’s historic deal creates a huge advantage for the company and its inhabitants, it slightly tips the scale of quality-vs-quantity in comparison to its other major league counterparts.
In 2013, USA Today’s sports subsidiary, For the Win, compared the estimated salaries of all major league sports organizations. Behind the NBA, whose estimated average yearly salary was $5.15 million in 2014, the second largest average yearly salary went to Major League Baseball, who pays its players an average of $3.2 million a year. MLB out pays the NHL by $0.8 million and the NFL by $1.3 million and also out performs all major league sports in average career earnings—excluding the NBA—by, at least, $4.7 million.
2014’s average salaries still placed MLB as having the second highest average salary as the brand increased its average salary by $.60 million. In contrast, the NFL’s 2014 average salary (currently the last on the list) is expected to be a little above 2 million, according to Forbes.
Interestingly, as the historic uptick in MLB salaries was expected years ago, the reality of the deal raises large questions for both the consumer and business: “are we getting to see the products we want (consumer)”? or “Are we getting the consumers we need (business)?”
In July 2014 CBS reported that a recent poll found that “35 percent of fans responded that football was their favorite sport. Major-league baseball finished second, albeit distantly at 14-percent.” Independent research pulled by 2014 attendance data seems to point to this paradigm shift in viewership. For example, out of approximately 81 games played by all MLB teams, the total attendance was 73.7 million in comparison to NFL, whose teams racked up 17 million attendees with only 8 games in the season. The frequency of game ratio suggests that the NFL is not only as popular, but also if both leagues played the same amount of games—maintaining their current attendance numbers—the NFL would dominate by 100 million viewers.
That’s just attendance. In television ratings, NFL has always dominated using an “event” strategy to draw in large crowds. Mike Cardillo, writer at The Big Lead for USA Today, argues that this strategy is more of a nuisance to the consumer than a blessing for the NFL. “As it stands the NFL (and college football) are the only regular season sports programming in America that still feels like an event, the type of stuff you plan the rest of your day around in order to be home in time for kickoff.” Cardillo says, “If you miss a baseball game? So be it, there’s another one tomorrow and the day after that and so on.”
What Cardillo failed to understand is now, more than ever, numbers matter. While the conversation on Football vs Baseball can seem jaded to some, there’s a larger lesson to learn in engagement, data and salary disparities (I use that loosely) between these two leagues.
America has consistently shown up to watch Football. It’s what they love, it’s the new pastime. If the players’ job is to entertain with their athletic skill, they are doing just that. That’s what they should be paid for—entertaining, and how well they do it. What comes as a disservice to both the player and consumer is when large bureaucratic deals threaten to force engagement and reach for a mutual financial gain.
The television companies who signed on to this extended contracted with MLB would never sign on to a multi-billion dollar deal if they weren’t poised to get a large piece of the pie with advertising dollars. However, these type of deals—and their subsequent increased payouts—present a problem for the competitive arena and the state of television sports. Oversaturation of the market may increase viewership—as MLB is had one of its best TV rating seasons yet in 2014—it begs to question: is the consumer watching for leisure or by choice? This question then fuels the discussion behind the MLB’s legitimacy in climbing the ratings ladder. And more importantly, at the center of all this confusion, is the player—the one whose compensation is not based on the seats he fills or the eyes he glues to the screen, but the ability for his league to ink the best deals in the backroom while he’s at practice.
At best, this discussion highlights the true power of TV on ratings, brands and even wallets (as MLB profits are scheduled to raise above $9 billion, according to CBS). At worst, this discussion illuminates the dark history of leagues and their intentions—the payout, not the athlete. While it is clear that business is business, a performing employee at a business deserves a performing salary. Though, the blame shouldn’t solely be placed on the MLB or its players. If the NFL wants to remain competitive in the landscape of multichannel entertainment, the NFL has to do a better job in its payouts to its players or its own weird TV deals.
If not, the MLB or NHL or NBA will be coming in with their own deals—ready to eat away viewership and players’ salaries alike.
This story is updated from the April issue of Out of Bounds Magazine.