Nothing stirs emotion quite like an athlete leaving his home town team for a multitude of different reasons, but when it is a matter of getting more money, it can get downright ugly.  Fans literally see red when this happens and inevitably there will be a comment or two made with a more general take on athletes pay in general.  The consensus or concerns typically raised are “how can these athletes get paid the way they do” and “their salaries are ridiculous especially compared to doctor’s (or lawyers, nurses etc) considering what they actually provide to society”. 

First I have to qualify I am not here to suggest in any shape or form that an athlete is more critical or vital to our society than say a doctor (or nurse etc), it would be ludicrous to even ponder that.  My goal is to simply look at it from a numbers point of view, to look at how rare the professional athlete truly is and to try and rationalize why the athlete is in fact getting paid some of these massive funds.

Again, we need doctors, we probably need more (a lot more) than what we have now and the fact is we don’t need a single baseball/hockey player in the world in a Maslow Hierarchical sense.  So why do athletes get paid significantly higher than almost any doctor, lawyer, nurse or garbage man? 

While I agree the contracts appear to be astronomically out of proportion to what the average Joe makes, here are a few reasons athletes get paid what they do:

a)      There is a market value, and a team has determined that at ‘x’ amount of dollars to the player per season the team will in turn be making ‘x’ amount of dollars on said player, they don’t just make up some figure to appease a player or his agent, there is a science and exactness to the economics side.  The same reasons movie stars get a big payday is the same reason an athlete does, millions of fans are paying to see them.

b)      It is a rare talent, and supply and demand will simply dictate the pay scale.  It is much harder to find a player who can consistently hit a 95-mph fastball at the highest level of competition than it is to find a potential doctor, lawyer, or truck driver.  A sad truth in life for most of us is that we could be replaced tomorrow and likely wouldn’t even be missed, in a production sense.    

c)       While a doctor or lawyer is obviously a very important position in a practical matter, the fact is there aren’t 10-50,000 people lined up to watch this particular person perform every night.  Actually most of us will literally do anything to avoid seeing either!  The pro sports market is huge and the revenues these teams can create on the backs of their athletes are astonishing, and the athletes don’t even see close to the majority of this cash.

d)      Athlete’s risk there well being and livelihood on a daily basis as generally the sports they play are extremely dangerous (hockey, football) or unbelievably tough on the body (think of a baseball pitcher’s shoulder or a linebackers brain), or both.  According to a recent study by UNC University “repeatedly concussed NFL players” had five times the rate of cognitive impairment (pre-Alzheimer’s) than the average population.  The Average life expectancy for all pro football players, including all positions and backgrounds, is 55 years.

e)      The career length of an athlete (depending on sport) can be very short, from 5-7 years in the NFL, or 12-20 in baseball, hockey or basketball.  A lot of careers are ended prematurely and even if they aren’t normally retirement is nothing to brag about.  Due to the punishing effects on the body a players post-career years are usually filled with various aches, pains, arthritis and other debilitating conditions that have developed over the years of play.

Let’s take it a step further and use the sport of baseball as just one example, there are 30 teams, 25 players per roster, we will round up to 40 players per roster to include some prospects that might one day have a chance to make the club (slim as it may be).  That’s a group of 1200 current or would-be players in the major leagues.  Now look at the study, Supply, Migration and Distribution of Canadian Physicians, 2008, shows that between 2004 and 2008, the number of active physicians in Canada grew from 60,612 to 65,440.

If baseball teams could only choose Canadians for their rosters that would mean approximately 1 in 29166 people could potentially be a major league ball player while approximately 1 in 534 are currently doctors.  You are roughly 54 times more likely to become a practicing physician than become a major league ball player again if only Canadians could be chosen by major league baseball teams – bear in mind that is only Canada, a population of roughly 35-million people.   

While theoretically it is possible for nearly anybody to become a doctor (study hard in school, go to a graduate medical school and get there PHD) obviously it is not that simple and not everybody can actually become a doctor.  The competition is pretty fierce to make it in the land of doctor’s and there are tens of thousands graduating from med schools around the world on an annual basis.

Yet the chances of becoming a professional baseball player are astronomically worse.  There are millions of people from all over the world who are trying to make it to the next level of competitive sports and teams have an endless supply to choose from, yet an extremely limited amount of spots and the chances of actually being good enough to make it are very low.  So it is contradictory to my supply and demand theory right?  Well there are millions of potential players but only a handful actually good enough to compete on the highest level. 

The world population is nearly 6.7 billion people, take that 1200 figure (double or triple it for fun) and then do the calculation, yeah, I think it has been shown that the talents of a professional athlete is rare indeed.  With those figures out of the way, let’s get to the salary issue, though I think you can see where this is heading.

The average salary of a Canadian physician ranges roughly between $150,000 and $300,000 (in a publicly funded system) while the average MLB salary in 2010 was recently reported to be $3.34 million dollars – or 22 times greater than the low end of the average physician’s pay scale.  Some physician’s make considerably more than that, and that is not including some ‘luxury’ doctors as well, such as cosmetic plastic surgeons as one example. 

Some doctors are paid considerably more than even some athletes and again while I have to qualify we do not need a single athlete (well, except maybe in New York or Boston!) we do in fact need doctors however people have shown since the beginning of time that they value the entertainment a pro athlete and pro team brings them and are willing to shell out there hard earned money to watch them perform.

Let me reiterate you are roughly 54 times more likely to become a practicing physician (all things equal) than become a major league ball player if teams were only permitted to select Canadians, with those numbers the pay differential is only 22 times higher in most cases.  You can imagine what the overall numbers would look like when you started to factor in the millions of prospective players trying to make it to the pro’s in South America, Caribbean, and Asian nations and of course the United States.

Without question athletes are generally overpaid in the sense of what they bring to society, but from a pure numbers, economics, supply and demand, extremely rare talent logic they are probably closer to underpaid –a sickening thought I know.

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